January 18, 2021
Welcome to the Winter 2021 edition of the Aii Newsletter, a periodic review of Aii projects and diversity and inclusion updates from around the league.
“Build it and they will come”. It’s a common phrase that speaks to the falsehood of simply dreaming something into reality. The lesson learned from that phrase is also an underpinning of many of the strategies we’re working on in the AUDL. For too long, we’ve assumed that new communities will come to us and our beloved game. We now think and know differently…
The AUDL is determined to bring our game to new parts of the community. There are two concrete actions we’re planning in 2021, combines and media outreach. The concept of a combine or tryout is not new to ultimate. That’s how most teams are put together. However, we typically assume the players have grown up around ultimate and have the full skillset as they look to advance their career. If we want to grow this sport, we realize that we need to bring the basic athleticism of the game to communities that have never experienced ultimate. Our plan is to hold a combine in a new community’s “backyard” with events that focus on speed, jumping and endurance—the non-disc basis of ultimate. We’re committed to creating a more diverse league that looks more like the communities in which we play. It’s not a simple or quick journey, but one we must begin now.
The second action is to bring ultimate to new communities in their language. This is a global sport and we need to bring the entertainment of the AUDL to all corners. This means investing time and money into broadcasts that are produced in the native tongue or later translated. We are working with media partners to not only announce events in a native tongue but to distribute in traditional and social media channels these communities already follow. We must find and meet these new fans on their “turf”.
This perspective was aided by our strategic partnership with RISE. Their survey and initial introspection has helped us think about our broader world and to look at our events with a new set of eyes. With eyes more open and ears more tuned, we hope our proactive strategy to bring our game to new communities will help build bridges, create bigger player pipelines and introduce our beloved sport to more people.
The AUDL’s work with RISE began in October with workshops for owners and coaches, both led by Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh, RISE Vice President of Curriculum. Dr. Mac Intosh first introduced participants to RISE and its mission to educate and empower the sports community to end racism, and then moderated a discussion about perspective taking and the values of it as a skill. Breakout groups unpacked key terms and explored definitions and meanings of race, racism, interpersonal racism, systemic racism, and anti-racism. The meetings concluded with the application of concepts and the work that can be done moving forward as a league within our communities and nationally.
The workshops were well received and many participants commented on the impact of the training.
“I thought this was a great workshop for me personally and for the coaches of the AUDL. It was so nice to connect with my own staff and coaches of our opponents over such an important topic; it feels good to know that teams around the league are striving to become anti-racist. The conversation felt like a space where participants could be brave and share honestly, but would also be held accountable and corrected as necessary. The content was aimed at a level where everyone could learn, no matter how much exposure to DEI training they'd had previously. I'm looking forward to more in the future.” Miranda Knowles, Director of Coaching, Atlanta Hustle
“I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable team owners were during this workshop. Andrew Mac Intosh did a fantastic job setting the tone, listening, and engaging us all. In my opinion, AUDL owners are generally motivated and ready to learn about racism and anti-racism. I think more work is needed in order to build a common understanding and vocabulary about racism, classism, etc.” Xtehn Titcomb, General Manager, Seattle Cascades
“I felt the level of engagement and the amount of conversation was indicative of how invested everyone on the call was in continuing to improve and increase our understanding of diversity and inclusion. The first workshop was certainly impactful and I believe the single most important idea I took from it was: just because you are diverse does not mean everyone feels included. This sort of training will impact the league by creating comfortable spaces for the players, staff, and fans of the AUDL.” Matt Stevens, Player, New York Empire
“The RISE workshop was great. Our group leader was great—he allowed folks to feel safe enough to share. They had some great visual aids that drove home concepts that might otherwise be too abstract to sink in. I shared them with our team leadership. I'm looking forward to the next one.” John Boezi, Owner, Atlanta Hustle
Dr. Mac Intosh, who has worked with organizations of all sizes across the country, said that he’s been heartened and almost taken aback by the league’s enthusiasm toward incorporating inclusion topics, ideals, and discussions throughout the league. He stated that the AUDL has been more enthusiastic than a number of other leagues and clearer on the direction it needs to go. “There’s a self awareness that ultimate as a sport is predominantly white and college-centric. AUDL leadership recognizes that because they have more privilege and capital—financial, social, psychological—they have a responsibility to give back to those communities who've historically been disadvantaged,” he said.
Steve Hall, who has advocated incorporating this type of training for the league, holds that, “In order to have the kind of culture shift that is required in this space, everybody needs to be onboard and receiving the same message—players, coaches, owners, and staff.”
RISE’s work with the AUDL will continue through the year, beginning with player workshops for each division, and will culminate with a forum at Championship Weekend. Teams should receive more information about the workshops in the spring.
CHAMPIONS OF CHANGE
You may have recently seen posts from some of your favorite AUDL players and personnel pledging their support to help end racism. This was the beginning of a larger RISE initiative in which the AUDL provided initial support to help boost awareness for the campaign.
Jared Shanker, RISE’s Manager of Communications, spoke to the background of the initiative. “In some of our country’s toughest moments, we often look to sports to help us heal, and in 2020, we saw sports’ power in fighting racism. RISE is empowering the sports community to continue that fight, but we need the help of supporters to help fund our programs that are unifying our country during this critical time,” he said.
RISE provided a social media filter that AUDL players, coaches, and teams could add to a picture of theirs and then post on their channels and share with friends. By posting their picture, they became Champions of Change, advocating for their own networks to join them in achieving RISE’s mission.
Matt Smith, who coordinated the campaign with the Aii and AUDL player ambassadors was surprised by the positive reception and participation. He commented that, “Way more people participated than I originally anticipated. I initially expected 10–12, but we ended up having 29 participants: 20 players, 3 coaches, 4 team accounts, 1 owner, and 1 retired player.”
Shanker applauded the participants and spoke to the impact of their posts. “The AUDL provided tremendous support. Players, coaches and teams championed RISE’s mission and the critical need for it with their friends, families and fans. Ending racism is a collective effort that requires everyone to play a role. They carried the mission of RISE far beyond just the AUDL network,” he said.
Looking towards the future, Shanker said, “We’re eager and planning to keep engaging with the AUDL to assist in achieving our mission and generate support for programming in order to create a nation unified through sports committed to racial equity and social justice.” Players and fans should watch for similar initiatives as the two organizations continue working together and supporting each other in their missions and goals.
GET TO KNOW
Highlighting different perspectives and experiences from players and personnel around the AUDL.
#5 - DC Breeze
Our very first "Get To Know" individual is a standout defensive player for the DC Breeze—AJ Merriman. During his rookie season in 2019, Merriman established a name for himself in the East Division by racking up 11 blocks, 9 goals, and 5 assists during his 11 games played. The Aii recently caught up with AJ who has been training hard for and looking forward to the 2021 season.
What was your inaugural AUDL season, and what is different between then and now?
My inaugural season was in 2019. The biggest difference between then and now is my game on the field. I’ve switched my focus from offensive line to a defensive player and really started to figure out the game on the next level. Not only being able to identify the timing and patterns, the heartbeat of the game, but to understand and be able to work around and within them.
What went into making you the type of player you are today?
My whole life has led up to this point, from playing basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and cross country year round in elementary and middle school, to high school where I found and began to focus on ultimate while continuing my basketball and running career. I've always been an athlete first. Soon after I found ultimate, I started attending CUT Camp in North Carolina, where I met many of my first mentors as coaches like Matt Gouchoe-Hanas, Jon Nethercutt, Lisa P, and of course Rowan McDonnell. Getting to as many camps as I could was one way I've lived ultimate. I also began coaching my first year out of high school. Being a student of the game and an athlete committed to being the best I can has allowed me to take the advice I've gotten from amazing coaches in all my sports and run with it. The way I play on the field can also be attributed to this commitment. Playing basketball and football for as long as I did allows me to train like a football or basketball athlete might and have enough knowledge to translate those skills into my ultimate game.
How do you define your role on the field or within your team?
I am primarily a defensive cutter, guarding handlers and cutting on a turn. My role on the field in 2019 was to shut down my matchup, communicate, and generate turns. In 2021 and the future, I think my role will expand to make sure my D line scores on every turn we generate. Blocks and Goals! As a teammate, I bring the energy. I'm yellin and high fiving (air fives here lately) making sure my teammates have what they need to get the job done. I've also been one of the youngest players on the breeze since I've been here and I take pride in my “rookie tasks” like carrying the disc box and grabbing cones after practices.
What have been some of your favorite experiences in the AUDL?
My favorite experiences with the AUDL have been traveling to big games. It's the peak of ultimate for me: a week of preparation, film and practice, then piling into a bus or vans or a plane and traveling with my teammates, before playing a super high-energy game against some of the best ultimate players in the world.
Why are racial and cultural diversity important for the growth of the sport of ultimate and the AUDL?
Diversity is important because until everyone has access to play, the competition isn't at the highest level. Innovation is something that's important in sports—raising the level of play and what is seen as possible. At this point Ultimate players don't have opportunities to become real full time athletes. Also, many people have no opportunities to play ultimate at all, especially youth and high level players. The AUDL is a great tool to fix both of those problems. By allowing ultimate athletes to get paid, and more importantly to not spend money to play, and by helping create more opportunities for youth. Not to mention how much more fun the sport would be with a cultural mix.
How do you racially identify, and what does that mean to you?
I racially identify as lightskin. My mother is white and my dad is black. I've grown up in culturally white areas, but I look black so I relate to more people than I would otherwise. I don't think about race as much as culture. I probably don't think about race enough, if I'm being honest. When I think about them, many racial problems and the solutions that come with them boil down to culture and how people were raised and live anyway.
Who’s your favorite POC athlete, and why?
My favorite athlete is Kobe Bryant. It's his mind for me. He's a hooper, and he’ll always be a hooper. Before high school, I was sporadic mentally, but when I found ultimate I quickly started to spend all my free time on the field by my house. Then it all kinda clicked. Kobe Bryant is a spiritual example for me.
What action items would you like to see the league take in regards to racial equity?
The biggest thing the league can do in my eyes is fund youth ultimate opportunities. Both as simply as pregame clinics to full-blown, week-long summer camps. Reaching localities that currently lack ultimate is another way the AUDL can support diversity and chase the goal of everyone having an opportunity to play.
As a POC, have you ever felt like you have to “be” a certain way?
Simply, no. But of course, I have felt pressure in the ultimate community to conform to the “typical”. These problems for me are not limited to the ultimate community. However, there is a very common misconception that the ultimate community is more accepting than most communities, and this is far from true from my perspective. This is a hard thing to discuss, because in reality the actions that these feelings produce are nuanced. The largest areas where I, and POC I know, have received bad vibes are physicality on the field and spiking. With kick spiking specifically, I've been yelled at, assigned spirit fouls, and even asked to leave the field when another player at the same tournament (and sometimes in the same game) also kick spikes the disc. But when it’s a 6’3” black man playing physically and yelling as he spikes it, the optics are different than if I was a “typical ultimate player” (whatever you might think that is).
Along with the work that he’s putting into his training, Merriman concluded by stating that he’s also been using the last six months to focus on how he can be a better person. “In my interactions with people, I’ve become more focused on how they think and why they think that way,” he said. His example could serve for how we all should consider our interactions with each other every day.
Watch for Merriman to continue making an impact on and off the field with the DC Breeze in the 2021 season and beyond.
Even through winter seclusion, the Aii continues to work behind the scenes to increase racial and cultural diversity and inclusion throughout the AUDL and the sport of ultimate. There are many initiatives in motion and updates that we’re excited to share soon. Be on the lookout for the spring issue of the newsletter to get the latest news on the Aii’s work and projects.
To have any actions that you or your team are taking towards diversity and inclusion within your community featured in an upcoming newsletter, please send your information to Matt Smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Aii is a committee which strives to increase racial and cultural diversity and inclusion throughout the sport of ultimate by providing underserved communities access to an affordable sport whose culture emphasizes healthy living, integrity in athletics, and potential to compete at the junior, collegiate and professional levels.