USA Ultimate is excited to see ultimate become a sport where players of all backgrounds, cultures, races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, ages and income levels experience a sense of belonging. We are currently prioritizing efforts to engage youth of color and low-income youth because that is where we see the greatest need. At the same time, we will continue with diversity efforts already in place and addressing issues impacting other groups as they arise. We will also be posting content related to these efforts to help further conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion in ultimate.
This is what I think the future is – to get more and more kids exposed to the coolest sport on the planet. Parents see a better experience for their kids. What the kids see, first and foremost, is that it’s just wicked fun. It’s just a blast to play ultimate. – Tom Crawford, USA Ultimate CEO.
Imagine growing up in a world where your every choice or everything that happens to you is predetermined. Not in a spiritual or religious sense, but because what you look like means you are going to be placed in a certain box.
What if you don’t want to be in that box? What if you don’t want to be in any box at all? When do you get to take control?
A constant battle for control exists between individuals and societal stereotypes, especially for minority groups. When it comes to Black people, the struggle for autonomy prominently exists in sports. Black people are routinely categorized as being athletically gifted and predestined to succeed in football, basketball, track or other physically challenging sports. Often, this categorization occurs without any input from the person being categorized, and sometimes it’s their own people who box them in, and then they end up disappointed when they choose to do something else.
“My entire family was really into football, but I never really was because I didn’t like all of the contact of the sport,” shared Jesse Bolton, a three-year veteran of Seattle Mixtape. “I ended up playing for two years just to shut them all up. I didn’t really have a great time with the culture.”
Jesse’s teammate, Khalif El-Salaam, had a similar adolescent experience playing football and basketball, but he couldn’t afford it.
So where does ultimate fit in all of this?
“Cheap, athletic, friends,” explained Khalif. “Growing up in a poorer part of my city, with not many resources to buy athletic apparel, I was excited to learn that you only needed cleats to play. I probably played the first two months with just running shoes. I even played in my jeans for the first three years of my ultimate career! GOOD TIMES!”
Not only was ultimate cheap and athletically challenging, like football and basketball, but it was a positive alternative for two teenage Black kids. “They [my parents] were like, ‘Well, you’re not on the street doing drugs or other things you could be doing,’” described Jesse.
Jesse and Khalif both attended Mercer International Middle School in Seattle, Wash., where they were introduced to ultimate, ironically, on the basketball blacktop. From then, their love for the sport blossomed as they transitioned from playing after school to playing in a local spring league to eventually joining the Ghetto Birds, now known as Seattle Mixtape, in the club division.
They had successfully convinced their parents that ultimate was the best decision for them. Their battle for autonomy, however, was just beginning.
It’s good to focus on mixed teams so men have to learn how to play with women and treat them and respect them as players. – Dave Leiwant, Hall of Fame Class of 2014 (The “Johnny Appleseeds”).
Men, through the socialization received by living in our sexist world, have a tendency to not respect women’s abilities. – Reddit.
When Khalif and Jesse joined the Ghetto Birds in the mixed division, they carried a chip on their shoulders because they knew how often the mixed division was disrespected by players in other divisions.
“I think that the mixed game is a minority in itself,” explained Khalif. “It’s not represented very well as a division. It’s often looked down upon, and people often judge it.”
Raised in Seattle’s South End as a Black Muslim, Khalif relished the opportunity to go against the grain and bring eyes to things that often go overlooked. To him, the mixed division was a chance to rock the boat.
“Growing up, playing mixed ultimate meant that you weren’t good enough, weren’t as good as the people who could make the single-gender teams. It was very frustrating, so from a young age, I was like, ‘I want to be a player on a mixed team that is respected, and I want to be in a division that’s respected, not just because we can jump high and throw far, but because we can do a lot of other stuff.’”
And do a lot of other stuff they did. The Ghetto Birds shook up the division with their fast-paced, fast-break, huck-and-play-D style of offense. According to Khalif, they brought the hype, the big plays, the celebrations and the weirdness, all things people wanted to watch.
“If you put us right next to Drag’n Thrust…they’re very pump and dump, and they swing. They’re fun when they win – Drag’n Thrust’s offense was the best offense from 2011 to 2014 – but they weren’t fun to watch. Mixtape was able to win and be fun to watch.”
The Ghetto Birds brought a level of energy that was different, something the mixed division wasn’t used to. Naturally, there was backlash and pushback. Surprisingly enough, however, was the backlash that came at Khalif and Jesse’s female teammates.
“Our women play very physically and would tend to switch onto men and make physical plays,” described Jesse. “Teams didn’t really appreciate that as much, being like, ‘Well, this isn’t open, this isn’t women’s. I shouldn’t experience this kind of contact.’”
Bert Abbott, one of the team captains, received plenty of criticism, not only for her physical play, but also for confronting teams that didn’t use their women effectively.
“Tons of backlash on that one,” remarked Khalif.
With the back-and-forth struggle between the Ghetto Birds / Mixtape and other mixed teams in shaping the culture of the division, something had to give. Eventually, things came to a head at the 2014 National Championships.
There is almost no latitude for an ultimate team to be appropriately named “Ghetto Birds.” Unless the team is mostly African American (highly unlikely), it comes off as racist. – Reddit.
Getting back to Ghettobirds – this is essentially just a typical white reappropriation of black culture. On its own, relatively harmless, but in the context of a sport that is so overly-white and so typically closed off to blacks, I think it’s an easy call to dump the name. – Reddit.
to call ghettobirds an appropriation of black culture…is actually racist. poverty does not belong to black people alone. to claim a ghettobird, a helicopter flying over a slum, is specific to black culture is worse than the damn word ‘ghettobird’ itself. – Reddit.
the forced re-branding only strengthened our resolve and the #WhyNotUs Ghetto attitude. – Skyd Magazine.
The 2014 National Championships took place in Frisco, Texas. The Ghetto Birds qualified as the 12th seed in the mixed division and, as Khalif put it, slid out of pool play on a point differential and then had the game of their lives in the semifinals to make it to the championship game, where they faced Drag’n Thrust. But, their semifinal was the last game the Ghetto Birds played at the tournament.
“What leadership passed down to the team was, basically, that our name was deemed inappropriate, and since the name was also on our jerseys, we had to get new jerseys,” recalled Khalif. “We weren’t told what about the word Ghetto Birds was inappropriate, what system was used to deem it inappropriate, who was in charge of the decision or what thought process was going through.”
A 2014 article from Ultiworld mentioned that the Ghetto Birds were required by USA Ultimate to change their team name, and they would attend Nationals as Seattle Mixed. Khalif and Jesse, however, stood by their memory of first being told the name was a problem after they qualified for the championship match.
“All I know is that the day before the finals, we were making a lot of decisions,” stated Khalif.
For those who don’t know, a Ghetto Bird is a hip-hop term popularized by rapper Ice Cube that references the police helicopters that would fly over South Los Angeles. The word “ghetto” is commonly known as a poor or slum area of a neighborhood, as during World War II, the word “ghetto” described the slums that Jews and other victims of the Nazis were forced to live in.
At the time, the players didn’t care about the name change because they were stoked to be playing in the finals during their first year as a club team. Looking back on it, Jesse can see how the name could be offensive.
“I feel like maybe that [WWII] connection got to some people and rubbed them the wrong way,” acknowledged Jesse. “But then, you also need to know rap history to know Ghetto Birds equals helicopters.”
Jesse also wonders about the countless other ultimate team names in existence that haven’t been policed.
“When we say ‘you are responsible for how other people perceive you’ without ever taking into account the implicit and explicit biases that people bring to the field, you set players of color up to fail.” – Chris Lehmann, Ultimate, Race and Spirit of the Game.
It seems he is always bidding horrendously into him/around him [Khalif]. – Reddit.
“Khalif is not known for dangerous play and I personally have pretty much been defending him on this thread and critiquing OP for framing him as such in the first place cause he just isn’t that kind of player.” – Reddit.
Jesse’s comparison of his team’s name being changed versus other teams’ brings up an interesting dichotomy about having control over how others perceive you. Implicit biases, stereotypes, preconceived notions and more at the heart of why people of different backgrounds sometimes have difficulties interacting without showing some prejudice.
In ultimate, players frequently interact with one another because of the philosophy of Spirit of the Game. An excerpt from the Official Rules of Ultimate: 11th Edition states, “Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.”
On paper, Spirit of the Game is relatively simple to understand – exhibit good sportsmanship, play fair, follow the rules and have respect for everyone. When put into action, however, it can cause minorities to police themselves and constantly worry about how others perceive them, negatively impacting their ability to be themselves.
“My whole career! That’s my whole career right there!” exclaimed Khalif.
Throughout his career, Khalif has heard from random people that he’s been described as a showboat, super aggressive, unspirited and mean. None of the people making these comments interacted with Khalif directly.
“I’m like, OK, well where are they getting this?” If hearsay is to be believed, detractors point to an incident at a prominent tournament several years ago.
Khalif went up for a disc, and according to him, a defender notorious for making dangerous decisions bid into his back. After catching the disc, Khalif turned around and threw the disc at the defender out of frustration because Khalif had warned him previously about making those dangerous plays.
“People blew up. ‘Oh my goodness, Khalif spiked the disc on the dude. Oh my god, he’s so aggressive, he’s so mean.’ They completely looked to the side about the fact that the dude bid into my back, and he’s notorious for doing things like that!”
On the flipside, when they went up for a disc again and collided, the same defender called injury, and people were quick to claim that Khalif was trying to injure him as payback.
“I make the same average number of dangerous plays that a person in the open division would do; I would argue even less. And yet, I am seen as this aggressive person who is going to take you out at the knees. Now, I have to go ultra out of my way to be cautious and kind.”
Khalif gave examples of lowering his voice or getting down on one knee when speaking to opponents so as to not come off as aggressive. He understands how spiking the disc might be unspirited, but he also feels he’s been unfairly singled out.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re held to such a different standard. If me and [insert elite White player here] both catch a disc and spike it right next to somebody, [he] is fired up, and he’s firing his teammates up, and Khalif is being unspirited. It’s super frustrating.”
“We believe Khalif lost the Callahan because people thought he was showboating.” added Jesse.
Changing one’s behavior and mannerisms to combat implicit biases is something that, as minorities in a sport, Khalif and Jesse have battled internally for years. Both of them understand, when you play sports for a national audience, there are certain aspects of yourself that you withhold because they don’t belong on the ultimate field or on national television.
However, when trying to appease other people hinders your ability to be an individual, that’s where Jesse and Khalif differ. Jesse firmly believes in being himself, while Khalif feels some responsibility to try and change the minds of his peers.
“Getting to a lot of these adults is really hard,” explained Jesse. “I am leaning towards the side of being me. Doing whatever I want, enjoying the game, playing the game the way I want to.”
“I’m on the opposite of the spectrum from Jesse,” admitted Khalif. “I actually put a lot of effort into being cautious about what I do, what I say, who’s watching. If I’m standing there, saying absolutely nothing, what are people thinking of me? What I have to put in front of them has to be so good that, since I don’t get to interact with them at all, they’re going to have a positive experience. I need to change their mindset.”
“I’ve gotten to the point where you’ve got to change hearts in order to change minds,” added Jesse.
“Inclusivity, that sense of a comfortable, safe place for people regardless of their gender identity, regardless of their color, regardless of their faith, regardless of any differences. On the ultimate field, you’re just there to have fun and to be part of the family.” – Geoff West, Hall of Fame Class of 2014 (The “Johnny Appleseeds”).
“Throughout the time that we started playing, it was predominantly a sport played by middle class White people. That was true at our high school, which was not a very diverse high school at the time. We had one or two Black people on our team. Still, when I go out to the fields, I don’t see a lot of diversity there, [but] I see it growing.” – Ed Summers, Hall of Fame Class of 2014 (The “Johnny Appleseeds”).
“One of the other things that occurred to me at that first event that I went to was, ‘There’s a lot of White people running around playing this sport, and not a lot of people of color at all.’ It was striking!” – Tom Crawford, USA Ultimate CEO.
“I wonder what it would take to change the ultimate community to make people of color more comfortable with the sport.” – Saamir Baker, Ultimate Diversity.
Earlier this year, Jesse and Khalif attended Lei-Out, a beach tournament in Huntington Beach, Calif. Jesse recalled walking down the beach one day when a woman ran up to him and said, “Hey fellow Black person. What team are you on?” Jesse excitedly responded, “I’m on the ethnic team!” Thirty minutes later, the woman found Jesse and his team and shouted, “My people!”
Many people who are minorities among a large group or community can relate to this exchange. You’re in a setting where no one around you looks like you, and you begin to feel isolated, nervous and on edge because you don’t want to say or do the wrong thing to make people feel as if you don’t belong.
“It’s tough to be the token Black guy,” admitted Khalif.
But then, you find someone who looks like you, and you let out a sigh of relief as you walk over and introduce yourself. There is someone there who is probably experiencing, or has experienced, what you’re going through. A prideful bond is established, and you instantly feel more comfortable.
It’s not that you dislike people who don’t look like you. Rather, when you see other people who look like you, you feel more comfortable and like you belong. Without that other person there, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone in a community, even in one that prides itself on inclusion. Jesse experienced that feeling firsthand during one of his early ultimate games.
“I was guarding their best player. One of his teammates comes up to me and goes, ‘Hey, I really like your hair. You remind me a lot of Mario Balotelli,” recalled Jesse. (Mario Balotelli is a professional footballer who plays for the Italian national team and, like Jesse, is very dark-skinned with a blond haircut.) “Yeah, f*** you, and no one likes you!”
Jesse was initially shocked and taken aback. He went up to the one Black player on that team and told him what happened. That player was instantly ready to fight his teammate, but instead sat him down and talked to him. For Jesse, however, that understanding and anger wasn’t replicated by his team.
“When I went to my team, my team kind of brushed it off because it didn’t concern them. I felt kind of isolated.”
Khalif experienced a similar feeling of isolation when playing for the U-23 Mixed National Team, which is why he has actively called for coaches to put more effort in making the national team, as Tom Crawford put it at the 50th Anniversary Celebration in October, “look more like the United States.” Khalif referenced moments when he looked around at everyone in the “Thank you for coming” huddle at the end of tryouts and noticed who was there and who wasn’t.
“My biggest experience being Black in an all-White sport is seeing how access to national-level teams, or teams in general, by Black people isn’t as high as everyone thinks it is. My friends always make jokes that the Junior Worlds team only takes one Black male per cycle, and as funny as it is…it’s kind of true.”
Khalif acknowledges that National Team coaches have a tremendously difficult decision when choosing who to invite to tryouts and who to select for their teams. As it is, coaches put in tons of effort to be as inclusive as possible to all demographics: people who don’t live in the same place, people with different financial backgrounds, people who have different levels of experience, people who went to college versus those who didn’t and people of all genders and ethnicities.
Despite that, Khalif still believes there should be a little more effort put into the ethnicity demographic.
“I think that they need to put a little more effort into the ethnicity part of it because, when I go to tryouts, I see 98% White people and then a couple Brown people. I do believe that if you look at the consistency of Black representation on national teams dating back to whenever we started, it is extremely low relative to all other demographics.”
At the same time, Khalif also recognizes the challenges his proposal can create.
“That means you need to increase the amount of people who get to tryout, but then you need funds, you need people to pay for it, etc. Every solution has pros and cons. Every problem has a solution that will give you more problems. Just thinking about it and increasing the conversation around that is a great step towards where we want to be.”
“We are seeing really important, powerful conversations happen within the ultimate world around gender equity because of the work of dedicated activists who are demanding that we do better. We need a similar conversation – a similar movement – to address the persistent lack of diversity, especially affecting traditionally under-served populations, in our sport.
“It will require us as a community to really examine some of the more subtle ways we act, because many of the problems are on the level of micro-aggressions committed by people who would never consider themselves racist in any way. And it will require us to be deliberate in our actions if we want our sport to look more the world in which we live.” – Chris Lehmann, Ultimate and Race.
Increasing conversations around race is a great step, but it is certainly a difficult one and one many people can be hesitant to take. According to Chris Lehmann, the founding principal and CEO of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Pa., ultimate players generally see themselves as socially progressive, despite the sport remaining primarily White.
Khalif and Jesse believe the reason the majority of players don’t really know the Black struggle or minority struggle is that, unless they have a Black person on their team or they go seek out opportunities to be better informed, they simply don’t experience it. This is why it’s so important to spread ultimate to new communities and increase the diversity within the sport.
“[Diversity] increases the amount of spaces that people, specifically White people, need to look at,” explained Khalif. “You don’t have to deal with the issues of race and stuff like that until they’re presented in front of you. It’s never a thing, and even if it is, it’s an isolated situation they can avoid and move on.”
One possible reason people may feel uncomfortable with these conversations is that they force acknowledgement of inherent privilege. However, Khalif and Jesse adamantly agree that this type of introspection, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, is necessary for positive growth.
“Honestly, if I’m going to check you [on your White privilege], it means I care, and I want you to grow,” admitted Jesse.
“When you exercise, your body is in extreme discomfort and extreme pain. After that, you become stronger. The only way for you to become stronger as an individual is to make your body uncomfortable,” explained Khalif. “In order for us, as a community, to become stronger as people, as individuals and as humans, we must first make ourselves uncomfortable. We have to challenge ourselves so that we can more forward as a collective group stronger than ever before.”
“It’s still super important to me that students who are marginalized by their socio-economic status, by their race, by their religion, by their sexual orientation, by gender, that they have opportunities. It’s not necessarily an achievement gap that we’re facing here, but it’s an opportunity gap where, in sport spaces, it is another form of education. It’s a nontraditional form of education where coaches have a super important impact on youth development.” – Dana Dunwoody, doctoral student, Applied Human Development, Boston University.
So what’s the first step towards us challenging ourselves, so we can move forward as a stronger collective group? Khalif believes in funneling resources directly towards efforts that help increase accessibility to ultimate.
“Being more specific with the funds that you give and having a goal,” proclaimed Khalif. Organizations have put funds and resources into getting more women to play ultimate; the same can be done for other marginalized groups.
“Just like you can get that [female] demographic with putting resources directly into that, you can get more people of color and Black people to play ultimate by putting money directly into that.”
Jesse also believes in focusing on efforts to help increase accessibility and believes having the right people in influential positions will help bring about positive change.
“It would be [getting] high-level coaches into underprivileged programs,” described Jesse.
These high-level coaches have the awareness to focus less on competition and more on giving kids of all backgrounds the opportunity to experience the youth development and socio-emotional development that ultimate provides its players.
Both Jesse and Khalif have been active in Seattle to bring the sport to different communities. For the past six years, they’ve volunteered as coaches for local CUT Camps and sent youth players of color to the AGE Up camp in Portland founded by their middle school coach, Sam Terry.
“[We] give more of an opportunity for these underprivileged players,” stated Jesse.
So with everything they’ve experienced in their ultimate careers, what do Jesse and Khalif have to say to young Black kids who aspire to be elite ultimate players but are cautious because of the lack of diversity or because it’s not a typical sport in the Black community?
“I felt like, in my youth, I was really boxed in, and it really didn’t help me. [With ultimate] we have had these experiences that we normally wouldn’t get if we stuck to the group that we were assigned to,” explained Jesse. “The attraction of Frisbee took us to a really nice school, which also got me into another really nice school. It was really easy for me to associate Frisbee with opportunity.”
“I tell them a couple things,” said Khalif. “If you want to compete at the highest level of a sport the fastest, you should stick with ultimate. You can be a 19 year old and be playing in the finals of Nationals in a year.
“Second thing is, like Jesse was talking about, ultimate gives you connections that give you more than just what sports normally gives you. You have a community that cares about you as an individual, not just you as an athlete.
“Lastly…it teaches you to be dedicated. It teaches you to work against the grain. It teaches you to have determination. Those are skills and assets that you can take forward in school, that you can take forward in life.”
USA Ultimate will continue to foster discussions on the intersection of implicit bias and microaggressions within our sport. These topics will be part of the conversation at our Equity and Diversity Forum on Friday, August 2, at the 2019 U.S. Open Club Championships.