Sports | Addressing the Gender Inequity in Professional Ultimate

How Jesse Shofner Is Changing the Face of The AUDL

Ultimate disc, a sport more commonly known as ultimate frisbee, has long been a staple of both university and college campuses. Most levels of ultimate have men’s, women’s, and mixed leagues, in which men and women play with (and against) each other. Despite its ubiquity, few people are aware that ultimate has actually become a professional sport. Currently, the only professional league in Canada and the United States is the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL). Though they are professionals, AUDL players are paid a pittance compared to athletes in the National Football League (NFL) or the National Hockey League (NHL) — a paltry minimum of $25 per game. All players hold other day jobs to make a livable income. Many ultimate players stick with the sport for their love of the game, and recognize the AUDL as the highest level of play.

In 2016, Jesse Shofner became the first woman to make a professional team’s starting line-up while playing for the Nashville Nightwatch in the AUDL. Shofner explained, “As a female playing in a predominantly male environment, I was curious just if I could do it. If I could hold my own.” Hold her own she did, with Jim Surface, Nightwatch’s communications manager, calling her a highlight of the team’s season. “She’s what you call an ankle-breaker,” Surface says, alluding to her ability to outmaneuver other players with fast pivots. “She’s got really quick agility.” Surface went on to describe how even the competition supported her: “Most places that we’ve traveled to have given her a standing ovation. A lot of pioneer moments in this season, even though it hasn’t really showed up in the win column.”

Despite performing well for Nightwatch and generally enjoying her time on the team, Shofner decided not to try out for Nightwatch again in favour of joining women’s club team, Denver Molly Brown. The isolation that comes with being the only woman on the field likely contributed to what her current teammate Claire Chastain describes as being “kind of tokenized.” This experience and a general recognition of the AUDL’s lack of representation, has led Jesse Shofner, along with Claire Chastain, Trent Dillon, Elliott Erickson, Hannah Leathers, Mario O’Brien, Markham Shofner, and Nicky Spiva, to organize a boycott of AUDL in 2018 to protest the league’s gender inequity. The boycott mandates “that women and men should have equal representation at the highest, most visible levels of our sport,” and that supporters of the boycott “will not be playing in or attending [AUDL] games, and will avoid consuming related media and content.”

In their official statement, the organizers explain that they “agree that equal representation cannot occur without equal visibility and equal opportunities for women.” These opportunities could be equal numbers of filmed games for men and women, giving both men and women a chance to compete for compensation, or more equitable representation of both genders on social media. The organizers also believe that “by committing to gender equity, our sport will find a new path towards growth that does not inherently favor male athletes.”

In response, AUDL commissioner Steve Gordon sent a letter to the league’s players outlining a plan to “create substantial exposure for women’s ultimate.” The letter proposes producing eight women’s games (compared to a staggering 161 men’s games), a cable TV broadcast of one of those games, and further promotion of women’s ultimate on social media. The continued broadcasting of women’s games in 2019 would hinge on interest generated by the one pilot broadcast of a women’s game, and on the discretion of the AUDL’s media partner. Gordon concluded, “I hope this illustrates how serious we are in advancing women’s ultimate. In all honesty, we’d like to do more, but the reality is that we can only do so much both financially, and within the confines of all partnership agreements we are party to.” The boycott organizers were not satisfied with the proposed plan, calling it “an improvement over years past, [but] still incredibly inequitable.”

Shofner and the other organizers did not set out for a half-hearted attempt at compromise from the AUDL — they demand equal promotion of both the men and women in the sport. The boycott’s supporters have already achieved success within club league USA Ultimate, pushing the organization to renegotiate their deal with ESPN with equity in mind. The end result? An agreement that achieves full gender and divisional balance: ESPN will be broadcasting 26 men’s games, 26 women’s games, and 17 mixed games. Within the context of the club division, 17 men’s games, 17 women’s games, and 17 mixed games will also be broadcast. Changes like these lend truth to the organizers’ boycott claim that “Franchise owners and league leadership can make this change [for gender equity].”

Shofner has been essential to inciting change in the ultimate community. As recently as this month, the AUDL boycott inspired the creation of the Australian Ultimate League (AUL), a professional mixed league that hopes to cover all costs (tournament, travel, equipment fees) for, and eventually pay, its all-star mixed gender players. Furthermore, franchise owners affiliated with AUDL from Nashville, Detroit, Indianapolis, Seattle, and San Francisco are now pushing for gender equity by creating their own women’s and mixed teams.

To support Jesse Shofner and the AUDL boycott, the organizers have released a list of ideas on how to uphold the boycott’s ideals:

1) Continue the boycott and demand a response from the AUDL league leadership

2) Think critically about participating in AUDL affiliated endeavors

3) Continue the conversation around gender equity

For further information listen to Upwind Ultimate’s podcast, the Offseason Episode: Gender Equity & the #AUDLBoycott. It features ultimate players and commenters Aly Heath, Ryan Anderson, Robyn Wiseman, and Jenna Weiner, who discuss what Gender Equity means, what it looks like, and why the AUDL Boycott is important for the growth of the sport.

Supporters of the boycott may also sign the petition here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe3PexYFmzXta1Maz-IcXrqlc5b2WU-hm1EMJaTxBQVz87f5A/viewform