Ultimate Frisbee for All

The sport has taken over NYC for the summer, and it’s more diverse than ever

| 10 Aug 2021 | 05:58

Step into any NYC park in the middle of summer and you’re almost certain to see a frisbee whizzing by as people casually toss or throw the disc deep for a dog to chase. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to playing frisbee in NYC. The city has a large, diverse, and dedicated Ultimate Frisbee community that has been around for decades, making use of whatever greenspace the urban jungle has to offer. While the core rules of Ultimate – two teams trying to score points by making a pass inside the opposing end zone – remain, as well as its emphasis on sportsmanship and team spirit, the community has undergone several changes in an effort to make the sport more inclusive. These changes are reflected in the playing opportunities offered to New Yorkers today at every level of competition.

DiscNY, the main organizational body for NYC Ultimate, connects players to teams and games that correspond to the skill and intensity level they desire, from pickup games to professional teams. Pickup, the most casual form of play, occurs all around NYC; common locations include Prospect Park, McCarren Park, Central Park, and Riverside Park; times can be found on individual sites collected by DiscNY.

While pickup is open to anyone regardless of skill level, historically play has been dominated by those who are white, male, and/or of higher socioeconomic status. Much of the reason for the last factor, according to Steve Estes, one of the organizers of Friendly NYC Ultimate, is that “65% of ultimate players were introduced to the sport in college, so we skew socioeconomically towards that.” USA Ultimate, the officiator of Ultimate leagues and tournaments, collects annual membership dues, which might deter potential newcomers from participating.

This lack of accessibility is, to some, the greatest challenge when it comes to diversifying the sport: one player (who asked to remain anonymous) noted that Ultimate “is not a very accessible sport since only a very specific group of people even know it exists (mostly white, wealthier, and city folks).” While Estes himself started playing in high school, even that requires USAU fees, as well as the additional costs of jerseys, tournament transportation, and equipment. Estes knows that his experiences are by no means universal, but says that “for [his pickup] group, our theme has always been to welcome anyone who shows up, no matter their background.”

For Eliya Ahmad-Herskowitz, an NYC native who played Ultimate in high school and is currently on the Yale women’s team, the efforts of one group alone are not enough to solve “the lack of diversity.” She says, “representation is a crucial part of inclusivity, and attempts at inclusivity won’t be sufficient if people don’t see themselves represented on Ultimate teams.” She agrees with Estes that many ultimate players are white, noting that “as a queer cis white woman who’s only played on women’s teams, I’ve always seen myself reflected and represented in the sport. I guess my identity has impacted my experience in that it’s been able to not feel like a factor.”

While Herskowitz has “seen a lot of efforts to make Ultimate more inclusive,” she commented that “consistently the vast majority of the people who show interest and join the team are either white or East Asian.” This is true for both Yale’s team and Herskowitz’s high school team, the Bard High School Early College Ultimaidens. Although practices for the team are held in the East River Park, costs can rack up with membership fees. Many teams practice informally in city parks, but costs can climb even higher if they want to purchase a permit to ensure field availability.

One such commitment has been made by Friendly NYC Ultimate, whose website has almost 4,000 members, and holds pickup games twice a week in upper Manhattan’s Riverside Park. Like most pickup games, there are no official requirements, just a recommendation to bring a dark and a light shirt, as well as a reminder that play doesn’t necessarily stop for snow or rain. During the height of COVID restrictions, play was occasionally impeded, but that didn’t stop people from “getting together privately, to play a masked game,” says Estes.

He also noted that “This spring, an invite-only game sprang up, welcoming people who’ve been playing in our community for a while but not newcomers we didn’t know, and while I don’t think that goes with the ethos of Friendly NYC Ultimate in general, you can kinda understand it for this period of time.” The exclusivity of COVID games to regulars highlights the conflict between accessibility and pandemic safety, something every event organizer has had to deal with. Fortunately for Friendly NYC, the city’s high vaccination rate, as well as access to larger fields for the summer, means anyone can play once more, and vaccinated people are free to go maskless.

Organized Leagues

One step above pickup, organized leagues are still open to newcomers but slightly less laissez-faire when it comes to registration. Manhattan Ultimate Disc (MUD) requires a USAU waiver prior to playing, registration fees, and has defined gender ratios, something usually only present for club or professional teams. Their standard ratio of 5 men to 2 women is skewed so that male players get more time on the field. This ratio is reflective of the 35% female participation in Ultimate leagues, but certainly isn’t an incentive for more women to play. However, this has recently been changing in certain leagues; Estes recounted that “One of the big rec leagues changed their top-level league from a 5/2 M/W ratio to play as a 4/3 M/W ratio a few years ago, which resulted in a lot of guys not making it into the league, in exchange for giving a better playing experience to the women in the community.” “But,” he added, “we’ve got a long way to go.”

Instead of waiting for mixed leagues to become more inclusive, many women and non-binary Ultimate players are creating their own leagues to play without pressure from male players, who often bring, in Estes’ words, a “macho-dominated belittling” to the field. (Though most women who play mixed don’t feel that way, or at least not enough to be bothered by it, Estes adds, as evidenced by an average of some 80% of female-identifying players in MUD League returning to play the next season.)

One such league is DiscNY’s She-They-We Summer League, which has games every Tuesday in Brooklyn Bridge Park. As a dedicated space for “anyone who is not a cis-man,” the group’s admins “understand this name (She/They/We) may not be a perfect solution to [the issue of inclusivity]” and encourage player communication about their preferred name for the league.

While USAU membership is necessary for She/They/We, the group operates on a pay-what-you-can basis (PWYC)– another effort to be more inclusive, this time socioeconomically. Other pickup groups, such as McCarren Mondays, have started using PWYC, and it will most likely become standard for many DiscNY events, along with the sponsored equity training programs the organization has offered since September 2020.

Club Teams

This summer the 2021 Ultimate club season is back and better than ever with lots of new teams based all around NYC. There are a wide range of women’s, men’s and mixed teams, most of which hold practices on Randall’s Island. While most teams have finalized their rosters, potential players are usually welcome to practice with the team and get to know the community and the sport. This openness has only increased in the post-pandemic environment, as players recognize the importance of not leaving anyone behind. As Dino Ultimate, a women’s club team, puts it, “Dino values survival. If you made it through the pandemic, you’re welcome on the team. That’s your tryout.” It might not seem particularly revolutionary, but the knowledge that you are truly welcome in a community of like-minded athletes can be transformative.

Other team actions have been more overt in terms of social action, such as Grand Army Ultimate’s decision in June 2020 to “match donations up to $3750” to stand “in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement to dismantle the legacy of systemic racism in this country.” Recently, PoNY Ultimate declared that during its summer 2021 season it will be “volunteering with and raising money for the Bowery Mission, an organization that provides meals and other critical services to the homeless in NYC.” While some may say sports teams shouldn’t get involved with social issues, statements like these demonstrate a dedication to giving back to the local community.

Another change that has added to frisbee’s inclusivity is USAU’s new policy regarding gender, which dictates that players choose the division they feel most matches their gender identity. In a sport where gender differences are often highlighted, this policy is beneficial to athletes who may have previously felt uncomfortable playing in a certain division or didn’t know which team to pick. Club teams themselves have started using more gender-inclusive language, with teams like Brooklyn Book Club hosting “pod workouts for women & non-binary players,” and BENT Ultimate (among many others) offering a space for preferred pronouns on their interest form. Pronoun circles have become commonplace among practices, at least in mixed and women’s leagues, where there are often fewer cisgender players. These changes have paid off, as many players have noticed an increase in transgender and non-binary athletes in the NYC Ultimate community.

With DiscNY, MUD, and local pickup leagues organizing games all over Manhattan and beyond, there’s always a chance to dive into the world of Ultimate this summer – without even leaving the borough. And with the efforts made by both organizers and players, Ultimate is becoming more inclusive and more socially aware, something beneficial for player retention and the spirit of the game. Ultimate has long been known for its sportsmanship, passed down from player to player. In a city like New York, where day-to-day interactions can often be harsh and fleeting, this courtesy means more than ever, and plays a big part in turning players into teammates. NYC Ultimate is not only expanding, but ensuring that everyone, no matter their background, feels like a part of the team.

“Representation is a crucial part of inclusivity, and attempts at inclusivity won’t be sufficient if people don’t see themselves represented on Ultimate teams.” Eliya Ahmad-Herskowitz, Ultimate Frisbee Yale team player