Born of a Boycott, a Women’s Ultimate Frisbee League Charts Its Own Path

A year ago, Lauren Doyle was one of about a dozen women playing in the American Ultimate Disc League, competing for the New York Empire alongside hundreds of men in the country’s only professional ultimate Frisbee league.

On a recent Saturday night at Columbia University’s Rocco B. Commisso stadium, Doyle, 30, was again playing professional ultimate, this time on a team of only women: The New York Gridlock, which edged the visiting Austin Torch in the final home game of the season.

The two clubs are part of the eight-team Premier Ultimate League, which will end its inaugural season with a championship playoff this weekend in Atlanta. The competition is a 21st-century “League of Their Own,” formed after a group of about 150 players decided to boycott the eight-year-old American Ultimate Disc League.

The group included mostly male players, willing to lose their spot on their clubs over their concerns about the league’s commitment to equality. Like many purists, they do not see the game as merely two teams tossing a Frisbee around and trying to score goals. They believe its original concept was deliberately carefree, in which mutual respect and sportsmanship were more important than competition.

The founders of the Premier Ultimate League broke off to maintain that spirit and give women a stage without the complication of competing against men.

“People started to realize that the A.U.D.L. was really perpetuating a particular view of ultimate Frisbee,” said Eileen Murray, a co-owner of the Gridlock who was formerly a coach of the A.U.D.L.’s Empire.

While the A.U.D.L. is open to both men and women, the boycotting group felt a smattering of women in a largely men’s league wasn’t enough. They signed a statement demanding that “women and men should have equal representation at the highest, most visible levels of our sport,” and that supporters of the boycott would not watch, attend or play in its games.

A core tenet of ultimate — a mix of soccer and football in which teams of seven players work to pass the disc into an end zone — is that players call their own fouls, and the sport’s rule book includes a section called the “Spirit of the Game” that encourages fairness and “the basic joy of play.”

Murray felt that a men’s league with referees threatened that spirit, leading players to push the boundaries of the rules. “We wanted to make sure we stay true to the foundation of ultimate,” she said.

Leaders of several teams interested in a formal women’s league met in July 2018 at the World Ultimate Club Championships in Cincinnati. They decided to move ahead, and each of the eight teams put up as much as $25,000. The league formed as a nonprofit — a departure from the A.U.D.L., which features 21 individually owned teams. That league continues to lose money but is making financial progress, according to Tim DeByl, the league’s spokesman.

The commissioner of the women’s league, Tim Kepner, said he did not feel pressure to mimic the W.N.B.A. or any other major professional women’s sports league.

“I feel like one of my jobs is just to keep it focused on: How do we keep it lean?” Kepner said. “At least for now, just targeting the ultimate community and not try to do too much.”

“I think the men’s league is really focused on: How do we become the next N.F.L.?”

The women’s league is far from the N.F.L., or most other professional sports leagues.

On a night when the Yankees hosted the Red Sox in front of more than 46,000, a very different type of pregame ritual was taking place not far away at the Gridlock-Torch game. During the playing of the national anthem, the crowd of about 300 was asked to observe a “moment of reflection to recognize how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go before our world is truly equitable.”

The announcer also asked the crowd to “acknowledge that we are gathered on the land of the Lenape and Wappinger people,” adding that “this demonstrates a commitment to beginning the process of working to dismantle the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism.” At halftime Rebecca Tucker, a 37-year-old mother of three who plays for the Gridlock, rushed across the field to attend to her 7-month-old son, Dion. (Murray has offered to hold Dion during games but hopes to soon have child care to help Tucker and other mothers.)

The P.U.L. brands itself as a “Womxn’s Professional Ultimate” league, spelling women with an “x” in an effort to be inclusive to those who identify as transgender, gender nonconforming or non-binary.

The league’s players are far from professional in the traditional sense, earning just $40 a game.

“Nobody’s trying to make any money,” said Maddy Frey, the league’s president. “We’re a nonprofit.”

Doyle, who has a Master’s degree in sports management, also serves as the Gridlock’s director of operations, but even she has a full-time job. Like many of her teammates, she also plays for a separate nonprofessional club ultimate team.

Despite jumping to the new league, Doyle doesn’t harbor any resentment toward the men’s league. “I’m not a protester,” she said.

She added: “Because the men’s league is happening, people want the women’s league to happen.”

As the boycott gained momentum, the A.U.D.L. considered starting a women’s league but opted not to.

“There are a lot of people who wish we started with a women’s league, but we felt that was the better business opportunity at the time,” said DeByl, the A.U.D.L. spokesman.

The sport dates to the 1960s, when a group of students at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., codified the rules. Ultimate’s pioneers envisioned the sport could grow to the point where it would have its own version of “Monday Night Football.”

While that has not happened, ultimate is played by an estimated seven million people worldwide, according to the sport’s governing body in the United States, and there are official member associations in 85 countries. There is a push for the sport to be included in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Among those in the crowd for the Gridlock game was Ed Summers, who graduated from Columbia High School in 1972 and played with the guys who wrote the original rules to ultimate.

“My vision for ultimate went to the Olympics,” he said. “I had trouble seeing how ultimate could be pro and still keep the ‘Spirit of the Game’ and not having referees. And I have to say I’m delighted with what I saw tonight here.”

Also in the stands for the game was Rita Feder, whose older brother, Sam, plays for the A.U.D.L.’s Empire. Feder is the only girl on the ultimate team at the Heschel School in Manhattan and was glad to be exposed to a pro women’s league.

“Women’s ultimate isn’t limited anymore,” she said. “You can go as far as the men can and that’s encouraging to me because I never thought that was possible because I was always the only girl on the team.”


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