WaPo Complains Professional Ultimate Disc League Lacks Diversity

John Simmons | August 14, 2023
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Ultimate frisbee is a sport that many people have only played at a family barbeque or after Sunday church service. Few people know that it has a vibrant club scene at the college and post-college levels, and there’s even a professional league for the sport, called the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL).

One of the AUDL’s best players - and one of the best ultimate players in the world - is D.C. Breeze star AJ Merriman, who has been with the team since the 2019 season. The Washington Post just published a profile story on Merriman on Thursday, in which reporter Spencer Nusbaum examined what Merriman’s life is like as he tries to make a living off of playing ultimate in a variety of settings.

The quality of writing was actually quite good, a throwback to the Post of yesteryear. But because of the times we live in, Nusbaum naturally added some race-baiting talking points in his story, pointing out that when Merriman started playing ultimate, he didn’t throw a scoring pass to another black player until four years after he started in the sport. The reporter stated that for Merriman, it “served as inspiration to diversify the sport."

On one hand, I can get behind what Nusbaum is saying. That sequence of events in Merriman’s career could have motivated him to reach out to other young black kids about the sport, which is seriously all well and good. If you found something you enjoyed, wouldn’t you want to share it with others, especially if they don’t know anything about it?

But Nusbaum used this anecdote to transition into his argument that the game isn’t diverse enough (side note: Nusbaum never says how many black AUDL players would be an acceptable amount). He also claimed in his piece that the game has “White, upper-class roots,” which at best is half-baked. Sure, the game was invented by White guys (although accounts of how it came to be are murky), those guys weren’t super rich. It also doesn't mean the game was only for white people. 

In an effort to make his point that ultimate frisbee - and Merriman, early in his career - excluded blacks, Nusbaum glosses over the fact that there were already other black players on teams when Merriman began playing, meaning the sport isn't nearly as racist as he suggests. Additionally, one team will usually only throw about 15 - or fewer - scoring passes in an entire game. And if Merriman spent a lot of time as a defensive player, then his opportunities for this situation to happen would be even more limited.

Related: Andscape Claims American Soccer Isn't Black Enough

But that didn’t stop Nusbaum from continuing.

“While the Breeze is one of the more diverse teams in the AUDL, the league is overwhelmingly White, and Merriman has faced scrutiny based on a physical style of play that is legal under the sport’s rules but violates ultimate’s unwritten customs,” Nusbaum said.

Maybe Merriman is a bit of an outcast for a physical style of play, but Nusbaum seems to loosely suggest that his skin color contributes to this dynamic, which is highly unlikely and something he can’t prove one way or another. As for the amount of black players that are in the AUDL, it's hard to give a cut and dry answer as to why that’s the case.

However, maybe it's simply because most black kids prefer to play other sports, like basketball or football. Ultimate as a sport is growing, but it's also not a mainstream sport that many people of any demographic know about. Most athletes even at higher levels didn’t know it was an organized sport until they got to college. When you combine those factors and potentially a few others, we start to get a clearer picture.

Moreover, the game is diverse in other settings. Many Latin American and Asian men and women are some of the best players in the club and AUDL scenes. Other nations besides America also have high-quality ultimate cultures, including Columbia and Japan. Plus, black players like Antoine Davis an James Pollard are well-respected in the AUDL. But Nusbaum overlooked all of this (potentially on purpose) just to push a tired old narrative.

Even with the so-called “low” number of black players in the league, that doesn’t mean they go unnoticed in pop culture at large. New York Empire cutter Marques Brownlee is the only AUDL player to ever get a shout out from a former President of the United States for his ultimate talent.

As Merriman continues his career, hopefully his presence in the game will accomplish his goal of advertising for the sport and potentially reaching black kids who haven’t heard about it. But in the meantime, Nusbaum and the Post shouldn’t try to convince us that the “low” number of black players in the AUDL means the league is racist.

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