A documentary about the push for racial, class, and gender equity in the growing world of ultimate frisbee,
from 1968-present.

The Sky Is Red will tell the stories of underrepresented and marginalized individuals pushing for gender, race, and class equity in the growing world of ultimate frisbee from 1968 to the present. The film will explore the parallels and connections between history and present-day events. The unsung efforts and tricky conversations in the small community of ultimate become a microcosm for the fight to upend institutional power balances in the world.

In the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election, activists within the ultimate community are buoyed in their efforts to reject the paths of other mainstream sports, which have predominantly focused on men. In a sport founded in discussing conflict with one’s opponents (no referees), ultimate players are primed to have the tough conversations about systemic oppression necessary to push for an equitable future.

Our subjects will represent the behind-the-scenes of what it’s like to grow a new sport in an equitable way. This will help the audience understand the complexity of the issues, and see the world through a potentially new lens. We are still finalizing our main subjects. Among them are Ashleigh Buch, a competitive club athlete and trans woman playing on a Kansas City team; Jerome Stallings, who played on the MOB, an all-black men’s team in the 1980s; Suzanne Fields, who was the driving force behind the creation of the women’s division in ultimate in 1981; and Rhonda Williams, a scholar in the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class, and the first black woman to win a National Championship, whose life was cut short by cancer in 2000.

This film will also help to fill a gap in sports documentaries. Historically, documentaries about ultimate and other mainstream sports have focused on men, and on the playing of the sport itself. This documentary will focus on the culture of sport and dynamic characters who will inspire the audience to create positive change in their own communities.

Ultimate was born in 1968, during the first feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and discussions of Title IX. Over 5 million people play Ultimate in the US alone, more than rugby and lacrosse combined. Its most distinct feature is “Spirit Of The Game,” which dictates that athletes self-officiate (that is, players call and resolve their own fouls; Ultimate does not employ referees) and conduct themselves in a way that preserves the joy of play for all competitors. Spirit Of The Game is upheld even at the highest levels of competition. Today, the sport’s governing body, USA Ultimate, offers opportunities to play in a men’s, women’s, or coed (mixed) division.

Though the sport is unique in that men and women created it together, it has followed the growth model of more traditional mainstream sports, which values and over-represents men.In the US, players are majority white, male, upper-middle class, and college educated. Voices that have historically been underrepresented in the sport (LGBTQ folks, women, people of color, folks from differing socio-economic backgrounds) are speaking up about their experiences and barriers.

Society influences sports and sports influence society. In this politically charged moment, only 4% of sports coverage in the USA is of women’s sports, but women make up 40% of athletes, thanks in part to Title IX. Female athletes in sports are constantly demanding equal pay, and to be recognized as strong athletes as opposed to sex objects. When NFL players take a knee to call attention to racial injustice, mainstream media leaves out the women of color who had been doing so before. Trans and nonbinary players are often left out of the discussion all together. 

While individuals have pushed to uplift historically underrepresented voices, most of the histories and images of ultimate highlight white men. This film will help to redirect the focus and magnify the visibility of these marginalized players throughout history and today. As ultimate approaches its 50th birthday, the community is discussing a potential professional co-ed league — the first of its kind — and is pushing to participate in the 2024 Olympics as a co-ed sport. The more visible ultimate becomes as it grows, the more visible its discussions around equity and social justice become. Ultimate frisbee’s inner workings are relevant to national conversations about the intersection of identity, politics, sport, and activism.