Levelling the Playing Field—Exploring non-cis-male Sporting Culture at Ashoka’s Sporting Leagues
Earning traction and participation for Ashokan events has always been a slippery slope, but there is one space which has almost always managed to attract the enthusiasm of the bustling Ashokan community: the sporting leagues. The Ashoka Basketball Association and the Ashoka Premier League have, year after year, exceeded all expectations when it comes to participation and spectatorship. These leagues intend to create spaces for people to come together and play each other without the barrier of a skill gap or difference in experience.
However, there is a significant difference in opportunity extended to cis-male players compared to their non-cis-male counterparts—not just at the university but both before and after it. While one would hope for leagues like these to prioritise creating a safe space uniting its players more than it divides, too often this is not the case.
The Edict, in this article, delves into the workings of the ABA and the APL, attempting to understand why these environments have not quite developed in the way one would hope and what can be done to bring about the change we so desperately wish to see in the sphere of Ashokan sports.
Advocating for more inclusivity in sports begins with the structure of these leagues. Owners strategise for their team not just on the basis of favourable plays, but also the order of the auction. Historically, both these leagues have seen owners centering their team around one cis-male player. ABA 5.0 had a randomised structure at the auction, unfortunately leading to the captain of the women’s basketball team going unsold.
Following this, both leagues started the auction with bidding on non-cis males first and limited sign-ups to the exact number required by teams to ensure no player went unsold. APL and ABA both mandated 1 and 2 non-cis-male players per team respectively and ABA also required them to be on court for a minimum of 3 minutes in a 10 minute game.
However, most owners worked around this, choosing not to bid or spend a significant proportion of their budget on non-cis-male players to keep maximum budget in hand to get the Tier 1 cis male player of their choice. Most teams at APL and ABA spent an average of 18% and 13% of their budgets respectively on non-cis males in the two most recent iterations of the leagues. According to basic proportionality, teams should ideally be spending a quarter and a third of their budgets on non-cis-male players in the two tournaments respectively. Those Ashoka Girls (APL 5.0) and Thaali Number 420 (APL 6.0) were among the highest bidders at APL, having spent upwards of 44% of their respective budgets on non-cis-male players. Vanar Sena (ABA 6.0) and Pineapple Express (ABA 7.0) were the highest bidders at ABA, spending upwards of 26% of their budgets on non-cis-male players.
During the actual tournament, as well, owners managed to work their way around the rules put in place to ensure equitability. Most teams rarely played their non-cis-male players for more than the required amount of time, reducing their participation to nothing more than an organising committee mandate—a hurdle that the team has to overcome, rather than genuine contributors in an attempt to win the grand prize.
To counter these playing strategies exclusively valuing the cis-male player, ABA is experimenting with a FIBA 3v3 format this year where the game only stops at a dead ball (when the ball is out of bounds or a foul has been committed). They have also mandated one non-cis male player be on the court during the entirety of the game. In their interview with The Edict, ABA directors Aditi Narwekar and Akhil Madhavan mentioned that such a format would force teams to involve every player on court. Because the game does not stop and involves a possession-based clearance format, centering team strategy around one player would tire them out immensely, besides making it challenging for them to be consistently free to handle the ball, forcing the non-cis-male players to be utilised.
The gap in the motivation behind these leagues and the sporting culture they foster becomes most evident when looking at the difference in the sheer numbers of the cis male and non-cis male players that sign up to participate. APL 6.0 had 186 cis-male players and only 48 non cis-male players, while ABA 6.0 saw 64 sign-ups from cis-male players and 32 non-cis-male players. These numbers reflect the gendered disparity in sport in Ashokan spaces and beyond.
In her interview with The Edict, APL Director and former captain of the women’s football team, Dhrthi Bhat contextualised these numbers. According to Dhrthi, the skill gap is really large among non-cis men; many people who want to play but aren’t regular players feel hesitant to sign up for the leagues. There is a prominent barrier between competitive players and recreational players, further intensified when the same, known faces make it to the front, are better included in team strategies, and are seen time and again on the leagues’ or teams’ social media pages. Closed off practice sessions and a hesitance in participating in the casual games makes the sport feel exclusionary towards players who want to play but do not get the opportunity to play regularly.
While it is true that the owners will inevitably want the good players and thus will tend to lean towards the familiar, skilled and experienced players, Dhrthi stresses that competitiveness cannot be a matter of pride for these leagues, if it demotivates people who do want to participate but might feel reluctant to do so.
Sankalp Dasmohapatra, who played in APL 6.0 and was part of APL 5.0’s winning team, highlights the issue of non-cis-male players not being as actively involved in games leading up to the tournament. He points out that a large percentage of the casual games played outside of the tournament are exclusively between male players. If there are non-cis men, they are usually the top players from the Ashoka Women’s FC.
More generally in Ashokan sports, even outside the boundaries of franchise tournaments, there is a significant gap limiting the level of inclusion cis-male and non-cis-male players experience. The former tend to get away with making mistakes or being average in skill or experience in a way that the latter do not. This could be a consequence of there being much fewer non-cis-male players within whom even fewer are perceived as objectively strong players. For those participating in tournaments, this perception can be actively harmful.
The division of players into tiers also adds to this gap. Team owners always have more tier 3 or 4 cis-male players to choose from and more known faces to consider in the auction in comparison to tier 3 or 4 non-cis-male players. Considering that all teams always have more male players at their disposal, non-cis-male players of the team will inherently face increased pressure and attention. Sankalp recollects his experience of playing in APL last year, where the role of such a player on the team inevitably became very important since she was the only non-cis male within the team. However, while they were both lower tier players who played defence, the owners, as part of their strategy, asked him to come support her in pressing moments.
The perceived skill gap between the cis-male and non-cis-male players makes it difficult for even the more experienced non-cis-male players to take up space in the team. Dhrthi points out that owners’ strategies for the tournament are often built around the one or two male players they invest most of their budget in. To this point, she says “usually the game plan is discussed and then sold to you.” Instead of actively being included in the strategy in a way that actually plays to the strengths of the non-cis-male player as well, “you’re designated a role to play and are limited to that role”.
Both Dhrthi and Sankalp also point towards the difference one’s own personality and tendencies as a player can make in the way they’re treated by team owners.. As part of the APL team Pineapple Express, she believed that she was given proper space in the team and all players were included in discussions and strategising. However, she also recognised the fact that a large part of her experiences in tournaments such as APL is impacted by her status and reputation as an athlete in the University—she is arguably one of the top 3 non-cis-male players at Ashoka and chooses to be vocal and outspoken about her perspectives. Several non-cis-male players might not have the same level of confidence or security to take up or demand more space in the team if they feel like they are being treated inadequately.
Aditi Narwekar, current Vice Captain of the women’s basketball team, echoes—“You’re on the team, you know the rules, you know the game. Demand what you deserve, don’t let people walk all over you.”
The importance of speaking up within the team also points to the lack of formal grievance redressal mechanisms within these leagues. Since leagues are independent from the Sports Department or any formal office, there is a dearth of formal mechanisms surrounding procedures for taking up complaints of any kind. Additionally, anybody can sign up as a player or owner, unlike clubs and societies which can only take on people with a No Objection Certificate, safeguarding such spaces from people with sexual harassment or assault charges.
An owner at ABA 6.0 told The Edict about an instance where someone was allowed to enter the auction cycle and play matches despite having publicly known CASH charges. The presence of such people in any capacity makes the environment an unsafe place for healthy and fun competition, defeating the very purpose of the leagues.
In an anonymous interview with The Edict, a non-cis-male player at APL spoke about being informed explicitly that she had been brought on board a team because one of the managers wanted to sleep with her. She was not allowed to play for the team despite being in full kit on most match and practice days, not given a team jersey or any share of the prize money. When this matter was escalated to the APL directors, due to the absence of a formal team within the organising committee dedicated to this, no definitive action could be taken.
While these instances of extreme misconduct are rare, even a single incident is unacceptable, and the lack of proper procedure to protect players against harm gives way for similar mishaps to come about again. Given the monumental impact these leagues have on the larger sporting culture surrounding non-cis males at Ashoka, there is an evident need for more formalisation of procedures within them. This includes the mechanisms through which players, owners, as well as organising committee members are brought on board.
There is an urgent need for transparency, clarity and a genuine concern towards ensuring non-cis-male players get the space they deserve in sports at Ashoka. Leagues like the ABA, the APL and other similar tournaments are largely driven by passion and have the potential to be platforms people look towards when they think of limiting the air of exclusivity surrounding sports. It is imperative that, with every year, these leagues move towards creating a more inclusive and collaborative environment which allows for both formally skilled and experienced players as well as semi-skilled or even unskilled players to come together and celebrate the sport they equally share the love for.