On a windy summer afternoon on the grass fields of New York City’s East River Park, a group of men and women ran around the pitch with sticks wedged between their legs and deflated balls in their hands, playing a sport that one begrudged heckler couldn’t understand.
He stood behind the chain link fence shouting profanities that I cannot publish, making fun of this “semi-pro” team for practicing a sport derived from fiction.The Harry Potter series, beloved by many fantasy nerds, tells the tale of a boy wizard and his friends who sometimes play a game called “quidditch.” It involves athletes flying around on magical brooms shooting balls through hoops, kind of like basketball in the sky.
But in real life, humans cannot fly or cast spells, which is perhaps why our charming heckler spat out curse upon heinous curse at something he considered quite absurd. The New York Titans paused their practice to laugh at their audience-of-one because he most certainly has never watched Major League Quidditch (MLQ) match before.
Yes, dear Sir: Quidditch is real and MLQ is the most elite semi-professional quidditch league in North America, with 16 sponsored teams across the United States and Canada. Players are allowed to tackle and throw each other, block passes, whip shots though a set of rings or knock their opponents out of play with dodgeballs. It’s like basketball-meets-football-meets-soccer-meets-wrestling-meets-dodgeball-meets-stick-between-crotch. To the untrained eye it can be very confusing.
But if anything, this full-contact sport puts all genders athletes on the same equal playing field, challenging society’s conventional separation of gender. (Try to hex that Mr. Heckler.)
MLQ co-commissioner and co-founder Amanda Dallas knows all about this revolution. The 26-year-old will tell you she started playing club quidditch in college partially because she loved the feeling of throwing balls at the boys.
“I was so ready,” she laughed thinking about that early anticipation of beating up guys.
Dallas stood on the sidelines of practice dressed in all black (work attire) telling me about how she got into quidditch and helped to start MLQ two years ago. I initially assumed that the woman running the league was someone who wished she lived at Hogwarts and had a pet owl named Hedwig. But apparently it’s a running joke among the MLQ community that the “Quidditch Queen” herself is not even a big Harry Potter fan. The thought of people playing a make-believe game repelled her from checking out the sport initially, she said.
“When quidditch started, it was all about the whimsy,” she said. “Full capes. Wooden brooms with the bristles. No rules. Crazy names from the books. All about Harry Potter. ”
Dallas, who was a softball player growing up, wanted none of that. That was until her junior year at New York University (NYU) when her friend dragged her to watch the Quidditch World Cup in NYC.
“It was awesome,” she said. “A little girl could tackle a 200-pound guy and she got respect for it.”
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Excited by the physicality of the game, the journalism major soon signed up to play for NYU’s Hipster Horcruxes and has participated in community quidditch ever since graduation. She became so passionate about quidditch that she began to write about it. In 2014, she became the editor-in-chief for Eighth Man, an online publication that covered the ins and outs of quidditch as if it were a professional mainstream sport. There, Dallas became friends with a man named Ethan Sturm who showed her a plan to start their own semi-professional summer league—all in five months.
“I told him that he was insane,” she said. “But when I thought more about it more and the state of the sport that season … it just felt right to do it.”
At that time, the quidditch craze had been budding in cities and colleges across the country. In the 2014-2015 season, there were 117 college teams and 42 community teams with nearly 4,000 registered members (players, coaches, referees) under US Quidditch, the sport’s national governing body. Dallas knew that those numbers were only growing.
By April 2015, she and Sturm established eight teams across the nation, each of them run and coached by trusted friends in the community. The duo also ran an Indigogo campaign to fund the referee’s salaries, found sponsors to support the uniforms and even found a broom maker to craft the sleek vehicle players use to fly around the field. (Nowadays athletes require special PVC pipes because the old bristly, wooden variety had a higher chance of splintering the private parts.)
Players also agreed to pay an average of $750 for team dues and travel expenses, and by that summer, MLQ launched its inaugural season. Dallas could hardly believe how quickly everything developed.
“Everyone bought in,” she said. “The signups were hundreds for some of the cities. If the community didn’t buy in, it wouldn’t have happened. They trusted us.”
During our discussion, a stray dodgeball hurtled towards my feet and luckily I escaped the blow. The Titans team manager, Kerri Donnelly, who had also been on the sidelines, jumped to put away her laptop, which had been exposed by her belongings on the grass.
Donnelly, 27, used to be one of those college students who originally joined the club quidditch team to make her Harry Potter fantasies a reality. But she soon found out that playing the sport allowed her to explore her more aggressive side.
“I’ve read all the [Harry Potter] books like a thousand times and I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the series,” she said. “Plus my mom wouldn’t let me join a rugby team growing up. So when I found quidditch [at Emerson College] she just thought I was playing a silly game.”
Little did mother know her daughter was playing one of the most mentally and physically demanding sports around, according to Donnelly, who used to be known for collecting red cards on the soccer field.
“It’s definitely the hardest sport I’ve ever played,” she said. “There’s a lot of strategy involved in quidditch and people take it so seriously that there’s no room for complacency.”
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As we watched the field, she explained to me that each team has six players on the pitch and among those athletes there are four positions: the chaser, keeper, beater and seeker. The three chasers on each team are the scorers on the pitch. They pass or try to intercept the quaffle (a volleyball) which they can shoot through one of the three rings of the opposing team for 10 points. The two beaters disrupt the flow of the game by knocking opponents out of play with the three bludgers (dodgeballs) and the keepers defend the rings. After 17 minutes of play, the snitch (not affiliated with any team) runs around with a tennis ball in a sock velcroed to their shorts. Players who catch the opposing team’s snitch end the game and earn their squad 30 points. Matches can last anywhere from 18 minutes to an hour.
But perhaps most sacred rule in quidditch revolves around gender: Title 9 and ¾—which is both a reference to the fictional train platform that leads to the Hogwarts Express and the real U.S. law that was written to prevent sex discrimination in sports—mandates that there must be at least two female or nonbinary players on the pitch for each team at all times. This way, MLQ aims to promote gender equality and inclusivity among its athletes.
“The choice of [nonbinary] is very important too,” Donnelly explained. “If people don’t identify with any gender, they still have a place on the field. They don’t have to conform. It’s important to quidditch culture.”
“You can play if you want,” Dallas said as she motioned one of the players to hand me a broom.
My heart quickened as I stepped into the scrimmage as a chaser. During this practice, it was me and just one other woman playing among ten tall, athletic-looking men. I wondered if the guys would tackle me like a football running back or coddle me “like a girl,” or whatever sexist phrase they might dump on me that night.
But I was so pleasantly wrapped up in the game, all of those gender concerns melted away. In fact, most of my mental energy went into keeping the broomstick between my legs and trying to avoid bludgers. I once collided with the opposite sex, got up and dusted myself off. My soon-to-be bruise would be a mark of relief.
At the end of practice, I high-fived Titans team captain Taylor Crawford, a strapping 5-foot-10 guy made of 205 pounds of muscle. For a moment, I imagined the former football player being a bit hesitant when he first had to tackle a woman much smaller than him. But Crawford said he didn’t bat an eye.
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“They are a player on the field,” he said. “I don’t think of any player on the field any less. Everyone has the same objective, which is to score the ball. I understand I weigh 205 pounds. I’m not going to crush someone. But I’m going to hold them back, and if I have to, throw them to the ground.”
For some quidditch players, though, being treated equally isn’t always encouraging. Standing at 5-foot-3, 24-year-old Arielle Flax felt somewhat challenged to be the only other non-male player on the field for this practice.
“Sometimes it’s really frustrating because I am not as fast or strong as the male beaters at the moment so I had to keep reminding myself not to beat myself up for not doing as well,” said Flax who has a deep love for the team and quidditch. “At the same time, I wanted to use that [frustration] as motivation. I can try to make myself be on par with them. If it’s not my speed, maybe it’s throwing or catching. When you have athletes of all sort of caliber around you, it pushes you to be better in every aspect of the sport.”
Flax then recounted stories of other female players who became known for outscoring and outmuscling some of the guys. Dallas told me of the time an opposing team put out their best male player to take her out of the game—she was just that good of a beater.
Donnelly feels that although women still find that they have to prove themselves at times, quidditch is truly changing the stereotypes that often hinder non-male athletes.
“I’ve never felt more respected or as empowered as an athlete than I have in quidditch,” said Donnelly. “I went to an all-girls school where I was told consistently that I could be as good as the boys. But actually seeing it and competing with the men, having respect and earning respect … It’s changed my perspective of what I’m capable of.”
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As the pink sunset dipped into the the Hudson River, the mighty Titans packed up their brooms and embarked on a quest to find the closest food cart with the best tacos. The crew filled the city streets with their stories and laughter while the anticipation of tender carnitas wafted in the air. I could tell that the Titans have shared many memories like this—the guys, the gals and everyone else bonded through this “silly” game called quidditch. They pulled me into a group photo as we held our food wrapped in tin foil. For a second, I had become a part of the MLQ family.
“From the perspective of a co-commissioner, to see players talk about how much quidditch community means to them is really rewarding,” said Dallas. “You feel like you are making a difference. Quidditch is more than just about Harry Potter now.”
This weekend, the NY Titans will be battling for in the 2017 MLQ Championship, which kicks off on Saturday in League City, Texas. Tickets are now on sale on the event website.