This weekend I watched an ultimate frisbee tournament in Boston. Ultimate is my children’s main sport, so I have paced the sidelines of many grassy fields, watching younger people run around and throw a plastic disc.
Ultimate is a bit like soccer and football. Seven players on each team on a big field throw the disc to each other, trying to catch it in the opponent’s end zone. If a pass is incomplete, the other team gets the disc. Ultimate involves lots of running, jumping, and throwing, plus defensive and offensive strategizing. It’s that simple.
But ultimate is a unique sport in its social organization. The “spirit of the game” discourages all forms of anti-social behavior towards one’s opponents. The official rules say: “Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play.” Taunting trash-talk, name-calling, and any form of denigrating the other team are violations of this spirit. Competitive team play has flourished for over 30 years without referees to enforce the rules. Instead an honor system prevails in which players decide when rules have been broken and what should be done.
Naturally there are disputes on the field and grumbling about the other team’s lack of spirit. But I have never seen a team sport played in such a friendly manner. At the highest level of competition, the national championship for club teams, each team rates the others for their “spirit”, and that prize is a coveted reward. When the NBA has to institute special rules for flagrant fouls, which themselves are then routinely violated, ultimate’s reliance on fair play and good cheer is refreshing.
Of all the team sports in America, ultimate is the least involved with money and power. There are no professional leagues, no college scholarships, and no corporate sponsors. Players pay entry fees and finance their own travel to tournaments. There are virtually no authority figures telling the players what to do. Except for a very few college coaches, players organize everything themselves.
Without money and coaches promoting seriousness, the players are able to indulge a sense of fun. The play is hard, but silliness is everywhere else, beginning with team names. The theme of the spring league whose final tournament I watched was superheroes, so teams were named Fantastic Forehand and Underdog. There were lots of puns on the word “huck”, which means a long pass into the end zone: Huck Morris, The Incredible Huck. Closer to home, the University of Chicago’s team was called Discmonsters of the Midway. One of my favorite names from the past is Weapons of Mass(achusetts) Destruction. Athletic gear is often supplemented with colorful accessories, like kilts, neon shorts, T-shirts with funny pictures. After games, each team makes up a foolish chant on the spot to congratulate their opponents.
The gender wall, which characterizes every other team sport I know, barely exists in ultimate. Although college teams are divided by gender, the tournament I saw was the culmination of a coed league. Three of the seven players on the field must be women. Not only does the disc move seamlessly from men to women, but gender conventions of colors and clothing are routinely violated. All this can be seen in Jacksonville every year at the Jax Hat tournament, or weekly at the local pick-up games in Springfield.
Ultimate Frisbee represents sports as athleticism plus fun. The rigidity that big money demands, the confining gender separation demanded by schools and colleges, the conformity that professional coaches believe promotes team solidarity are not the choices of these athletes. In some ways, ultimate is a grown-up version of what I remember doing as a kid: getting together with friends and playing sports, without the supervision of non-playing adults. Ultimate presents a different model of what sports can be, where competitive passion is funneled into feats of athletic skill rather than nasty behavior toward opponents.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 24, 2011