The National Catholic Review
James T. Keane
The surprising lessons of a summer spent playing ultimate frisbee
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Is there a more powerful symbol of summertime in America than the frisbee? One’s disc remains tucked in a closet or atop a shelf for months on end during the cold, and its very appearance on a beach or in a park means the weather has turned and one’s thoughts must turn to idle play. This past summer (my first in New York City, where the sun never sets over the sea and hot asphalt burns the toes even more efficiently than sand), anxious of the need for outdoor entertainment and bolstered by the encouragement of new friends, I signed up for a venture almost completely unknown to me: a Manhattan Ultimate Frisbee league.

What was I thinking? Ultimate frisbee is no languid pursuit for apathetic slackers; it is instead in many ways the cardiovascular equivalent of torture, requiring a combination of stamina, sprinting ability and all-around athleticism that appeals mostly to the young, the fit and the naturally gifted athletes of our culture. I am none of the three, and was horrified when the league registration form asked me about foot speed, physical coordination and knowledge of the game. Again, I had precious little of any of the three. I had played ultimate frisbee for several years on weekends at Fordham University with graduate students and fellow Jesuit scholastics, but such games were more often chaotic exercises in aggression release than organized sport—I probably broke as many bones and caused as many bruises in those games as I did score points.

What I found on my Manhattan Ultimate Disc league, however, was an experience that was in many ways transformative, at least in terms of my attitude toward sports. I discovered a game that was as serious as any I had played, but was also completely at odds with the typical experience of American organized athletic endeavors. Over the course of the summer, it forced me to reevaluate what it means to engage in group sports activities.

Playing at Utopia

Imagine the typical American experience of participating in sports.  As a youth, one is initiated via baseball, basketball, soccer or a host of other activities into a culture where necessary conditions for play include the presence of authoritative officials, endless rules and regulations and the constant interruption of play for violations or transgressions. As one grows older and the stakes grow larger, these elements of sport loom ever larger.  Want proof? Take a foreign visitor to an American high school football or basketball game, and ask him or her to report a first impression. Chances are it will be amazement at the countless stoppages of play or at the savagery of fouls. The professional sports we watch are even worse, and also magnify the disturbing lack of sportsmanship that is taught from one’s earliest days at play. Taunting, trash-talking and cheap shots seem a constant element in everything from basketball to hockey.

The desire to win in those sports is no greater or less than it was in my frisbee league, but ultimate frisbee offered a new and intriguing possibility: that the “spirit of the game” trumped one’s need for personal triumph or conquest over the opponent. New categories existed in this world of athletic competition—that being a “good sport” was not a superficial pretense offered up to mask deep-seated aggression, and that winning at any cost was actually a particularly distasteful way to conduct oneself as an athlete.

In fact, I found the world of ultimate frisbee an attractive one on almost all counts, not least because of its somewhat utopian values. You think you caught the disc in-bounds? You did. You feel you were fouled? You were. There’s a question over how a certain play went down? Talk it out with your teammates and your opponents; until you’re done talking it out, no further play can occur. If the game starts at noon, it’s okay to show up at 12:05—it’s also okay to show up at 12:35 (okay, that last part often sent me into a towering rage, one barely mollified by the explanation that “dude, it’s Ultimate Time”). Most remarkably, I found a game without referees, indeed without any real legislative authority, where one either learned to cooperate with friends and foe alike or one went home frustrated and unfulfilled. The game is entirely self-policed, and that aforementioned “spirit of the game” is invoked every time anger rears its ugly head.

Another surprising and humbling experience was the general bonhomie of players; my teammates were preposterously kind, in a way I have never been myself in athletic endeavors, patiently explaining the minutiae of the game over and over, calling out encouragement from the sidelines, pulling me aside during breaks to offer advice on tactics they learned at an age when I was diving headfirst into second basemen in fully conscious attempts to break collarbones. I saw the same on other teams through the league—extraordinarily skilled and experienced athletes sharing the field without rancor with newcomers and incompetents lacking even a clue. Never once did I see a fistfight. Never once did I see someone verbally abused.

To be sure, every game I played in was hard-fought, and I admit that I was more often than not a liability for my side. I was often the worst player on the field, too slow to keep up with most of my opponents, some of whom were literally half my age. There are advantages to being that guy, of course—you usually get matched up with the closest thing to the same on the other team, someone who is unaware that desire trumps ability more often than not—but I have no doubt I was a source of endless frustration for the many experienced players on my team, and surely cost my team points and perhaps a victory or two. I often found myself needing advice from men and women who in any other circumstance would be my students, a humbling experience that I hope I remember every time I am in front of a classroom.

Every now and then I did okay out there—before I ran out of steam, I made the right cut or got the right angle on a defensive move. I even once scored twice in a game, and strutted home across Manhattan with probably ten times the braggadocio of the teammate who spent years going to college tournaments and winning national championships. That teammate congratulated me, of course, as did the player covering me every time, because, well, that’s the spirit of the game. 

Consequences

So what? Different strokes for different folks, right? I think there’s something more to it than that, because team sports are an important teaching tool by which we show our children what is important to our culture. Marshall McLuhan is quoted in this week’s America issue on sports and spirituality that one can “know a culture by how it plays its games.”  George Orwell had another take on that same notion. “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” Orwell once wrote. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” A little extreme, perhaps, but Orwell was an astute observer of his culture, and recognized that sports are a tool for a society to prepare its children for entry into a shared set of values in adulthood. And yes, historically, they are the method by which every society trains its young for war.

What do our team sports teach the average American youth?  Crush your opponent by any means available and your family and friends will rejoice in your triumph? Cede responsibility for your personal conduct to an arbitrary authority given the power to punish? Separate your world into friend and foe, ally and enemy, with no shades of gray between black and white? 

If so, should we be surprised that such attitudes taught to children bear fruit in the behavior of adults? And, more to the point, is it not obvious where we see such behavior present in our culture today?

There are of course a thousand and one factors influencing the development of youth and the progress of culture other than sports; to suggest any single one might be the key to altering behaviors is to be impossibly naïve. But at the same time, I wonder how our culture would be affected if the values and attitudes I witnessed this summer were the ones inculcated in our young men and women on our playing fields. What if the spirit of the game were the spirit of the culture?

James T. Keane, S.J., is an associate editor at America.

Comments

mkt | 11/4/2008 - 11:13pm
Excellent article. D SQ is right that there's an ongoing debate about Spirit of the Game vs unspirited players -- OTOH that debate has been going on in Ultimate for as long as Spirit of the Game has been in Ultimate. Great article but not the best photo. At most leagues and even pickup games that I've been to, barefoot players have become rare-to-nonexistent, and most league players will wear cleats or turf shoes. At pickup games, ordinary tennis shoes or crosstrainers can still sometimes be seen.
D SQ | 10/23/2008 - 3:01pm
I enjoyed reading about a game that has been a big part of my life. It's a good reminder of what most of us older ultimate players thought was the best part of the game. Sadly, the younger generation is not as “spirited”. The team that won the Atlanta Summer League this year was know for hard fouls, LOTS of foul calls, and generally being more aggressive. They were called out for it. It’s a by-product of the growth of the sport and the organized championship series tournaments, both in collegiate level and national club level. The college players are all very aggressive and know the rules and how to take advantage of them for better chances of success. The fact that there are still no refs is a testament to the sport and the underlying “spirit of the game”.
Dan Engstrom | 10/22/2008 - 3:29pm
Every once and awhile, do you feel that special connection with someone you don't even know simply because they have something in common with you? My kind of people tend to use an odd-ball expression that I use, play the Les Paul model electric guitar or they might have been to Wisconsin. Things like that. Or s/he is an ultimate player who can articulate spirit for what it is, in a way that most of us can only dream about. I've been playing off and on since 1983 and in my book, you're right on the button. Thanks for the article, James. It's a breath of fresh air for us old-timers.
Sam | 10/22/2008 - 8:58am
Having been an Ultimate player "back in the day", I truly enjoyed your article. My younger brother, now 50, still plays and may have some perspective on the evolution of the game. A friend sent me the article and I forwarded it to him. Your comments on the Spirit of the Game were right on. With the combination of athletic skills demanded, and the refusal to include outside authority Ultimate is unique. Sadly, it will never be a spectator sport simply because of the lurching pace of play created by no quick decision authority to enforce rules. Keep up the good work.