Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

by | April 25, 2014, 7:00am 15

“I don’t play the game because of SOTG. I don’t bust my ass doing wind sprints in the cold and rain because I want to be accepted in a friendly community. I don’t spend several thousand dollars a year and all my vacation time so that some computer geek has a high opinion of me. Ultimate, beyond everything else, is a sport, and sports are about competition. That’s why I’m out there. I want the game to become more competitive. I want Cuervo to sponsor us. I want the game to be accepted in mainsteam America. I want it to evolve into something more watchable.” — Jim Parinella, post to rec.sport.disc, Nov 29, 1993

You’re not going to have the mixing from top to bottom (within the game)…It would be sad if we do lose that”. — Jim Parinella, “Future of Ultimate” Panel, Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference, March 2, 2013.

I find myself vacillating between wanting our beloved sport to go bigtime and wistfully ruing how we have already gotten away from our roots. ESPN or April Fools? Advanced weight training or post-practice beer? Perfectly matching uniforms or just dark or light? Why can’t we have it both ways? Why can’t we all just get along?

I am in favor of elite players closing down bars and then winning tournaments a few hours later at April Fools and Paganello. I think it’s an amazing part of our culture that players can team up with opponents once a year at party tournaments, while battling against them the rest of the season. I think it’s very special, though also very odd, that the cream of the game can also play summer league or coach high school with rank beginners.

I am in favor of the pro leagues (disclaimer: I’m working on the stats team for the Boston Whitecaps). Even though I prefer the observer system, I would have jumped at the chance to play refereed semi-pro ultimate in my prime. For that matter, I would have played at any point where I could fit it in my life and the team would take me. Playing with refs takes a little getting used to and it changes the game a little, but it’s still ultimate. For those worried about it fundamentally changing the game, well, we’ve been on the slippery slope for more than 20 years and Spirit of the Game is still alive and well. People predicted the demise of ultimate as we know it when observers became more prevalent. Having a small number of players playing pro some of the time will not ruin the culture of ultimate.

Ultimate: The First Four Decades by Tony Leonardo and Adam Zagoria has many references to sponsorship and professional ultimate. Leonardo described a 1990 attempt to pitch the sport to tequila manufacturer José Cuervo. The Cuervo Ultimate Championships were “a series of tournaments that featured new rules (a two-point line, for instance), prize money and heavy sponsorship from the tequila company. The Cuervo Series failed—for several reasons, not the least which was players’ independent streak and the sport’s lack of appeal to non-players…” At the time, there was a feeling among my ilk that it was the UPA who put the kibosh on this because of the possibility of losing control, but it really was a mutual decision not to partner further.

A few years later, the National Ultimate Association (NUA) came along and threatened to pull away the top teams, and again the top teams flirted with the idea, but a lack of credibility of the organizer doomed the operation. In 2001, an idea for a Professional Ultimate League was floated to the UPA Board of Directors, which I chaired at that time. To the organizer’s request for $5000 for a feasibility study, we replied, “Let the record show that we’re excited by what he’s trying to do. We don’t think he’s prepared enough to merit a UPA endorsement or investment, especially given the lack of UPA oversight as currently proposed.” The UPA Newsletter archives detail his plan and the Executive Director’s response prior to the meeting. More recently, Sludge Ultimate did a retrospective on this.

In some ways, this is similar to USA Ultimate’s position on the pro leagues. We didn’t get involved with the development in large part because the presentation and the product weren’t mature enough. But also in both, there was also an element of being reluctant to release control. I like to think that we would not have been hostile and would have tried to make it work had the business model been more viable and if we thought the top teams would have bought into it. There is no doubt about USAU’s position today, though: NO.

Why can’t they get along? USA Ultimate has released an official statement with disingenuous arguments such as that pro players will be ill-prepared for international events. Concerns about partnering with financially unstable organizations are fair, and it would also be fair to point out that USAU has no reason to choose sides between the AUDL and MLU. But I feel that it’s still ultimate and that it’s not a zero-sum game. Encouraging pro ultimate, even with refs and even with just men on the field, encourages all ultimate and results in a bigger pie for everyone.

Why should they get along? Because this is another step in player-driven experimentation dating back to some of the first Frisbees that said “PLAY CATCH – INVENT GAMES”. Rules changes have come about from experimentation. In the Ultimate History Book, Troy Frever wrote about the rules of the game and the Standing Rules Committee (SRC), which “had the responsibility of updating the official rules to keep them as closely aligned as possible with the common play on the field”. Tournaments would introduce rules variations and those that caught on would eventually become the standard. Even the power pool format used at Nationals for many years started as an experiment at Chicago’s Tune-Up.

The barnstorming NexGen Tour was another experiment that tried to create something new in ultimate. Though I still cling to the long tournament as the ideal format, players are voting with their cleats that they are willing to travel to play a single game at a time. The pro leagues are furthering this experiment in trying to bring high-level ultimate to the masses. They should be embraced by the ultimate community, and that includes the national organization. Instead, there are scheduling changes and requirements seemingly designed to thwart the upstarts and remove flexibility and choice from the players on those teams.

But then again, I vacillate. I worry that a bigger pie will make it harder for all of us to connect. I was lucky enough to play at Fools recently with three of the players selected in Skyd’s Mock Draft, and they were enough to carry a bunch of 40-something ShortFatGuys to our first ever tournament victory after many semis and finals losses. How long will players like this be allowed to participate in such events? As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, it truly will be a shame when it is no longer possible to have such mixing. Will it be worth it? Or will our attempts to stop change be what hurts us? I don’t know. I just wish we could all get along and work together.

Addendum: More pet peeves

“Home” and “away”. I don’t know where my bag is when I’m playing, but I do know which way a forehand is, even if I’m covering a lefty. Hearing a teammate shout “home” when they’re on the far sideline does not help me know which way to force.

A foolish consistency in tournament formats, primarily with caps. Hard caps in elimination games just seem wrong. Alternate solutions: hard cap is an immediate +1 cap, or the game ends when the losing team turns it over twice. We used this latter solution at a hot box tournament once and it allowed the chance for a team to catch up without allowing the game to drag along. I wouldn’t even be against the idea of playing a strict timed game (my first full tournament in 1983 had timed games), but if it’s a game to points, a team shouldn’t be eliminated after scoring a goal. And there is no need to have the same time cap for every round in the tournament. If there has to be a short time cap to fit in all the rounds on the first day because of a lack of field space and there is no such shortage for the elimination rounds, let them play out.

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  • Guest

    I'd like to submit, with regard to the continued integrity of Ultimate Culture:

    [I'd wager] the last 2-3 years has more footage and commentary accessible commentary than all previous years of Ultimate combined.

    Ultimate Culture, for the most part, has been an oral, and communal tradition.

    With more content available online, pockets of ultimate can grow in isolation (high-school or city leagues), drawing their culture not from the larger national or international peer group, but instead from what they see on the highlight reel, or an individual's vlog.

    Since the majority of players (teens especially) will not have access to the national culture, the culture that is easiest to access (best represented online/being accessible to the largest number of players) will be the prevailing culture.

    This means, that a small number of players *who are producing content*, will have a disproportional voice in the culture. This is also a feedback mechanism.

    If what is important is the integrity of the current culture – more content needs to be available that *highlights the most desirable aspects* defined by that culture.

    If what we are seeing on the highlight reels are the most desirable aspects, that's fine. If it's not, well, someone's gotta make that content. Who is going to pay (in labour or cash)?

    • In an earlier screed, I blasted the Sportscenter Fallacy of equating exciting plays with good ultimate. Above and Beyond was mostly a highlight reel, though it also told the story. The Ultivillage videos from 5-10 years ago were a little more highlight focused. The average fan is more likely to want to watch exciting plays. But there is a limited market for "good ultimate" content as well (e.g., RiseUp) and for the more drama focused content (Matt M's work). And for serious training, though some if it appears to be too focused on being able to make Sportscenter plays rather than for the traditional ultimate tournament format.

      I'm not against the culture evolving but like you said if extreme evolutionary forces push it in one way then it could become a new species.

    • Another Guest

      Great post, absolutely hit the nail on the head. The recent explosion of spiking in youth ultimate is an early and unfortunate manifestation of this phenomenon. With that in mind, I've been digging the recent semi-pro highlights where they've made a point of showcasing some good spirit and the celebrations are actually a bit toned down.

      • Sorry to say it, but I don't see what's so awful about spiking. Maybe it's because I've played sports other than ultimate, but all I really see spiking as (unless it's spiking on someone or excessive) is a show of intensity. I understand not spiking on routine points, or easy plays, but who are you or I to tell someone else how to celebrate? Not all instances of celebration are bad spirit (which is what you seem to imply by saying "showcasing some good spirit and the celebrations are actually a bit toned down").

        I don't see how a bunch of HS kids spiking discs is somehow foreshadowing a lack of sportsmanship in the sport. If you don't like your opponent spiking after you get scored on, don't get scored on.

        • Jonathan Levy

          As a HS coach who has been to MANY HS tournaments, I can attest to a pretty high correlation (admittedly subjective) between teams who spike on most points and a concomitant lack of sportsmanship. The genesis seems to be these players/teams are formed from other sports, where spiking is the norm, and in general, they do a poor job of learning the Rules of Ultimate, which reflects poor SOTG.

          Your proposed solution is flippant, and solves nothing. Some HS TD's ban spiking outright; others suggest it be incorporated into the opponent's Spirit score. There are plenty of other ways to celebrate intensity other than spiking a disc, which the Ultimate community has collectively decided is an offensive display, especially at the HS level.

          • Sorry if that last line was flippant, it wasn't my intention. I understand you with "other ways to celebrate intensity other than spiking a disc", I'm just not ready to think that spiking is as awful as others think.

        • Another Guest

          Didn't make myself clear, I definitely see how that could be taken as a complete dismissal of the practice and it wasn't meant as such. I am by no means a spiking enthusiast, but I understand that passionate celebrations are inherent to any competitive sport. When justified, I not only condone, but enjoy, a large and well executed spike. A huge sky, massive layout grab, bookends, game winner, or even just a cut to the cone for a big break are all situations were a good spike can be appropriate or encouraged. I start to take issue with kick spikes or other excessive/damaging acts after an easy break side pancake when you are up four or five breaks. Clearly you share some of the same "routine play" misgivings.

          As far as youth ultimate is concerned, I understand the times they are a changing and I've been out of the age bracket for a while. But my experiences playing HS eight years ago compared with the most recent youth tournaments I have observed is drastically different. The improvement in level of play was amazing to see, and spirit generally appeared high, but the frequency and emphasis placed upon celebrations seemed a little ridiculous for something that used to be reserved for making a statement or the biggest plays.

          I don't think this foreshadows a complete future disintegration of spirit or sportsmanship, but its worth noting in the context of the original Guest's post on the redistribution of cultural influence. Obviously spiking has been around for a while and is actually waning in high level prevalence compared to the early 2000's, but up until recently, it was mostly just other high-level tournament attendees seeing and potentially emulating the actions. Now we as ultimate fans and the next generations of ultimate players are afforded the luxury of seemingly endless video content. With this luxury comes the potential for nine-minute long highlight reels of a really good cutter kick-spiking every time he torches someone deep. Impressive? Yes. Winning formula? Probably not.

          So yeah, I'm a little disconcerted when I see teenagers spiking in city rec leagues and then notice its part of a trend. And with that, I am that much happier when I see Beau snag a massive Callahan, quietly spin the disc towards the ground and high five his teammates instead of hurling it at the turf on it's edge. Personally, I cannot deny having spiked a few disc in my day, and enjoying each of them thoroughly. But in hindsight, the best plays don't need to be validated, and it can be way more fulfilling to just set the disc down with the knowledge that everybody saw it, and the guy you just toasted will admire you a little more for not spiking it.

          • From the same r.s.d post in the article:
            You want to spike the disc? Spike it!! (Incidentally, George "Win one for the Gipper" Gipp is often credited with the first "spike" in football). Most spikes I've seen aren't personal–they're either celebratory ("Yes, we scored, we're still in this game") or mildly retaliatory ("You fouled me all over the field and I still scored! Ha ha!"). In fact, we even spike it during practice. It's about intensity, emotion, competition, winning, and losing. In the NFL, you know that if you get scored on, a spike is coming, and you better accept it. I've never seen a football player return the spike, by the way, like many good-spirited ultimate players do.
            Otoh, I'm reminded of the Vince Lombardi quote, "when you get to the end zone, act like you've been there before."
            I think natural exuberance is just fine, but the "look at me!" spikes are classless and disrespectful. It's related to the Sportscenter Fallacy, if it's in the highlight reel, it must be good.

        • Colin

          At the same time that you are trying to teach HS kids respect for their opponents and SOTG, spiking is a very easy (and unnecessary) source of misunderstanding and potential conflict. Better to practice playing the game the right way and interacting with the opponent in a way that garners respect and helps establish a rapport, which in turns helps the game run more smoothly. Then, once you're good at that, spike to your heart's content, and I'm sure you'll do it in a way that there is not any misunderstanding.

          To be honest, I don't know the reasons or if they're applicable to discussion of post-score celebrations in ultimate, but the NFL has cracked down on this stuff: http://nesn.com/2013/08/nfl-cracking-down-on-play

  • I was at AUDL opener in San Jose, vs San Fran. My fiance who has only seen the sport a few years comments "wow the players are so much nicer to one another when they aren't self regulated" have to agree. Game flows, barely any stoppages and certainly no going to observer after a few minutes of discussion or players arguing. Was high level play, great sportmanship on both sides, and a big crowd. Why is this a bad thing that shouldn't be embraced, don't get it.

    • Anon

      You were watching Revolver, a team known for good spirit, play against itself, with a few friends thrown in. Not surprised the sportsmanship level was high.

      That being said, comparing the elite teams today to 15 years ago as seen in the Above and Beyond Videos, the spirit level in club does seem to be much higher today.

      • Anon

        Agreed on your second point.

        On the first though, having seen about a half dozen streamed MLU/AUDL games played around the country, Spirit has seemed high in all of them.

        This early in the pro leagues' lifetimes, I bet that most of the pro players' keep the strongest emotional attachment to their club teams. As rivalries develop in the MLU/AUDL, maybe the chippiness will rise in some cases. If that happens, it might be interesting to see if the Refs help channel off some of the heated back and forth between players that can fuel Spirit issues in club (even if less often today…)

  • Is there anyone in the A&B videos who is still playing Men's now? Husak sorta.

    • Guest

      Fortunat Mueller? He was with Ironside as recently as just a couple years ago, not sure if he's still playing.

  • Guest

    Spiking warps the disc. Don't do it. Do a little dance or something.