I’m a devoted ultimate player, coach, and mother. I am also part of your potential revenue base—someone who has paid and is still willing to pay her hard-earned money to watch ultimate. I played for more than a decade on Fury, winning national and world championships. Currently, I volunteer my time coaching and working to expand participation in the sport, particularly among girls.
Until now, I have been tracking the emergence of the MLU with a mixture of excitement and apprehension as the sport I love ventures into new territory. I have followed the ensuing debate in the ultimate community as the MLU has taken the controversial steps of adding referees and changing field dimensions. However, after seeing the ad for ‘Fly Girls’ tryouts on your website, I had such a strong reaction that I felt compelled to engage more directly.
Objectifying women is not harmless entertainment. It demeans women in general, and it demeans this sport—our sport—by sending a clear message that there is no room for women in ultimate except as scantily-clad sideline dancers.
Let’s be clear: Putting cheerleaders on the sideline is not selling ultimate, it is selling sex.
I have tried to imagine why you would make this decision. The two lines of reasoning I came up with are that:
You believe this will attract an audience outside the current ultimate community—potential fans who will come for the cheerleaders and stay for the ultimate; or
You believe the Fly Girls will help legitimize this league as “professional” since other American sports leagues have cheer-leading squads.
I believe both these lines of reasoning are inherently flawed and short-sighted. Why? Because even as the MLU attempts to pave a path for professional ultimate, your team is steering a course that is vulgar, and in direct conflict with the culture of the sport and the ethics of the majority of those in the ultimate community.
From a business perspective, you risk alienating a large portion of your potential fan base who would normally be attracted to ultimate (the real sport, not the brand you would be cultivating). With so many ‘pro’ sports competing for eyeballs and ticket sales, the success of the MLU hinges on selling what differentiates ultimate. The growth occurring at the youth level is driven by parents who are want their children to play the sport because of its values. Introducing cheerleaders certainly does not differentiate ultimate. Rather, it degrades the very elements of the sport you should be promoting.
Sustaining a league long-term requires building a fan base that appreciates watching ultimate on its merits—paying customers who are sold on the sport, not sex.
Ben Van Heuvelen recently wrote a thoughtful piece in Skyd Magazine about the future of ultimate titled “What Do We Stand For?” In it he questions how much the culture of ultimate should be compromised in our attempt to make the sport professional. He addresses the “poverty of imagination” in the MLU’s apparent choice to follow the models of the NFL and the NBA rather than paving a new course. Introducing cheerleaders seems like further evidence of his lament.
Washington D.C. Current coach Keven Molderhauer recently talked about what it means to be a professional. He concludes that it is, at its core, about respect. And with that respect, he argues, a professional league can help generate a broader legitimacy for a sport so many of us love.
I know this: The next generation of ultimate players and fans—girls and boys—are watching, and the MLU would do well to represent itself and our sport with integrity. So please, I urge you to show that respect for your team, for the thousands of women who currently play, and for future generations of players and fans by cancelling the Fly Girl tryouts and promoting the sport on its merits. Seize the opportunity to steer professional ultimate on a course that honors the sport and its values—a course that our community can and will support.
In fact, I respectfully suggest you take this one step further: Take the resources you would have put into a cheerleading dance squad and invest them in youth ultimate. You’ll be building a whole new generation of fans that will pay to watch the sport, and who will be there for a lifetime.
I have been given the opportunity to respond to Ben Van Heuvelen’s recent article, perhaps because I was referenced several times therein, or perhaps because the editor assumed that I might see things a bit differently. If so, he was right. I do.
Dobyns talks ultimate on Amazing Games in 1989.
I didn’t come to love ultimate over a plate of lasagna, surrounded by like-minded peers in a high school cafeteria where the warmth of welcome flowed thicker than Bolognese sauce. I came to love it one hot summer night under the lights on a glass-strewn patch of clay under the Queensboro Bridge in Manhattan. I had just graduated high school, and my older brother had brought me along to try out for the local club team on two conditions: that I don’t embarrass him, and that I catch everything he threw me. Watching warm-ups I was pretty sure the first was out of the question. I wasn’t the youngest player out there, but I was easily the worst. And it wasn’t close. I watched a group of players from Bronx Science, including Jeremy Seeger (HOF 2010), throw crisp pass after crisp pass, every one right on target, and I was too nervous to even attempt to warm up my waffling, potato chip throws. I watched some of the best NY club players of the day, Mauricio Matiz, Jerry McManus, and Ken Gary do the same, and my sense of impending doom only worsened. But once I got on the field, it was a different story.
Offense back then was a largely disorganized mess of competing cuts, so it was easy for me to stay out of the way until my brother caught a pass. At that point, I ran to the end zone, he threw it, and I caught it. Every time. Hammers, backhands, and flicks. Long, floating bombs and sharp, cross-field blades. I ran them down if I could, but laid out if I couldn’t – glass be damned. Finally, the captain of the team, Derek Lent, came over and said, “Look, you made the team. Just stop diving on this shit before you get hurt.” They were the only words anybody other than my brother said to me all night.
An US All-Star team huddles in Japan. From left: Kenny Dobyns, unknown, Pat King, Mark Orders, Stevie Corlane, Mike O'Dowd, Kevin Cox. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Cox. By Masa Honda)
The tryout ended when two cars collided on the bridge above, sending a shower of broken glass down onto the field. We were fine with running and diving on it, but we drew the line at having it rain on us from above. After that we headed to the Blue & Gold Deli on First Avenue to sit on milk crates and drink Bud tall boys. If any televisions were being wheeled by, they had been stolen.
The point here is not that my experience was different from Ben’s (although it was). The point is that everybody’s experience is different from Ben’s, and that’s just how it should be.
I caught the rough draft, oral version of Ben’s article at UCPC 2013 in Newton, MA, and it made me uneasy. Now he has had the chance to sharpen his ideas and clarify his points in written form, and they have been published right here at Skyd. The comment boards and social media have been aflutter, and most of what I have seen is positive. I, on the other hand, am even more uneasy than I was before.
There is no doubt that Ben is an excellent writer, and many have already alluded to his eloquence. Clearly the preponderance of comments expressed so far and the ovation the oral version received at UCPC suggest widespread support in the ultimate community for Ben’s point of view. Given the subject matter and the audience, I shouldn’t be surprised to find so many people in agreement, but I am not one of them.
Like Ben, I was a varsity athlete in high school, but unlike Ben I had no problem with the culture of jocks at my school. At various times I played soccer, football, baseball, and I wrestled. The teams I played on played hard, our coaches preached sportsmanship and fair play, and the other teams didn’t suck. In fact, reading this portion of Ben’s article, seeing him use his unpleasant experiences to generalize all high school athletics, I was quite troubled. I recently attended a USAU Coaching Certification clinic led by Ben, and we talked openly about the coach’s responsibility to establish the culture of the program right away. From my read, the culture Ben’s coaches established wasn’t very appealing, but that sounds like an indictment of the coaches, not the players or their respective sports.
Dobyns flys high versus Big Brother in the '91 World Ultimate Club Championship. (Photo by Toby Green)
I came to ultimate not because I was trying to escape an oppressive culture of jocks and fake jocks imposing their egos (or feigning imposition of their egos) on their opponents. I came to ultimate because it was the coolest, fastest, most awesome game I had ever played. Even better, it was a game that seemed to have a place for everybody, including a short fat kid like me. It turned out that self-officiation and spirit of the game were part of the package, but they weren’t the draw; the game was the draw.
Ben holds a different viewpoint, stating that the game is only part of what makes ultimate great. The other part is the “ethos” which has grown around it, an ethos that he explains to some extent using the words of Howard Cosell.
I’m not sure that it minimizes Ben’s point in any way, but I feel compelled to point out that Cosell knew nothing about ultimate, nor did he care. A teammate of mine on KABOOM! was an overworked, underpaid assistant producer on his show, Sportsbeat, and that’s why the piece aired. Cosell never saw the game, didn’t write the copy, and probably didn’t even bother to watch the clip. What amazed him was that anyone who had the opportunity to work on his show would take weekends off and spend his own money to play a game with a Frisbee that nobody cared about. But my teammate’s father was a well-placed executive at ABC, and Cosell knew whose palm to grease.
Another viewpoint Ben holds that I can’t agree with can be found in his statement that he can draw a straight line from the vision of the game’s founders right up to his joy in discovering the game at Amherst. Any student of ultimate knows that the first version of the rules didn’t include any reference to spirit of the game although it did include a provision for referees. The spirit clause wasn’t inserted for another ten years. One could argue that a straight line drawn from the vision of the founders would actually land closer to the AUDL or MLU than it would the Amherst Regional High School cafeteria. And since ultimate was played for ten years before spirit of the game was codified, one has every right to question Ben’s suggestion that ultimate couldn’t function without it.
This brings me to my most fundamental misgiving with Ben’s article, pronoun abuse. When Ben writes in the first person singular, elucidating his passion and vision for the game, I read with delight, even when I don’t agree with him. Ben has a goal for our sport. It is the joy of competition. That’s a worthy goal, and, despite Ben’s insistence that ultimate is different from all other sports, it sounds like the kind of thing any athlete passionate about a particular sport might say. But several paragraphs later Ben drifts into the first person plural, cautioning that we cannot change our goals. When did he become we? When did his goal become my goal (or anybody else’s for that matter)? The fact that many people agree with him doesn’t justify Ben’s use of the first person plural. His goal is his goal, but it is not our goal, nor is it inherently better or worse than anybody else’s goal. Yet his article is rife with the implicit assumption of precisely that – his goal is our goal and is a better goal than that of the AUDL, MLU, and the people who participate in those organizations.
Many years ago, I responded to an rsd thread in which someone suggested that people who want observers or violate spirit should be banned from ultimate (or perhaps something along those lines but less extreme). Maybe somebody with more time can find the thread, but my basic point was that if the founders had never written the rules and published them they could deny participation to anyone they wanted for as long as they wanted. But once they wrote the rules, had them published and distributed them, they forfeited that right. Once they put the game out there, it belonged to everyone, including the observer-wanters and the spirit-violators. As I said at the time, I like to think the founders believed in inclusivity as opposed to exclusivity, but unlike Ben, I make no claim to be able to see their vision. Nonetheless, I am all for inclusivity, and I still believe that the best thing about ultimate is that it has a place for everybody.
That’s the problem with “we” talk. By definition, once you classify yourself and everybody who thinks the way you do as “we,” you make everybody else “them,” no matter what they think. Another discussion from the recent coaching certification class that Ben moderated focused on barriers to getting players hooked on ultimate, and participants noted that the sport is kind of cultish, and that can turn newcomers off. I would argue that it is precisely this kind of “we” attitude about our sport that is the lifeblood of ultimate’s cultish culture, and it is definitely a turn off, even to people who are already hooked on the sport. When “we” talk becomes a clarion call to collectively rise up in defense of “our” vision of the sport because “this is not us,” it’s worse than cultish. It’s ugly. I know Ben well enough to know that isn’t how he meant it, but that’s how it came across to me.
Ken Dobyns shakes hands with the Connecticut Constitution's John Korber at the inagural AUDL game. (Photo by David Sieling - PH Photography)
I respect Ben’s passionate commitment to the game he loves, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the very game he is so passionate about defending would appear to many players who came before him to be exactly the kind of conformist, sell-out version of ultimate that he decries the MLU and AUDL versions as being. Numbered jerseys with matching shorts, highly regimented warm-ups, official vetting of team names – all of these would have been anathema to the people who taught me to play, but here they are nonetheless. And despite the prognostications of ultimate doom that accompanied the advent of the Cuervo series and its two point line, the game survives to this day. And notwithstanding the dual threat of the unchecked rise of the oceans or a rogue, earth-bound asteroid, I expect ultimate will survive far longer than Ben or I will, regardless of who anybody chooses to like or not like on facebook.
As for my take on the professional leagues, here’s what I can tell you, Ben. I support innovation and experimentation, and though you have characterized these leagues as less than innovative given their poverty of imagination, I still consider them worthy experiments and I will support them. Of course, they will need more than that to survive, but I expect they already know that.
Finally, when it comes to my longstanding habit of speaking my mind without regard for the opinions of others, and how your friends’ Youtube interviews compare to my over-the-top on-screen moments, it’s an inherently unfair comparison. I say this not because their quasi-professional status forces them to spout inanities and clichés into the camera as a condition of their employment, but because they are, in all likelihood, simply not so clever as I am. Still, clever as I might be, I pale in comparison to my teammate and good friend Pat King who, when asked to describe the best thing about ultimate, stated simply, “that I play.” Ultimate will be in the Olympics and professional games will be being broadcast live long before anybody comes up with a better line that that one. That’s not their fault. That’s just the way it is.
Feature photo: “The Blocks That Saved America” after beating Sweden in a come-from-behind victory at Worlds 88 in Leuven Belguim. Feature photo courtesy of David Mathison by Dr. King.
Ken Dobyns pulls in a disc at the World Ultimate Club Championship final for New York versus Double Happiness. Madison, USA. 1993 (Photo by Toby Green)
I first came to love ultimate one Saturday evening in 1995, sitting in a cafeteria in Amherst, MA. My high school team had just competed in its first big tournament, and now we were sharing a meal with our opponents. As we ate lasagna, someone wheeled out a television and played videos of Kenny Dobyns talking about how ultimate was more important than girlfriends or God. We diagrammed plays on napkins. We gawked across the room at the twin brothers from Scarsdale – “the best high school players in the country,” someone whispered – whom we would face in semifinals the next morning. The room was buzzing with talk of cup zones and clams and i-o flicks. I was in the company of athletes from all around the country who had discovered the same amazing secret I had, and together we made up an underground universe.
Three months earlier, I had nearly given up on sports. The problem had not been a lack of talent or inclination. I loved releasing a jump shot and knowing it would go in as soon as it left my fingers; I loved cradling a lacrosse ball and sprinting painless through the bruising stick checks and body checks of a tight defense. What I did not love was participating in a culture of jocks. There was a whole caste of guys who couldn’t feel good unless they were putting someone down. What’s worse, they were surrounded by a sub-caste of fake jocks, who felt compelled to feign enthusiasm when the jocks talked shit about how much someone sucked. The other team, for example, always sucked. Basketball and lacrosse were hardly to blame for the narcissism of teenage boys, but they became conduits for it all the same. To compete was to impose your ego on someone else.
Opponents embrace post-game at the Youth Club Championships (Photo by Alex Fraser - UltiPhotos.com)
Ultimate was different. It aspired to a higher ideal of competition. That day in Amherst, we played because it was fun – and we played hard because we wanted respect, and we played fair because we wanted self-respect. When our opponents made huge plays, we thought it was awesome, because they inspired us to rise and meet their challenge. There was no coach telling us to think like this. There was merely the Spirit of the Game, and the fact that, if we didn’t use it, the game wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t be able to look our opponents in the eye later that night as we ate our lasagna. Ultimate was different: not because it emphasized sportsmanship – which is an ancient thing compared to our young sport – but because ultimate couldn’t function without it.
Lots of people are trying to change this nowadays. They might say they aren’t, but they are. They might not realize it, but they’re doing it all the same. They love ultimate so much that they want everyone else to know how great it is, so they’re trying to make it marketable. They want to put us in promotional videos and shop us to cable networks; they’re trying to gain fans and sell tickets; they’re trying to monetize our play.
I know where they’re coming from. I love playing in front of crowds. And of all the great plays I’ve made, only a couple have been captured on video, though I’m sure more than a few were good enough for SportsCenter. I’ve also spent thousands of dollars playing 11 club seasons. If someone offered to fill a stadium with fans to cheer me on, and put me on TV, and pay me for doing what I already love, I’d hardly complain. Promoting the sport: it’s a noble goal, and I support it.
But should it be our biggest goal? Should we change the game to achieve it?
Through the history of our sport, we’ve been guided by a north star first identified by a bunch of high school kids in 1968: the search for the ultimate competitive experience. I can draw a straight line from the vision those kids developed in a New Jersey parking lot, and trace it across three decades, to the joy I felt on the fields of Amherst; and I can extend that line through another decade and more, to the feeling I’ve had in Sarasota, making a diving catch past my rival, and then getting skied by him, and then seeing him at the Daiquiri Deck on Saturday night and giving him a hug – and really meaning it. (I am referring, of course, to Brian Stout: that guy can jump through the roof and give great hugs.)
Team USA takes on Team Canada at Potlatch '09 (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)
What we love about ultimate is only partly a function of the structure of the game and the way discs fly. Plenty of other sports can give you the visceral thrills of playmaking, effortless flow, and being in the zone. What makes ultimate different is the ethos that has grown around it. There’s a reason Howard Cosell famously called our sport “a refreshing reminder of what sport was meant to be and still, on rare occasions, can be.” That’s the part of the quote that is most often printed on t-shirts and discs, but what he said right before that should also be instructive: “The ultimate reward for their time? Nothing. Nothing, save the joy of competition.”
That’s my goal for our sport: joy of competition. And for anyone else who wants to push our sport to evolve, I would ask: what is your highest goal? Are you dedicated to helping promote the joy of competition? Or are you interested first in selling a product? An evangelist of the so-called professional leagues might tell you he aspires to both of these goals at the same time. But anyone who says this marks himself as a person rich in ambition but poor in either wisdom or honesty. As any good leader has learned, you can’t have two primary goals.
Great competition and marketability are complementary perhaps 80% of the time, but when push comes to shove, the “pro” leagues exist to make money. I’m not against for-profit businesses, but I am also not naïve about their priorities. Look at the compromises that the MLU and AUDL have already made: they have changed the field, to conform to the dimensions of football, and they have put referees on it, to conform to the expectations of prospective fans. The MLU has even taken Ultrastars out of their players’ hands and replaced them with Innovas, presumably because that was the highest bidder. The cart is hitched in front of the horse.
I expect the competition will still be joyful, at least for a while. My friends who played in the AUDL last season said the games were really fun, and even cited examples of times when players rejected incorrect referee calls that had gone in their favor. “See?” they said, “it’s still ultimate.” But they weren’t quite right. The sport they were playing was now a for-profit business, which was evident in how the season ended. Various franchises began to disagree about how the league might expand, and in a stroke of high irony, the organization that had done away with self-officiating imploded as the owners failed at dispute resolution. If everyone had been dedicated primarily to the pursuit of great competition, one could hardly imagine such an issue would threaten the life of a season. But, alas, business came first.
Not that this will happen again. The leagues are being run and promoted by talented people with good money behind them, and they’re sure to learn from past mistakes. Already this winter they’ve attracted a much larger crop of great players. “Pro” games will be exciting; they’ll look and feel quite a lot like ultimate; and I predict that at least one league will succeed at making some money and promoting its version of the sport. The MLU and AUDL have the real potential to achieve at least some of their goals – and that’s a problem, because they have set their course using a faulty compass.
At a recent conference for ultimate players in Boston, speaking on a panel discussing the future of ultimate, Brodie Smith clearly and forcefully advocated for the AUDL vision of ultimate. I respect him, and not just because one of his YouTube videos taught me how to add 10 yards to my forehand huck. Brodie knows what he stands for, and he has the passion to promote it. The sport is evolving, he argued, and if an elite group wants to professionalize then that should hardly stop everyone else from enjoying the game on their own terms. The NBA doesn’t use the same rules as a bunch of guys playing pickup basketball in the park; what’s the big deal if ultimate follows suit? Moreover, if we make ultimate more marketable, we’ll increase our fan base and attract prospective players. The sport grows. We all win. Brodie made some compelling points up in Boston, and my respect for him is matched only by the extent to which I believe he is wrong. I stood up and said so then, and I’m saying so now.
There will be a price to pay. What happens at the highest level of our sport has an enormous ripple effect throughout the world of ultimate. High school and college teams look to us – the best players and coaches in the game – and they learn new defenses, new footwork drills, new leadership techniques. They want to know what it takes and what it means to be a winner in ultimate, and we set the gold standard. If we come unhitched from our north star, our sport will change in subtle and pervasive ways. We’ll become accustomed to pulling at jerseys in the stack when the ref isn’t watching; more and more, we’ll play according to what we can get away with rather than what’s fair. We might not see it this year or next, but a decade from now, a high school team will gather for dinner after a tournament, and they’ll talk about how much the other team sucked, and how much the ref sucked for blowing those calls – and on the edges of that conversation, a 14-year-old kid will give up on sports.
You might call me alarmist, but my point is simply that we cannot change our goals without changing ourselves. You might also accuse me of romanticizing the status quo, but I believe we have something valuable to protect. Over the past decade, I’ve suited up alongside hundreds of athletes every October and together we’ve pushed the game a little closer to the ideal form of what it can be. That’s why I love Nationals so much. We’re all trying to beat the shit out of each other, but the competition makes us better, and the teams that make it to quarters and semis are forged into something they never could have become before we all went through that fire. When we raise our glasses at the end of the tournament, there’s a feeling of camaraderie, because together we’ve done something fucking awesome. We don’t need anyone else to agree. And when we model that kind of self-respect, it matters. I’ve coached the best youth players in the country, and I can tell you for a fact: they’re watching.
The Alleycats high five fans at the 2012 Championship final. (Photo by Lesa Nelson, Pics By Lesa)
The problem with the MLU and AUDL is not their ambition, it’s their poverty of imagination. Their first failure is to assume that the best way to define a league’s success is by the metrics of profit that drive the NBA and NFL. We could just as easily professionalize ultimate as a series of teams, incorporated as nonprofit organizations, that work collectively to form a league whose highest goal would be to showcase “the ultimate form of athletic competition.” (This is similar to what Kevin Minderhout envisioned with his proposed NexGen league; I can also imagine the USAU’s Triple Crown Tour evolving in this direction.) Such an organization would still have to worry about revenues, sponsors, corporate partners, and other economic pressures that might be in tension with the purity of sport; but this league would not be required, as a matter of fiduciary duty to investors, to prioritize the business above the game. We would be less likely to compromise our competitive ideals.
We would also protect ourselves from the blinkered vision of a few people with access to money. Decision-making in the MLU and AUDL rests with the owners, who evidently assume that to market ultimate, we have to make it more like other sports. But as Ben Wiggins has eloquently argued, the player-controlled nature of the game is a unique feature that could conceivably distinguish ultimate from the NBA and NFL – leagues which (let’s face it) feature a caliber of athlete that ultimate has not yet produced. If we’re just trying to be another “big play” sport, then we’re going to have a hard time competing with LeBron and RGIII for airtime. So what makes us unique? Is there a demand for professional athletes who value pure competition above profit? Can we market the Spirit of the Game? I think so. We sure shouldn’t give up without trying.
Instead, however, the MLU and AUDL have embarked on a social media-driven marketing campaign that, at its worst, amounts to a glossy enactment of a group inferiority complex. In clip after clip on YouTube, I watch an interviewer ask what it means to be a professional athlete, and my friends give canned answers without once acknowledging that they aren’t being paid enough to qualify as one. The unspoken reality is that neither the MLU nor the AUDL is actually a professional league; the players are being lightly subsidized by investor capital. It would be more accurate to call it “subsidized elite ultimate,” or perhaps “sub-elite ultimate” for short. I don’t blame my friends for pretending otherwise: if you put a camera in my face, I’d also let the interviewer lead me to the expected response. But I cringe all the same. I know and respect these guys, and they have good intentions, but they aren’t being themselves. This isn’t us.
“This isn’t us” is a sentiment that many of us have been feeling these days, but too few have been saying it aloud. We see gauzy soft-focus videos from a pro team combine posted on Facebook, and we see that our friends are really excited about their new team, so we click “like” and tell them congratulations on your contract. Nobody likes a wet blanket. We get invited to tryouts, and we feel a little weird about this whole pro ultimate thing, but we say “why not?” And hey – it turns out that this feels a lot like ultimate, so how bad can it be? From such pure motives, I might sign a contract myself, without even pausing to ask what I’m signing up for, or what I’m signing away. Collectively we shrug and say, “I guess that’s just the direction ultimate is heading.”
Seattle Sockeye's Danny Karlinsky bids in thrift shop garb at Lei Out.
It doesn’t have to be. In their infancy, the MLU and AUDL can only survive on the enthusiasm of their participants and their fans, all of whom come from the world of ultimate. Collectively, we have control. And all of us have the power to say, “This isn’t us.” We don’t need to risk our friendships to say it, if we speak with respect. I love my New York teammates who are signing contracts with the Rumble and the Empire – I love them so much that I am willing to tell them I think they’re making a mistake. They are joining organizations that treat as secondary the ideals of competition that have formed the foundation of our shared experiences. This is why, when I’ve been asked to join some of the pro teams, I’ve declined. This is why, if I’m invited to support these leagues with my attendance, I’ll decline. We can all respectfully decline.
Some of my friends disagree with me. Like Brodie, they simply want to take ultimate in a different direction – and if their eyes are clear and they believe passionately in what they’re doing, then I respect them. But as their friend, I will also tell them with even greater passion that I believe we can do better. When we are at our best, we don’t give a shit that most people don’t understand what we train for. Winning Nationals doesn’t mean something because there’s a crowd watching or an endorsement deal on the line; it means something because we, and our opponents, make it mean something. We know that if ultimate is obscure, then this is less a knock on our sport than a sign that the world is not sufficiently advanced. We have the balls to be ourselves.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should be content to labor in obscurity – I’m arguing that we should expand the scope of our imagination and ambition. What if, instead of changing ultimate in order to sell it to the world, we use our sport to change the way the world thinks about competition?
Photo by Andrew Davis
Imagine a future in which ultimate stadiums are filled to capacity because – as James Earl Jones argued in “Field of Dreams” – people are hungry for an experience of sport that reminds us of all that was once good, and that could be again. Yes, people will come: they’ll come because they themselves have played and loved the game. They have raced for a floating disc, and then sat in high school cafeterias with their friends and opponents – and they know their heroes competing there under the lights will be breaking bread together tonight, right after they finish trying to beat each other. On this future day, the players in those stadiums will owe their professional status not to the MLU and AUDL pioneers who once chased ersatz glory, but to the coaches and organizers working right now to create a larger universe of life-long players and fans. This is a goal worthy of our efforts. Anything less just isn’t ultimate.
I’ve been dosing on AUDL and MLU coverage lately. I’ve got all the twitter accounts subscribed, Facebook pages liked, and YouTube videos filling my subscriptions feed; watching, thinking and analyzing as the biggest names in ultimate fill coaching, playing, and administration roles with the professional franchises.
While sifting through this overload of ultimate media a couple days ago, this summary video from a recent Spinners tryout caught my eye:
At first, it was hard to put my finger on what bothered me about the video. I tried summing all the elements together. An polo embroidered with a Philly Spinners logo and a simple first name: “Billy”. Coach Maroon opening the tryout with a curt, inspirational speech that could have come right out of a training camp scene in Remember the Titans. Followed up by a unison call and response: “Did you hear me?” “Yes, coach”. Then it came to me. This is not ultimate like we’ve seen it before. This is boot camp.
OK, so maybe it isn’t fair to use the Spinners as an example, given that the Spinners are a unique team as far as ultimate goes. Jeff Snader, the head coach of the Philadelphia Spinners during their AUDL championship run last year, is an ex-marine. Snader is well-known throughout the ultimate community for his disciplined, no-BS style of coaching, which he borrows directly from his days in the Marine Corps. During his tenure as coach of Southpaw, it was not unusual to see his players running sprints or doing core workouts after tournaments – even Regionals.
MLU's promotional photos show a newer, more serious image of ultimate
A year has passed, and Snader is now commissioner of Major League Ultimate, bringing with him the winning philosophy that made the Philadelphia Spinners the most successful AUDL team last season, and leaving current Spinners coach Billy Maroon to carry on his legacy. The content that MLU has produced with Snader at the helm has been impressive: a professional website, a calculated marketing effort, and an innovative Sponsorship Introduction Program. The AUDL has followed suit, updating their website, releasing YouTube videos, and doing everything fans would expect from a professional sports league.
Not in the least do I want to insinuate that any of this is bad. After all, is it not I who constantly complains to my friends every time someone makes a joke about a dog chasing a frisbee on the beach, who endures the chiding remarks of coworkers as I limp around the office Monday morning after a tournament, and who constantly thinks about how nice it would be if the general public to start taking the sport seriously? With the advent of the professional leagues, legitimacy, or at the very least acceptance, beckons.
But something is still missing.
I’d like to hear what the old guard thinks about all of this. What about Joel Silver, who promoted ultimate at Columbia High School in the late 1960s with a distinct counter-cultural flair, referring to it as the “anti-sport”? Or the game’s first stars: Dan “Stork” Roddick and Irv Kalb, who saw the opportunity for ultimate as a more serious sport, but with it’s own alternative touches? Over the course of the years, the most competitive teams progressed towards mainstream sports acceptance. Their hair got shorter. They started hitting the gym. They stopped the land sharks and boat races after games — well, important games, at least. Even back in 2001, the old Condors were perplexed by some of their modern compatriots’ commitment to the seriousness of the sport, exclaiming “that never would have happened in our day.” Yet over the last decade, the momentum has increased. Sport-specific training. No more Saturday night parties. Gloves and american football cleats.
Rhino's Timmy Perston - Fear the Beanie
But even though the focus on competitiveness has increased, we have not yet lost our mojo. I love that Sockeye took fishing gear to the 2012 Club Championships and sang the Blues Clues theme song whenever they broke a zone, and that captain Tyler Kinley frequently takes to twitter to shoot witty barbs at teammates, opponents, media, and administration alike. I love that the most dominant and athletic player in ultimate, a 6’4″ deep threat out of the Bay Area, writes children’s books and keeps a blog where he publishes his imaginary conversations with dinosaurs. I love that players dominate games while wearing ridiculous gear like patterned arm sleeves, garish ski hats and bright orange beanies. I love that the one of the most competitive college women’s tournaments in the United States has a built-in dance competition.
Ultimate is different. Or at least that’s what I’ve been espousing to friends, family and everyone else who would listen during my entire playing career. We’re alternative. Intellectual. We have our own style of humor and self-expression.
So with that in mind, I’m not sure what to think about Peter Prial standing in front of a camera at the Boston Whitecaps tryout and being asked a list of vanilla sports interview questions when just a few years earlier, he was captaining the Middlebury Pranksters, a team that eschews uniforms in favor of individual flair. This all seems like one giant race towards professionalism. A squeaky-clean appeal to put fans in the seats. But what about a nod to the sport’s roots? What about the unique culture that drew so many to ultimate instead of a mainstream sport? In an attempt to appeal to shareholders and sponsors, we seem to be afraid of showcasing the alternative values that made ultimate special in the first place.
When the AUDL and MLU seasons roll around, I’m excited for a high-level product, exciting plays, unprecedented coverage, and a chance for ultimate to finally get the respect it deserves. But to the administrators, coaches, referees, and players involved in this opportunity to promote the sport more than ever before, I have one simple plea: don’t forget about our mojo.
Feature photo: Sockeye’s Danny Karlinsky (#23) ensnares teammate Reid Koss (#11) with a fish net at the 2012 Club Championships. (Christina Schmidt – UltiPhotos.com)