“Anyone would have made that play”, I overheard while I carried June off the field. It is still unclear whose lips uttered the poor tasting statement. I wonder if the motivating factor was guilt, a half-hearted attempt to rationalize the situation, or a cheeky comment from an egotistical half-wit, totally convinced of his own superiority. Either way, I found myself wondering if we could learn anything from this.
Chowdafest was our last tournament before sectionals, and it started like any other tournament for me and June. We drove into town Friday night and set up the Eurovan in a beaten-down hotel parking lot. Two other couples from the team had chosen the low budget lodging. While June and I retired to the Eurovan, we relished in the bliss of our own bedding while our counterparts crawled, fully clothed, into funky, dog hair covered beds.The sounds and smells of I-95 were blissful compared to the musty, dank rooms of the motel.
The next morning, in our second game of the tournament, we found ourselves in an unexpected battle with the fifth seed in our pool. Our O-line got broken and our D-line was having trouble converting breaks. It seemed like the game was starting to run away from us, and our opponents were pretty fired up when they took half 8-7.
All in all, they went on a short run and were up three breaks midway through the second half when we managed to start our own run. That’s when things started to go sideways. While the game never really found its way to that place where foul calls outnumber the players on the field, there were a few silly calls and certainly some additional bumping that wasn’t present in the first half. This is when I get nervous playing mixed ultimate.
Don’t get me wrong, I love playing physically. Some would say I play too physically. In my opinion, contact in ultimate is not as black and white a subject as most emphatically preach. Certainly at pick-up, most league, and even the lower club level games a firm adherence to “no contact” is not only achievable, it’s advised. However, once players begin playing competitive club, they learn that contact in ultimate is more a part of the game than the rules lead us to believe.
The first open division practice I attended three years ago was when I was introduced to “bumping.” I was flabbergasted by the fact that every time I tried to cut, my defender would step in front of me. It felt like every time I moved I was met with a body up against me, pushing me someplace I didn’t want to go. I was even more amazed when, at the end of practice, we ran “the gauntlet”. In a nutshell, “the gauntlet” was a drill where two lines of players made a 10 foot wide corridor about 40 feet long with a cutter and defender placed at one end. The cutter was instructed to use any means necessary to get to the other end of the corridor while the defender’s goal was to stop him using his body. The drill was meant to familiarize all us rookies with using our bodies to dictate where our matchup could cut.
Being five foot six inches tall, I have spent life overcoming my stature in sports with scrappy and aggressive play. Long story short, bumping does not make me nervous. What does, however, put me on edge is when physicality increases between a few guys who are playing on the same field as a bunch of ladies. I’m not saying women are weak or fragile, quite the contrary: most of the women I know are a hell of a lot tougher than the guys I know (but most of my guy friends are cyclists and I am especially fond of women that could beat me up).
What I am saying is the heaviest player on our team is about 195 pounds and the lightest is around 110 pounds. Whose responsibility is it that these two individuals don’t wind up occupying the same space at the same time? I think most would agree that it has to be both, and generally people are respectful of each other and make good judgment calls before making a play. However, what happens when two mixed teams find themselves battling and a few players start pushing the envelope and stop paying attention to their actions?
Back to my story. The score is 12-11 bad guys. Our D-line is on and I give a little pep talk to June. Anyone who knows me will believe me when I say, it went something like this. “If you don’t get your ass in gear and your head in this game I’m going to bench you so goddamn hard you’ll be eating Kim Chi for lunch!” Now it’s important to note three things here. 1) Although I normally make some not-so-mildly racist jabs at my Korean-American girlfriend, I wasn’t at the time because she actually had Kim Chi for lunch. 2) I have absolutely no authority to bench anyone on the team and 3), if anyone was going to be benched it would be the turnover machine writing this article, not a woman who consistently beats her match up, shreds zones and can throw a flick bomb further than most guys. Either way, she needed a pep-talk, so I delivered as best I could.
Our pull stayed in bounds and we set out playing a solid fundamental man defense. We managed to produce a turn near our brick and jumped on a fast break. June slid into a power position and launched a flick to our deep strike who grabbed it about five feet from the end zone. The defense of the bad guys quickly clamped down and we filtered into an end zone stack. After one or two swings I found myself with the disc on the open side, about 10 feet from the tying break. I looked up and saw a motionless stack of cutters, gasping for air, in our typical cloud formation. Checking for a dump out of the corner of my eye, I noticed June putting on the burners, losing her match up and making a handler cut for the score.
I looked up the line and saw it was clear. Unfortunately, near the top of my list of bad habits is “telegraphing throws,” as I leaned out and prepared to toss a buttery flick into the front corner of the end zone. The bad guy’s “rock-star ace up his sleeve dude” who had been making big plays all game, picked up on the play, poached and sprinted to cover the throw. It didn’t matter though. June was between him and the disc and her match up was three steps back. I let it go and aimed for the center of her chest to avoid leading her into too much space. For once in my life I nailed the throw, and, like always she caught it, but this time it was different. “Rock-star ace up his sleeve dude,” now forever to be known as “that guy who tore June’s MCL,” haphazardly hurled himself into a full throttle horizontal layout straight at June. He crashed into her left side and the two slammed to the ground as both team’s sidelines let out an audible “whoa!”
June, a lifelong athlete, and professionally a physical therapist, quickly got up, despite me telling her not to, and spiked the disc in a fit of rage. She hobbled a few steps before buckling to the ground. Repeatedly shouting what she considers to be profanity, “Fudger, Fudger, Fudger, Fudger!” She knew what had happened and what the next 4-6 weeks were going to be like for her. Crutches, limping, rehab and more importantly, no Fall Series. I picked her up and carried her off the field and she whispered in my ear as I piggy-backed her away, “What an ass-clown.”
Almost a week passed before I was able to think about this with any clarity. I slowly got more and more worked up about the carelessness of this guy. I relive the moment over and over in my head. Was it my fault? Should I have not put her in that position? If I went back in time, would I rage out and body slam the guy into the thorny bushes next to the end zone? I’ll probably do what most men do and bottle it up inside till a similar event happens, which will trigger the same feelings inside me and I’ll rage out on the next “ass-clown”.
Turns out I was wrong, as it’s four months later and I’m sitting with my foot up, icing it after an encounter with my own personal “ass clown”. This time at a game of pick up in Charlotte. It was a Saturday and we were playing with a pretty recreational level group June and I often join to get a run in. It’s a good time, but let’s just say the incomplete hammers out numbered the dumps and swings combined.
What happened was a near carbon copy of the aforementioned situation with June. A “sugar coated rock star” from a mid level NC Open team was out there tearing up the field and being Mr. Big Shot amongst a group of middle aged weekend disc warriors. I normally try to stay away from such dunces, but he chose me to cover and as I made an under cut, I reached out to catch the disc and simultaneously felt a body against the back of my left leg. He folded my leg and I felt my ankle crumple and snap. He had laid out straight through me, all because he felt the need to prove to a bunch of people he had never met and himself that he was the best player out there. I jumped up and declined his offer for help off the field and hobbled toward the sideline. June came up to me and offered her shoulder for support. She had seen the whole thing and, with a half smile and half frown, whispered in my ear “ass-clown, huh?”.
I don’t mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not all games become reckless, not all games have a reckless player in them. But, there are a number of guys, and occasionally ladies too, who play ultimate with a chip on their shoulder or just seem to have general lack of body control.
I dare to speculate that there are three general issues. The first is as more athletic individuals start playing ultimate the game becomes faster paced and big plays become more prevalent. Some players see a big play and think “I have to try harder, and do better” which can lead to reckless play. Another is that for some players, a recreational pick up game is their only opportunity to play and they go all out. They play so hard that they physically cannot control their body. The last, is that some people just lack empathy and sympathy. They wholeheartedly have no clue they are being dangerous. When someone gets injured they feel bad but chalk it up to “it happens”.
In the interest of self preservation and overall progress, I ask: how do we as players move forward? The options are not clear to me. I’ve had a few in-depth conversations with other players about this and it seems that this subject is quite a can of worms, but ultimately one that needs to be opened.
The question I’m struggling with is, is it my responsibility to focus more on staying away from the people that are reckless? Because if it is, that’s not a lot of fun. Likewise, I cannot expect everyone to play within themselves. Mainly because most of the players in question lack the personal perspective to understand that they are part of the problem. Hell, they don’t even know there is a problem, let alone that they are contributing to it.
I would also suggest that the governing bodies of our sport take a look at what is an acceptable play and a dangerous one. Look at the NFL, how have the rules changed not only for what is a dangerous play but the penalty for such plays. Should observers be encouraged to eject reckless players? Should we start by changing at the highest level, or college, or as individuals? I would argue all of the above.
I would also argue that, above and beyond spirit of the game, we all have to follow a few additional rules of thumb:
1) Play within yourself.
2) Adjust your play to the level of the the players around you. Good players do not play at the top of their game all the time. Instead, they aim to elevate those around them by playing at or slightly above the level of the group.
3) When you see someone playing recklessly, say something to them. Don’t let someone get away with being oblivious to themselves. Recruit the local loudmouth to approach the individual if you don’t feel confident doing it yourself.
My theories may be total hogwash, but it still doesn’t change the fact that as players we need to remember one very important thing. By lining up on a field and raising our hand in the air we are entering into an agreement with the other 13 people on the field, an agreement bonded by mutual respect, ethics, the rules of Ultimate and our love for this amazing sport. We have to honor this agreement, even if it means losing the game or losing face. Because without these other 13 people we do not even get to play the game, we are just a dork on a lawn with a disc.
In the end, I say to anyone who has been involved with an incident that has injured someone, regardless of fault, you are obligated by your own integrity to reflect on your actions. Ask others around you for perspective, see what others think about the situation and adjust your mindset and actions accordingly.