Ultimate Frisbee battles for ‘soul of the sport’

From the time Frank Menendez was introduced to ultimate Frisbee in the parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert in the 1980s, the sport has made a steady ascent up the collective sporting consciousness.

In 2014, the U.S. Olympic Committee recognized it as an official sport, paving the way for possible entry in the games as early as 2024. Participation has risen to around 5 million people in the U.S., including two professional leagues, and CBS and ESPN broadcast tournaments.

As a club sport in Illinois high schools, it has garnered enough participation for a state championship. And, in September, the Elite National Championships will be in Rockford.

But as the once fringe activity has evolved into a mainstream sport, it is wrestling with a central tenet of its being. Ultimate has no referees, and some people are trying to change that. It’s a nuanced version of counterculture vs. corporate culture.

“It’s literally a battle for the soul of the sport,” said Menendez recently while taking a break from a Grand Masters tournament in Joliet, Ill. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

For the ultimate uninitiated, think of the sport as a blend of football without contact and soccer without a ball. Add basketball’s restriction on steps and place the activity on a field that is 70 yards long and 40 yards wide.

The object is to advance the disc to the end zone by flicking it to teammates, who must stop “as quickly as possible” after catching it and establish a pivot foot while guarded by opposing players trying to intercept those passes. When an offensive player catches the disc in the end zone, that team records a goal. Typically, the first team to 15 goals wins.

Nearly ubiquitous on college quads, the game is an active, noncontact activity that has genuine appeal as a mixed-gender team sport, supporters say.

At its core is “Spirit of the Game,” a concept that essentially requires two opposing players involved in a possible violation called by one of them to reach consensus by talking. If they are unable to agree on the proper call, the game reverts back one step and teams reset.

Spirit of the Game has been perhaps the sport’s highest priority and distinctive trait since about 1970, when three buddies at a New Jersey high school formally created the game.

“That is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Tom Crawford, CEO of USA Ultimate, the sport’s governing body. Crawford, who, among other sports-related jobs, served as director of coaching and educational programs at the U.S. Olympic Committee for nearly a decade, joined USA Ultimate in 2009, largely because of Spirit of the Game’s appeal.

He said it teaches players integrity. Others say it instills lessons of assertiveness and respectful debate.

“It’s one of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the sport,” said Jen Wu, of Chicago, director of the Joliet tournament and coordinator of high school leagues in the area. She said she particularly valued the lessons the sport teaches young people.

“Because there are no referees,” she said, players are “forced to handle conflict that they otherwise wouldn’t have to do in any other sport. It’s very cool to see that maturity.”

But the two professional leagues — American Ultimate Disc League and Major League Ultimate — use referees to make the game more appealing to spectators, especially those sitting in front of TVs.

“We started with the idea that we needed a game manager,” said Tim DeByl, American Ultimate’s marketing manager and an ultimate player. “We just feel that we can’t leave that part of it to the players. You have to keep the game moving.”

Apart from slowing down the game, using players to police ultimate can place too much pressure on them to compete at a high level while they monitor rules of the game, said DeByl and Nic Darling, founder of Major League Ultimate.

“It was just our feeling that when you start to package a sport as an entertainment product,” Darling said, “that officials provide a stability to the game and provide a way to communicate the game to fans and broadcasters.”

Officials also bring “consistency, city to city, game to game,” Darling added.

Both also said Spirit of the Game is so baked into ultimate players that they participate with a high level of integrity with or without officials. In addition, Major League Ultimate gives an annual Spirit Award, voted by players, to one player in each of the league’s two conferences. And American Ultimate Disc League has the “integrity rule,” which allows a player who receives a favorable call from a referee to overturn the official’s decision if the player thinks it was an incorrect call.

USA Ultimate’s CEO Crawford, who remains a purist, said the professional leagues “have completely blown it.”

For its televised, higher-level games, USA Ultimate uses “observers,” who serve as mediators when two players are unable to reach consensus. Unlike referees, observers generally do not make active calls, but only become involved when a player requests an observer’s decision. Professional league representatives said observers still slow the game.

But USA Ultimate broadcasts feature a twist on the observer format: Observers wear microphones that pick up the discussion on a call. That component increases the drama for viewers and holds players to a higher level of integrity, Crawford said.

At the Joliet tournament, Josh Cooper took a break from his play with Pacemaker, a Chicago-area ultimate team, to advocate for the use of game officials. Cooper, 38, of Glencoe, Ill., has been playing since 1992 and serves as an observer and director of officials for the American Ultimate Disc League.

“I really love self-officiating, and I think it works,” Cooper said. But “when the competition gets high, when you introduce a few bad apples, it can break down. And, if there’s nobody there to bring it back, it can get pretty ugly.”

Under a canopy tent a few feet away, Menendez was resigned. In time, he said, referees probably will become the norm in ultimate.

“I’ve taken the position that change is inevitable,” Menendez said. “You either adapt or die.”

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