The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The State of Ultimate Frisbee's Nature
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Photo by Lasse G, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't play football or basketball. My sport was Ultimate Frisbee. The team I formed with my friends practiced every Friday. The July before sophomore year, we drove the seven hours from Los Angeles to San Francisco for our first tournament. On the event's first day, we didn't win a game and only scored a handful of points. We kept our chins up though, and eventually something strange started happening: We developed a following. We must have been a decade younger, on average, than the next youngest team, and we played with a youthful purity that at times bordered on ignorance (we were getting killed), but everyone there wanted us to succeed. Experienced players from other teams took us aside to talk tactics and strategy, things we had wholly left out of our Friday practices. On the afternoon of day two we played a Canadian team. The game would establish which team was the worst in the tournament. There was a buzz about the game beforehand, a tournament-wide sense of anticipation. Somehow the last game in the fourth division had become the tournament's main draw. When the game began our fans were packed in on the sidelines, two or three deep. When we won, everyone there, Canadians included, charged the field to celebrate. Dog pile. Jubilation. Bliss.

The tournament officials later gave us the Spirit Award for exemplifying something Ultimate players call “Spirit of the Game.” It wasn't just a sportsmanship award. It was an award for playing the game as it should be played, like it was designed to be played: with joy. In fact, a culture of inclusiveness and acceptance, and a commitment to joy, are so important to Ultimate that “Spirit of the Game” is the first rule in the book. Literally.

Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or other “win-at-all-costs” behavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players [emphasis theirs].

It's a nebulous rule to say the least, and everyone has their own interpretation. Mine goes like this: Spirit means don't be a dick. In fact, the seriousness with which Ultimate players approach the matter of not being a dick is one of the sport's main draws. Sportsmanship is so important that in competitive Ultimate there are no referees; players call their own fouls. Even at high-level tournaments, like last October's Club National Championships in Sarasota, Florida, there were no refs. At the World Games? No refs.

But should there be?

From the sport's beginning in the late 1960s, Ultimate has struggled to be taken seriously. Ultimate can't seem to shake the perception (fair or not) that it's a game people ought to play in Birkenstocks rather than cleats. In reality, Ultimate is one of the fastest growing competitive sports in the United States.[1] As it grows in popularity, its perceived legitimacy grows too. Adding refs would ostensibly make the on-field “product” more uniform, among other things, leading to more perceived legitimacy and, in this feedback loop, further growth. The problem is that refs (along with coaches, to a certain degree) would remove “the responsibility for fair play” from the player, undercutting the importance of Spirit. In other words, the sport's continued march toward seriousness would undermine its defining principles.


Ultimate's Ref Question is not about fairness. In Ultimate, foul calling tends to be pretty fair, arguably fairer than in refereed sports. The problem is how long it takes for Ultimate players to come to those equitable solutions once a foul is called.

It takes a long time.

Sorting out fouls is not supposed to bring the game to a halt. USA Ultimate devised the rules so as to have a logical progression, and those rules aren't complex. In my experience as a player, the rules themselves don't usually lead to serious on-field disputes, so long as they can be agreed upon. But agreeing is the hard part. People bicker. Sometimes the game resembles a weird little two-party democracy, where everybody has a point to make and a stake in the outcome. Imagine you call a foul while making a catch. The offending party disagrees but eventually relents after you make your case. A minute has passed. You're about to put the disk back in play when a teammate of the offending party says you're in the wrong location, that the disk should go back to the spot of the initial throw rather than the spot of the foul. You disagree and so do the rest of your teammates. Shouting ensues. In the army, they call this sort of thing a Charley Foxtrot.

Players' ability to fairly call their own fouls depends on their knowing the rules, and that's the problem: People play the game without knowing all the rules. This problem is not unique to Ultimate. You can play most sports without knowing all the rules. The difference is, if you fancy a more competitive setting in, say, football, you can rely on the ref to know the rules and you can, especially at first, get by knowing only those necessary to play your position (just ask Donovan McNabb.) If you decide to play competitive Ultimate, on the other hand, you're at a disadvantage if you can't cite chapter and verse from USA Ultimate's Good Book. Further, you don't just have to know what the different infractions are. If you want to avoid confusion, you ought to know the penalties for each infraction too. And that goes for everyone on the field.[2]

These unregulated play-stoppages don't make for good spectating, and whether or not the sport should cater to spectators is the real line in the sand within the larger Ultimate community. Some player's feel Ultimate has to become a spectator sport in order to achieve its potential.

Josh Seamon, a former USA Ultimate board member, helped paint a picture of what Ultimate's potential is and what the game might look like fifty years from now. It included continued growth of coaching and youth development, sanctioned high school teams and seasons, an NCAA-sanctioned college competition, Ultimate at the Olympics, and, you guessed it, professionalization. “At those levels,” said Seamon, “I can absolutely see active calls being made [by referees].” Whether or not Ultimate achieves its ambitions depends largely on its ability to attract spectators and monetize. I'd argue that none of it can happen without referees.

Cara Crouch, an elite Ultimate player, told me she was undecided on the ref issue, but nevertheless made a good case against the incorporation of officials. In college, Crouch won the Callahan Award, Ultimate's version of the Heisman, and went on to represent Team USA at the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. She sees Ultimate's foul stoppages as not only unique to the game but something that leads to more equitability and civility when compared to other sports. Players are less likely to make unfair calls when they know the other team can do the same, and having to talk out infractions means people have to remain civil. This is especially important when it comes to youth Ultimate, which Crouch is involved in as a middle school coach. “I was taught how to cheat [in soccer] when I was younger--middle school aged. And these kids are learning the exact opposite. They're learning how to play competitively and how to want to win but [at the same time] how to respect your opponent and yourself. To me that's an incredible life lesson.”

The Ref issue, then, really comes down to progressives versus conservatives, growth and innovation versus holding fast to the principals that have made the sport unique and successful so far. Given the sport's relative newness, Ultimate has an historical advantage when compared to other sports that adopted referees long ago without any real appreciation for how refs might change a game. Ultimate has no shortage of examples from which to create an officiating structure that fits the sport. Seamon stressed that organizers at USA Ultimate were well aware of this historical advantage and open to exploring all possibilities when it comes to refereeing and other possible rule changes. “USA Ultimate does a very good job of creating structures for experimenting with the rules,” Seamon told me. “If you want to go sanction an event, which means getting liability insurance through USA Ultimate, one of the questions is 'are you going to use off-standard rules?' And if you do you just have to tell USA Ultimate, you know, 'How did it go?'”

It's refreshing that USA Ultimate regularly sets out Petri dishes to see what might grow, but under closer examination it looks like this sort of community experimentation is all for show, that a decision regarding refs has already been made. Ultimate's various governing bodies (i.e. USA Ultimate, the World Flying Disc Federation, etc.) are already tiptoeing toward game officials. A few years ago, high-level competitions began featuring sideline observers, much like those seen in the early days of soccer.[3] These observers leave foul calling to the players, instead focusing on out-of-bounds and end-zone disputes (e.g. did the disc cross the line or not?), but how long before a third ref joins them in the middle, whistle between lips? How long before the players give up their right to call fouls?

If professionalization really is the goal, Ultimate's future hinges on it becoming a faster sport, which would lead to more spectators, lucrative sponsorships and further growth. The potential is there: Ultimate is a dynamic game, full of diving catches, pinpoint passes, and physical contact. But exploiting that potential can't happen without referees.


My own opinion is colored by nostalgia, but when I think back on my youth and those summer days in Golden Gate Park, I don't wonder what it would have been like had a guy in black and white stripes been running around the field with us, blowing his whistle, or how that might have colored the opinion of the soccer players standing on adjacent fields, watching us with furrowed brows. What I think about is being thirteen and feeling for the first time that I belonged to something and that my opinion, of what was and wasn't a foul and how the game should or should not be played, mattered.

Ultimate is called Ultimate for pretty predictable reasons. Way back in the late '60s, a guy named Joel Silver remarked, after one of the first-ever games, that he'd just participated in the “ultimate game experience.” Maybe he used “game” because he never thought it could become a sport, because that wasn't the point. Ultimate's merits as a game are difficult to argue against. If it keeps chasing legitimacy and mainstream acceptance, we might just have to change its name.

[1] Youth development and an expanding collegiate competition were the backbone of a period of growth from 1999 to 2009 that saw a 280 percent increase in registered USA Ultimate players in the United States, topping out at 31,588 in 2009, the last year for which figures are available. By comparison, there are upwards of 13,000 high school football teams in the United States, and if you assume a roster size of 50 that’s 650,000 kids.

[2] Obviously, this is a lot of responsibility on each player. It can make for an intimidating environment for newcomers, and it opens the door for more experienced players to take advantage of the uninitiated. This, however, would be contrary to Spirit, and doesn’t happen all that often. A typical Ultimate community is so small that more experienced players tend to see disputed calls as opportunities as a chance to grow the sport and make a new convert, not to gain a competitive edge. But even at high-level Ultimate competitions like the National Championships, games can stop for several minutes while players sort out disagreements.

[3] According to The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt’s incredible (and incredibly long) history of soccer, it took 50 years (from 1848–1898) for the rules to include a refereeing setup that resembled the three-man teams seen on the soccer pitches today. There were no refs at all until 1872, when games began to feature two linesmen but no central official. A couple of years later, a third official began trotting around in the center of the pitch, observing. It wasn’t until 1898 that team captains surrendered their right to call fouls to the central referee.

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Pro matches probably require refs, but if the issue is simply the speed of the game, they could still act primarily as arbitrators. If the goal is accuracy/fairness, you're only going to get it with extremely well-trained refs--and, as with other sports, instant replay.

If the issue is legitimacy, I'm not sure there's even an issue. Many sports are played without refs at all but the very highest levels, and in most cases where there are refs at lower levels, they are viewed as a necessary evil. Mediocre refs are far, far worse than no refs in just about every sport (from a spectator point of view as well).

If the goal is spectatorship, I don't think there's any question that Ultimate can succeed as a spectator sport. I mean, handball is popular in many parts of the world. It's success or failure at a pro level probably has little to do with the question of refs.

I could see Ultimate Frisbee being very watchable when played at a high level.

The self-reffing thing is interesting. I wonder if it could be maintained but sped up by having not an on field referee making calls but something like an official rule keeper.
This person does not call the violations, which would be left to the players, but just confirms the rules when there is a dispute about the correct 'punishment' or spotting as a result of the agreed upon violation. Like a dictionary in a scrabble game...

Really interesting stuff on the link between the "sprit" of the game and the structure. In limited attempts to try to pick up the game in high school, it often felt frustrating that the rulings were not coming from a gym teacher or coach, but simply the kid who had been playing the longest. I had zero clue that this was the case even at the highest levels, thinking it was a question of resources or interest.

In terms of the view of the sports as a "game," I almost always found this to be the case for a first-time viewer. My high school's team exclusively held their practices unofficially in a variety of locations, including midnights in parking lots. I believe the team was very loosely sanctioned and operated more like a club team. As a high school student, I think it's pretty easy to see the missing checkmarks next to some of these signifiers of a team sport and toss Ultimate onto the non-sport pile.

With regards to my personal experiences, I guess the kicker is that I went to Columbia High School in New Jersey where the game was invented. Would the challenges in the sport gaining participant/spectator traction be greater or easy somewhere that it is less entrenched? Between the issues of officiating and perception of the sport, is officiating maybe the easier one to remedy initially?