A TV commercial I’ve seen too many times says that sports are more than a game. That was certainly true for the soccer World Cup just played in Russia. Enormous crowds at home in every country watched each game as if national survival depended on victory. Hundreds of thousands of French people crowded the streets of Paris when their team won. It’s hard not to connect national pride with athletic triumph. If the US had a team in Russia, I would have rooted from them over everyone else.
The physical skills of individual players and the intuitive coordination of team play were spectacular to watch. But I was disappointed in an important aspect of these matches. Fighting for control of the ball always involved pushing, grabbing arms and pulling on jerseys, all strictly forbidden by the rules. Everybody appeared to consider this behavior a normal part of the game. Feigning innocence and surprise when they were caught in flagrante delicto was even more blatant than the “who me?” gestures of NBA players called for fouls.
Winning was more important than sportsmanship.
I just spent a weekend in Chicago watching a different sport at a high level with a different sense of fair play. My son’s team was playing in the , for men over 33 and women over 30. Ultimate is a lot like soccer – playing on a soccer-sized field, passing the disk from one player to another trying to get it into the end zone.
But the spirit of the game is entirely different. Even at these national championships, there were no referees. Players were expected to make their own calls for the slightest infraction of the strict rules against physical contact. Disagreements had to be settled by mutual consent on the field, sometimes with the help of neutral official “observers”, mostly by discussion among the players.
The whole atmosphere of competition was based on mutual respect. Players congratulated the other team on good plays and helped each other up from the ground. After the game, the usual congratulatory line-up of the teams was just the beginning of acknowledgment of opponents. The two teams formed a circle with their arms around each other and presented gifts, usually cans of beer, to athletes on the other side, often selected for their fair play and good spirit.
These were serious competitors. Teams of 15 or 20, which had made it through two levels of regional play, traveled from all over the US for three days of competition.
The dominant sense of fair play and mutual respect is maintained by constant reference to the “”, as in these quotations from the “Official Rules of Ultimate”: “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.” I watched many games over the weekend, and the number of infractions against this form of sportsmanship was minimal.
The words about the spirit of the game (SOTG) on the website of USA Ultimate are a primer about good behavior more generally: “Treat others as you would want to be treated”; “Be generous with praise”; “Go hard. Play fair. Have fun.” “SOTG is about how you handle yourself under pressure: how you contain your emotionality, tame your temper, and modulate your voice.”
Ultimate frisbee developed as a popular sport in the heady days of youthful rebellion against all forms of convention and authority . The insistence on sportsmanship without referees was natural to teenagers who disdained what they felt was the heavy hand of the older generation. Yet the determination of ultimate players to prevent their ideals from being distorted by conventional sports culture is remarkable.
Not only has the spirit remained in force for half a century, but ultimate players have fought against the typical gender stereotyping of sports culture. Gender mixing and equality has been taken naturally from the start: like all frisbee tournaments, these Masters Nationals invited men’s, women’s and mixed teams on an equal basis. The players’ organization, , recognized the bias towards men’s athletics that permeates sports around the world and has determined to counteract it. The players’ organization endorsed “ ” in 2008, as a reaction to outside media broadcasters, who preferred to display only men’s games. Knowing that they could not control the broadcast content of third-party media companies, USA Ultimate decided on a policy of encouragement and persuasion. The media companies, including ESPN, are now broadcasting men’s and women’s games equally at the college and club levels. USA Ultimate has instituted programs to specifically encourage more girls and women to play and form teams, since there are still more than twice as many males as females who are members.
By staying true to their countercultural roots, ultimate players have discovered that hard competition does not automatically mean animosity and cheating: “Time and again, great teams and star players have shown that you can bring all your competitive and athletic zeal to a game or respect for your opponent.”
Given the constant lamentations about and an in modern life, ultimate’s SOTG might offer a better path. Some sports are more than just games.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 31, 2018