The Folly of Professional Ultimate Frisbee

05/09/2016 01:04 pm ET Updated May 11, 2016

This is Part IV in a series of Six Articles on the History of the Rules of Ultimate Frisbee

If you're not yet aware, the hippie-dippy, anti-authoritarian, pot-smoking college campus game of Ultimate Frisbee is now coming of age with two burgeoning professional leagues, the MLU (Major League Ultimate) and AUDL (American Ultimate Disc League).  The governing body of the sport, the Ultimate Players Association (subsequently renamed/rebranded as USA Ultimate), has taken the quest to get Ultimate Frisbee into the Olympics so seriously, they've hired a professional sports guru, Dr. Tom Crawford, as their CEO and have paid him close to $1M in salary and expense over the past 7 years.

Ultimate is big business.  Virtually every single Division I school in the nation has both men's and women's teams and you can find an MLU or AUDL team is most major metropolitan areas and according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association's 2015 report, nearly 5,000,000 players participate in the game every year.  At an estimated average cost of $200 spent each year per player (for cleats, travel, equipment, tournament and membership dues, etc.), Ultimate is nearing a $1B industry.  Clips from Ultimate Frisbee can now routinely be seen on ESPN Sportcenter's Top Ten Plays of the day and high school teams are more common than ever before.

However, for all the growth and expansion of the sport, the Professional Leagues have really missed the boat when it comes to professionalizing the game.  This is due in large part to their lack of awareness of the origins of the game and the fact that the game is based on an ideology that is so dogmatic it can be thought of more in terms of a religious cult than it can be a legitimate sport.  Even the principal formulator of the rules back in the early 70s, Irv Kalb, admits that Ultimate has become a cult.

Unfortunately, when entrepreneurs began to exploit the popularity of the sport by creating professional leagues, they did almost nothing to professionalize the game in terms of removing the dogma.  They took the game 'as-is', sprinkled on a few referees and have attempted to monetize the game.  But without having any reference frame for understanding the nuances that made the game so fun and addictive, they've created a product that is simply not very entertaining and most likely to fail. 

Examples of Legacy 'Hippie' Rules in Pro Ultimate

When the professional leagues formed, they had the unique opportunity to revisit the entire set of rules and start from the ground up to raise the bar and craft a brand of Ultimate that was much more inline with conventional sports.  But in order for them to evaluate the current rules, they would have needed to be able to understand them in the context of the historical spirit of the law, the intent, that went into the creation of the original rules.  

The biggest disappointment about the new professional Frisbee leagues is that they had the luxury of not being the monolithic, dysfunctional organization that the USAU is yet they basically did nothing to fundamentally change the game.  They could have acted unilaterally to fix the sport but instead, they took the ill-conceived game that Ultimate had become, put a ribbon and a bow on it and started attempting to market Ultimate Frisbee as a legitimate sport. 

Case in point, here is a poignant example of how the new pro leagues have simply rebranded a hippie sport.  This example deals directly with a recent situation involved with AUDL and how they gave in to the players demands without even understanding why a particular rule came into being. 

In 1979, when the UPA (Ultimate Players Association) was formed, there was no rule about a player being required to be within 3 meters of the thrower for a stall count (since conventional ultimate is self-refereed, the players themselves pull double duty as officials, in this case maintaining the 'throw clock' for each throw).  

The rule was changed sometime in the mid-eighties to specify that not only was the player guarding the thrower the only player allowed to maintain the stall, but he/she had to be within 3 meters.  The Spirit of this Rule was born out of the fact that some throwers were complaining that they couldn't hear the stall count as it was being counted down and so they made the 3 meter proximity rule.  The rule even specified that 'the count has to be loud enough for the thrower to hear".  This rule modification was added at a time when there was a problem with players counting the stall count too fast, as this rule was put into place sometime during the Uglimate* era. (*Uglimate refers to a time in the late 80s/early 90s where the bickering and arguing at tournaments drove so many players away it almost literally killed the sport).

The 3 meter proximity rule was a bad rule then and it's a bad rule now.

Fast forward to 2015 where we now have professional leagues with referees maintaining a stall count. With a solid understanding of the original Spirit of the Law, you can see that there is absolutely zero reason to maintain this legacy rule from the 80s.  In fact, last year, the AUDL abolished this rule only to have so many teams up in arms about it that they had to rescind their decision and to reinstate the legacy rule, even though it makes zero sense in a refereed game.  The entire set of rules is like this.

If an independent professional organization (the AUDL in this case) can't change a simple, outdated and misguided rule like this, how is the game ever going to ever evolve when the main governing body is entrenched with so many individuals determined to maintain the status quo?  The decision makers in the pro leagues simply lack the historical perspective to understand that most of the original intent of the game was based on misguided hybridization of 'down-based' and 'possession-based' frameworks and they seemingly lack the vision and leadership to revise the game in any meaningful way.

Another example of this lack of historical self-referral is the pick rule. 

Kalb made it very clear that [basketball style] picks were made illegal because the game was played originally on pavement and players could be seriously hurt as a result of a pick.  OK.  The historical Spirit of the Law was that actually setting basketball style picks was illegal to prevent injuries on pavement.  That's easy to understand and agree with.  Here's the pick rule from the 11th edition:

"Picks :: A pick occurs whenever an offensive player moves in a manner that causes a defensive player guarding (II.G)* an offensive player to be obstructed by another player. Obstruction may result from contact with, or the need to avoid, the obstructing player."  *II.G defines guarding as not only being within 3 meters of a player, but 'reacting to' that player.

This rule has absolutely nothing to do with preventing injuries on pavement.  This bastardization of original intent is what happens when you have 150 people in a committee modifying the rules (the majority of whom have no understanding of, nor the knowledge of the historical basis for the rules).

I've not seen a single basketball style pick, ever, in my nearly forty years of involvement with Ultimate.  Basketball style picks, which were the basis for the rule in the first place actually never happen in the sport and yet a game doesn't go by where someone doesn't call a pick.  The rule for picks has morphed each edition of the rules from the 7th, 8th , 9th , 9.5th, 10th  & 11th  to the point that the way the Pick Rule is written now has metastasized into something completely unrecognizable from its original intention and has absolutely nothing to do with preventing people from getting injured on blacktop.  Defensive players call it when they need to be bailed out when they’ve been beaten on a play, which may be fine in a weekend pick-up game in the park, but for a Professional Sports League, this lack of ability to raise the bar for paid athletes seems a little shortsighted.  

In professional golf, the holes are longer, the greens faster and the roughs are rougher. In pro basketball, the 3-point line is further back.  In MLB baseball, aluminum bats are illegal.  In all professional sports, rules are modified to reflect the abilities of the athletes, make the game more challenging and to bring out the best in the competitors.  Because Ultimate was designed to be played by amateurs who had decided to make fun a priority over fair and level competition, the game was formulated with a lowest common denominator frame of mind.  That's neither a good thing or a bad thing but to truly professionalize the game and create a product with spectacular entertainment value, you should bare this in mind and go through every rule and rewrite the game with the highest common denominator in mind.

Professional Ultimate has done none of this. 

See Also Part I

See Also Part II

See Also Part III

See Also Part V

See Also Part VI

Frank Huguenard holds a degree in science from Purdue University and has spent decades in product development in Silicon Valley prior to embarking on a career in documentary film production specializing in films bridging the gap between Science & Spirituality. He draws on his research in the fields of combination of psychology, physics, wisdom traditions, sociology and history. You can see his films at www.beyondmefilms.com.

 

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