This is Part VI in a series of Six Articles on the History of the Rules of Ultimate Frisbee
This sixth and final article in this series draws a directly correlation between a set of rules that is heavily lopsided in favor of the offense and the fact that offensive strategies in the game of Ultimate Frisbee have not developed beyond the football-centric paradigm that they were born out of. In other words, offenses have not evolved in the sport because the rules give the offense such an overwhelming advantage that they don't need to evolve.
To understand one of the most influential concepts behind the rules and the style of play in Ultimate, you need to go way back to England in 1823 when Rugby was invented. Rugby was played in the U.S. in various forms throughout the 1830s and 1840s and eventually Rutgers and Princeton played what was purported to be the first college football game on November 6, 1869. But it wasn't until the 1880s however, that Walter Camp (a great rugby player from Yale) engineered rules changes that slowly transformed rugby into the new game of American Football.
As we all know, American Football is a downs-based game where a team has four attempts, or downs, to move the line of scrimmage ten yards and be awarded with four more attempts, and so on. If a player ran out of bounds, that counted as a down (effectively the same thing as a player being tackled or down on the ground) and 40 years later when the forward pass was introduced, an incomplete pass was also functionally equivalent as a tackle, or a down.
You might ask, what does this have to do with Ultimate Frisbee? Basically everything.
Basically everything. Irv Kalb, an 18 year old kid who had been playing a lot of touch football was the person responsible for codifying the original formalized rules of the game in the early 70s. More than anyone can prossibly imagine, Ultimate Frisbee is based on the down system in football. Remember that the meaning of a down in football originally comes from a scrum, or a mob of people tackling a player on to the ground.
Except in Ultimate instead of moving the line of scrimmage 10 yards, all you had to do was complete a pass. That’s right. The entire sport is based on this concept of getting tackled and yet there’s no tackling. Once you understand this, you can go watch a game and see it much more clearly. When a player catches the disc and their momentum carries them into the endzone and they walk back to the line and continue playing (even though in total they may have taken 12 steps or so), it’s an example of this.
When a player catches a disc and goes out of bounds and retains possession, it’s an example of this. However, Ultimate doesn’t have a line of scrimmage and to apply this kind of concept to a game that is basically possession based, like basketball, is really odd and its part of why Ultimate doesn't get any respect. It can’t decide what it is. It is a possession based sport, or is it a down based sport? And this combination of two conflicting ideologies has produced a game and culture that is somewhat schizophrenic.
Two examples of where this concept really comes into play is in two very unexpected areas. It is because of this downs-based thinking that traveling violations are not turnovers and that it’s not legal to knock the disc out of the thrower’s hand. In both instances, the reasoning that went into the original framework for the game was that a turnover, or in other words a down, could only happen as a result of a throw. Or in other words a turnover could only happen after a play had happened.
Ultimate players have probably all experienced situations where a marker will attempt to block a throw and get ‘all ball’ and stuff the thrower, but because the disc is still in the thrower’s hand, a strip or a foul is called and the possession awarded back to the offense. It’s important for people to understand the derivation of this rule and that it comes from football (even though in football it’s legal to do this!!!).
This idea of making Ultimate Frisbee a down-based game meaning that the only way a turnover could happen is on a throwing attempt isn’t necessarily a bad idea, per se, but is this something that Ultimate players necessarily agree with? Is anyone in today’s game even aware of this and do they understand the implications to agree with it? This one concept is the foundation for a significant portion of the rules and without it; the rules could possibly look completely different.
Is it any wonder why Ultimate is so addicting? Imagine playing a game of football, where all you have to do is complete a pass in any direction to get another first down, you don’t have 250 pound linemen trying to tackle you, opponents are not allowed to double team you and even getting touched, such as in touch football, to culminate a down isn’t allowed.
What is really fascinating about this is that when you watch Ultimate being played today, this meme that Irv introduced into the rules for the sport over 40 years ago (that Ultimate be a downs-based sport like football), actually manifests on the field tactically in the way that teams play. Apart from the occasional flow you might see, the game is almost entirely a sequence of discrete events, or plays, with a player catching the disc, stopping, resetting and then scanning the field for the ‘next play’. The way the game is played currently actually looks a lot like this square wave.
This is absolutely incredible when you think about it. A concept that no one in the game even knew existed, a vital element in the original Spirit of the Rules that has been completely forgotten, still has an enormous influence in how the game is played. Amazing.
A possession based sport, like basketball or hockey looks much more like this when it’s played with mostly non-stop, constant motion.
This is what Ultimate should look like as well but it doesn't. For the most part, the way Ultimate is played is not nearly as dynamic as it could be and the truth of the matter is that when you begin to introduce concepts to Ultimate from other possession based sports, such as the Triple Threat Principal from Basketball, it wrecks the game. These concepts expose Ultimate for the terminally brain dead game that it currently is. It doesn't have to remain this way but this is how it will be as long as the down-based mentality pervades the rules.
Irv Kalb was playing a lot of touch football when he pioneered the rules in the early 70s and the game still has his fingerprints all over it, whether the Ultimate community is willing to accept it or not. The game is long overdue for a major overhaul but without having a thorough understanding of why the rules are the way they are and a cultural acceptance that they game actually hasn't changed in any meaningful way, it’s going to be a significant challenge to bring about any organizational reform.
So that leaves the responsibility for evolving the game up to the Professional Ultimate leagues. They have both the ability and the wherewithal to do something that is impossible for the dysfunctional organization that is the UPA (USAU*) to do
*The UPA/USAU has paid Dr. Crawford nearly $1M over the past 7 years or so and he still doesn't have Ultimate on his linkedin page. What does that tell you?
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.