September 12, 2004

Spirit of the Game

Category: Wholesome — Biella @ 8:18 pm

Today I visited the place of one of my last incarnations, the Ultimate Frisbee field to watch the final game during Chicago’s “premier” tournament held every fall outside of Chicago in the burbs.

Ultimate is usually played with a white frisbee and this whiteness is matched by the whiteness of the sport. Ultimate is really one of the whitest sports around although everyone is really quite brown because players spend nearly every weekend outdoors, playing in these marathon two days tournaments. So they are perhaps the whitest tannest athletes with the exception of beach volleyball players and surfers etc. There is always a smattering of Asians and a few African-American player but aside from that you have your pretty much white, liberal, and relatively affluent players out on the fields.

Despite the homogenity of players, Ultimate at some other level strikes me as wholly unique in so far as “types” of sports that exit out there, even perhaps bordering on the revolutionary. It has been years since I attended a large scale tournament and today I was struck at the absence of outside corporate sponorship and advertising adorning these large scale tournaments. While there might be local sponorship, corporate presence is kept more or less at bay. Advertising usually comes in the form of a motely collection of beer brands as most every player downs a brewksi (or two or three or four…) once their team has been eliminated.

Ultimate is one of these recent, ‘modern’ sports, after all, it came post the plastic age. One of the defining features of the Ultimate is that it is player run, players decide the rules, and as an extension, make calls, like fouls, picks, etc themselves during the heat of the game. They don’t rely on officials to mediate conflict. Governance comes from within, as opposed to being mediated from the outside.

The governing principle of Ultimate, which undergrids this form of self-governance, is called ‘Spirit of the Game.’ Though the name is a little dorky (and makes me wonder if a Hegelian, inveted it), it is one hell of a great concept to apply to “sports,” normally thought to be organized around a logic of extreme competition, at all costs. Instead, Spirit of the Game affirms that since players first love playing the game, a certain form of respect is required to live up to the game, a respect that carries with it responsibility.

Ultimate has traditionally relied upon a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player himself. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate adverse conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting of opposing players, dangerous aggression, intentional fouling, or other ‘win at all costs’ behavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players.”

And believe me, Ultimate at the club level is not some gushy mushy feel good sport of late night home baked cookies and warm milk. It is about as competitive as sports can get, men and women literally dedicating their time and cash to play, sacrificing their bodies to the hard ground, and largely without recognition outside of the community. Everyone on the field wants to win. Yet, given the atmosphere is quite different than in most sports, (even “unconventional” extreme sports where ESPN and major corporate labels are always to be found), it reminds us that competition and desire to win does not take some universal form. It can have a different valence and in this case it its mediated by what is a fundamentally moral concept.

These folks are obsessively dedicated and yet dedicated to the idea and experience of the sport and thus as an extension to those who play. There is trust among players that translates into the idea that players can make judgements about fouls and then how to proceed. The rules are decided by the players and every couple of years they are ammended to include some new provision, clarify some other one, or eliminate one all together. Learning the rules comes from playing together on fields, working through some pick or foul or stalled count.

There was a brief period, I think in the late 1980s (it could have been early 1990s) when there was more of a corporate presence. In particular the tequila company Cuervo was running elite tournaments and they wanted to change the rules to make it more “viewer” friendly. This was not taken well and they were given the boot and since then, there has been no large scale corporate presence. It is not necessarily the presence of a large banner announcing the wonder of some alcohol drink that is a problem (these folks are not anti-corporate and certainly not against alcohol) but if the prescence of that banner takes power away from the players, then there is a problem.

In this way it strikes me a lot like free software production, which is anti-that which takes away power away from hackers as to what they can hack on. The ‘that’ happens to be IP law (among some other things) but it is not necesarily a critique that extends further than that.. I should one day right a more comprehensive comparison between the two but for now I will leave it at ‘that.’

I really enjoyed watching the final game today. For me, it is just a fun game to watch, bringing back memories of years and years of running around, always out of breath, simply because I wanted to catch and throw a disc. Beyond my personal experiences with the sport, I really do appreciate Ultimate for its broader example of the respect that comes from self-governance enshrined in a ethical principle that is realized in the very practice of the game (Can you tell, I am dying to do a small ethnographic project on this…) More notable is that the ways in which principles of respect and self-governance can be applied to places and contexts that otherwise might seem inimical to those principles. And that is why it is a poweful example. It is not just that they have successfully integrated self-governance but have done so in a context, “sport” that is usually associated with extreme competition.

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