Opinion » Viewpoint

No Refs, No Coaches

Ultimate Frisbee is the ultimate anti-sport.



BOONE, North Carolina -- People look at you funny when you say you're going out of town to a Frisbee tournament.

You mean that's a sport? And you're gonna go watch it? And you're driving 600 miles to do it? Uh, have a nice time.

We did. Along with 32 teams of men and women from 16 colleges including Duke, North Carolina, Appalachian State, Warren Wilson, and Elon, my wife and I came to this mountain haven 150 miles east of Knoxville to see our daughter, the fall colors, and the booming sport of Ultimate Frisbee -- or just "Ultimate," as it's called.

Ultimate is the ultimate anti-sport for our sports-crazy times. There are no referees, no coaches, no contact, and certainly no scholarships. The object is for a seven-player team to advance a Frisbee across the opponent's goal line by tossing it to a team member without dropping it. Players call their own violations -- picks and drops, mainly -- on an honor system. The player with the Frisbee has to stand still and get rid of it within 10 seconds, and a fair, unhurried count is another part of the honor system. The game lasts 90 minutes or until one team scores 13 points.

Teams substitute freely and dress creatively. The lads from Warren Wilson, a small liberal arts college in Asheville, North Carolina, wore flannel shirts and a lot of facial hair. The women of App State opted for yellow tops, knee socks, and skirts. After four rounds, the freshmen from several teams joined forces to play an extra game. This was called the All-Star game.

Many Ultimate players are non-jocks, while others are refugees from competitive soccer, basketball, softball, or tennis, where screaming parents and no-nonsense coaches are the norm. The best players can run fast and sail the disc accurately for an incredible distance overhand, forehand, upside down, or backhanded -- and do it with either hand.

Diving layouts are common, arguments are rare. The Spirit of the Game is the sport's official rulebook.

To start one game, a diminutive girl from App State paused behind her own goal line, took four quick steps, spun around in a complete circle, and launched one the length of the field, or nearly 100 yards. A Frisbee sailing in slow motion over a green field through a blue sky against the backdrop of the New River and the Blue Ridge Mountains in early November was, in its way, as lovely a sight as watching Jonathan Crompton later that afternoon throw a 50-yard touchdown pass in front of a 105,000 fans in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. ESPN will probably never capture the moment, but it's our loss.

Ultimate was supposedly invented by hippies in the 1960s, but who knows? The sport now has its own magazine, national rankings, and is played in organized fashion by more than 500 colleges and universities. The New York Times reported last week that a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington has found a correlation between Ultimate and college graduation rates and scholastic excellence.

Well, maybe, but this seems contrary to the Zen-like spirit of the game. Give it a rest, doc. If Ohio State beats Harvard, so be it. The point is to be in the moment, to play and enjoy. Another round of rankings and seriousness and justification is the last thing many of us -- parents and students alike -- want to hear after the tears, stress, and disappointments of competitive sports.

I don't mean to put down big-time sports. I couldn't watch a baseball game for three years after my son quit the UT team after pitching only a couple of innings in his freshman year so that he could spend more time fishing and hunting. And after the last Ultimate game, I rushed to a sports bar to watch the Vols play LSU in football on TV.

Each sport is what it is, wonderful in its own way. That's the Ultimate lesson.

John Branston is a Flyer senior editor

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