the lessons of ultimate

A former Ultimate Frisbee teammate from the San Francisco Winter League had this article posted as his gChat status message, and as I compulsively click on any of the links that show up in my gChat list, I read it.

Nick Handler of Stanford Bloodthirsty lays out to get the D. (Source:

The premise of the article is that while the oil spill, financial meltdown, and mine disaster have prompted calls by many for increased regulation, maybe instead we should seek inspiration elsewhere: Ultimate Frisbee (Ultimate, to most who play it). The author, Christine Bader, argues that the self-refereeing present in Ultimate should serve as an example to corporations eager to cut corners: police yourself, don’t make the government come in and do it for you. She talks of how she’s “played ultimate throughout the US, Europe, and Asia, and can confirm that the spirit of the game reigns everywhere.”

As a semi-retired Ultimate player myself, I agree with Ms. Bader on one point. Ultimate does have a lesson to teach us about the need for regulation.  But that’s where our agreement stops, because I think the development of Ultimate over the past decade shows the exact opposite.  When the stakes get high, noble intentions and “Spirit of the Game”, sadly, fall by the wayside.  The rosy picture that she paints of Ultimate around the world may well still hold true in many places, but in the upper echelons of competitive Ultimate, not as much.

The key point that Ms. Bader fails to mention is that Ultimate at the highest levels is no longer truly self-regulated. Since at least the early 2000s (I can say for sure they were at the 2002 College Nationals), at least some games at College Nationals have made use of Observers. Observers are like referees, except that they only make calls when there is a dispute that cannot be resolved. The governing body of the sport in the United States, USA Ultimate, added observers when it became apparent that teams were not adhering to the idea of “Spirit of the Game” (which says, basically, don’t cheat).  Since then, they have increased the role of observers and added things like Team Misconduct Fouls (similar to a technical foul in basketball).

But even that has not been enough to stem the tide of players that try to bend the rules to their advantage. Talking to my high school Ultimate coach about his spectating experience at the most recent College Nationals (which included Observers), he said of one game that he watched: “You had two teams out there who both thought they shouldn’t be touched on offense but would foul aggressively on defense.” In many of the College Nationals Finals that I have watched, there were multiple calls during many of the points, leading to extended arguments before the call was finally sent to the Observer to decide.  It slowed the game down, making it harder and less enjoyable to watch.

So I would say that yes, Ultimate can teach us a lesson about personal responsibility that can be extended to other aspects (like business) in our lives. But the lesson that I take from my experience with Ultimate is that when there is a lot on the line (whether it’s a National Championship or your next Quarterly Statement and your job), high-minded notions of “Spirit of the Game” and self-regulation, though admirable, are not enough to keep the game honest.

I played college Ultimate from 2003 – 2007, playing in four College Nationals during that time.

(h/t other doug)

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3 Responses to the lessons of ultimate

  1. Christine Bader says:

    I totally agree with you that self-regulation doesn’t always work on its own. That’s why I wrote in the piece, “This is not a call for self-regulation.” We need a mix of measures to hold people (and companies) accountable for their actions — as the presence of Observers shows.

    Yours in Spirit (and retirement!),
    Christine Bader

  2. alicia says:

    yo dougie, you do realize that ultimate at the highest of levels is still played without observers, with a great deal of success. i think your coach’s thoughts about college nationals might say more about college aged men than about the impossibility of competing with spirit.

    still not sure what i think that has to do with corporate responsibility, but anyway. . .

    (also i way like playing with observers better)

  3. frouglas says:

    Christina – My point is that in using Ultimate as an example of self-regulation for companies to follow and saying things like “spirit of the game reigns everywhere,” your omission of any mention of the recent steps away from self-regulation that the sport has taken is misleading. To me, including that information and looking at the trend of the sport as a whole leads to a much different conclusion about the usefulness of arguing that companies should be better behaved.

    Alicia – The existence of tournaments in which observers are not used, even at the highest levels, does not change my conclusion about the overall trend of the game away from self-regulation (a conclusion with which you are free to disagree, though from your final comment, you may not). There are companies that engage in self-regulation, but the existence of these companies does not mean that we should hold up “corporations” as a shining example of self-regulation.

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