Having spent the better part of the holiday weekend enjoying the Ultimate Players Association College Championships,* SWNID is now ready to pontificate on the political significance of this most elegant and underappreciated game.
Ultimate (formerly Ultimate Frisbee, the latter word now omitted to avoid giving pride of place to one manufacturer of discs) is played by two teams of seven on a rectangular field, roughly three quarters the size of a football field. Each team attempts to throw a flying disc (Frisbee) successfully to teammates, without running with the disc or letting the disc fall to the ground or out of bounds, until at last a team member catches the disc in the end zone. The opposing team tries to prevent successful thows and catches without making significant physical contact with opponents. When the disc falls, is knocked down, goes out of bounds or is dropped, the opposing team takes over the throwing and catching.
Played competitively and recreationally all over the world, Ultimate is simple to understand but challenging to players at any level of skill. At higher levels, it rewards spectators with views of exciting throws, catches and defensive efforts. The game demands skill, fitness, athleticism, teamwork, strategy and good judgment. And it may be the cheapest team sport ever invented: all that's required to play is a disc and plastic cones to mark the boundaries.
Notably Ultimate stresses countercultural competitive values. Rules are enforced by the players themselves, who call their own fouls and must settle contested calls amicably. Only at the highest level of competition are neutral "observers" at a match to handle disputed calls, with players still responsible first to try to agree on the application of the rules. Teams rate each other for "Spirit of the Game," and tournaments give a SOTG award to the highest rated.
In sum, Ultimate strives for what was once known as the code of the amateur: one plays for love of the sport and the competition, not for personal glory, money or prestige. The game commands a devoted following dedicated to keeping that tradition alive while promoting the game to prospective players and fans.
And it works. Mostly.
Our experience at the national tournament showed how SOTG goes. All players are happy to abide by the game's self-regulated culture when they are comfortably ahead or miserably behind. If, however, the game is close, it's more than possible for a team to call violations simply to stop play and break the opponents' flow. More than once did we see teams resort to calling chippy foul, consistently disallowed by the observer, to stop play and get the underdog team off its game.
Still, the larger result is pleasant. While other competitive sports seem dominated by players' attempts to break rules without detection by referees, Ultimate offers a glimpse of a more gracious approach to competition, regulated by a code of honor, personal pride and social pressure to enforce virtue. With such, players arguably have more liberty to play the game than is typical in tightly refereed sports.
In that respect, we think that Ultimate is a microcosm of many social issues. Fallen humans will do anything they can to take advantage for themselves. Laws and their enforcement can curb those impulses, but only so much. In fact, enforcement creates its own set of issues, as the enforcers are no less fallen than then rulebreakers.
The human penchant for getting an edge is so strong and so pervasive that nothing will stop it completely. But where a people decides to allow greater liberty by inculcating virtue with cultural enforcement, the curbs may just be effective enough to create a better life for most.
What's true for the game is true for the nation state. The nation that regulates and oversees as the solution to all ills becomes bound by its rules in ways that stifle the industry of those willing to play by the rules. The nation that keeps rules in check while inculcating virtue and enforcing it socially frees its people to become more self-regulated.
So, which is better: the government that bails out financial failure while promising a new regieme of regulations and enforcement, or a government that allows financial failure as the cautionary consequence of a lack of virtue and so promotes responsible liberty? We think we know the Ultimate answer.
*On a personal note, Son of SWNID's team, Williams [College] Ultimate Frisbee Organization or WUFO, finished tied for ninth in the twenty team field, selected by sectional and regional tournament play from across the country. The team won four in a row after dropping their first three to end as co-champions of the "placement" bracket.