David Wingate | Brown University
5 days of practice a week for the premier team. 3 days a week for the developmental team. Tournaments most weekends for the top squad that could be across the country. Focused, intense practices that focus on conditioning, fundamentals, and strategy. Two hour long cardio sessions during the offseason, coupled with scientific, regular lifting habits. Division I and Division III sections, based off of school sized.
I have to be talking about a varsity sport right?
Well, not quite. What I just described is the typical structure of an Ultimate Frisbee program at schools with established teams.
Hold up Wingate. Isn’t frisbee just some plate that stoners throw on sunny days?
To be fair, maybe. But Ultimate Frisbee is an entirely different animal. The sport, generally accepted as being founded in 1968, is deceptively simple. Players throw the frisbee (or the disc as it is usually referred to) to other players on their team. Players cannot move with the frisbee. The goal is to get the disc to the opposite side of the field, while the other team attempts to keep them from doing so. Games are played to a predetermined score or until a time threshold has been passed. Except Ultimate has become so much more than a game.
What was once a stereotype has evolved into a bona-fide sport. Youth programs have sprung up around the country, as have high school teams. At the top level, club teams compete for country-wide dominance, world games are held, and the sport is even recognized by the International Olympic Committee, leading many to think that the sport might be played on the world’s greatest stage at some point.
But to many, the definitive segment of Ultimate Frisbee is the collegiate division. Nearly 10000 players, on more than 800 teams, play across the country. What used to be an ‘alternative’ sport has gone mainstream, attracting serious, NCAA caliber athletes. To be a part of one of the country’s top collegiate teams, players usually have to be blazingly fast, coordinated, and often times tall and built.
And yet, Ultimate remains unique. Even as it has started to attract more and more top athletes, the game retains its own individuality. Most saliently, the game is played without officials. Instead, players are called upon to exhibit their own integrity and follow the rules, resolving all conflicts without third party decisions. In addition, Ultimate Frisbee is plain old fun. Team cheers skew towards the lewd and ridiculous, and team names are more tongue and cheek than intimidating (Brown University’s Brownian Motion men’s A-team is based off of a physics concept). Intriguingly, the sport is not NCAA. Despite growing interest, serious athletes, and national competition, the sport is still at the club level in college, governed by the USAU (USA Ultimate).
To many, the addition of Ultimate Frisbee to the NCAA list of sanctioned sports seems inevitable. Serious athletes take part in it, the sport has men and women’s programs across the country, and interest continues to grow. And Ultimate Frisbee as an NCAA sport could have serious benefits. More school funds from varsity status could help make the predominantly white sport more diverse- currently players have to pay much of their own fees (airfare, equipment, etc), making the barrier to entry high. Plus, the recognition could help grow the game even more, with a national following. And it would be nice for teams to have consistent field space. However, support for NCAA inclusion isn’t unanimous. Part of the appeal of Ultimate is that it’s still a counter-culture sport. Its culture is weird and wacky and sometimes downright irreverent. Those who love the game worry that mainstream, NCAA status might water down some of what makes the sport so appealing to those not drawn to soccer, baseball, football, etc.
Regardless of the sport’s official status, it will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. However, the path it takes could drastically affect the character and flavor of Ultimate. For now, I’m just happy to be a part of it.