Thursday, May 03, 2007

Spirit of the Game

This was an article that appeared last week in our local Independent newspaper.

Spirit of the Game
Ultimate Frisbee has become one of Missoula’s most popular organized sports. Jason Wiener sprints into action—mostly singing and drinking—to find out why.

By: Jason Wiener
Posted: 04/26/2007

On the opening night of Missoula ultimate Frisbee spring league, it’s maybe 45 degrees and definitely drizzling, but spirits are high. Most competitors are wearing an informal uniform of longjohns with shorts and either a light or a dark shirt to differentiate one team from the other; almost everyone wears cleats. Before the matches, some teams discuss strategy. Others appear to be trading information about a weekend party. Others go around circles formed by their team, reconnecting with old friends and learning new teammates’ names. Everywhere, Frisbees fly.

Almost 200 people turned out for opening night, nearly triple the number who started the league six years ago. The crowd makes up 10 teams, the only thing limiting more being the lack of available playing fields. Each player paid $25 and signed up weeks ago for the privilege of participating in the 10-game season running through April and May. And another dozen who missed the registration deadline wound up on a waiting list or decided to wait till next year. Nevertheless, some of the latter, still hopeful of finding a team in need, have appeared hoping to become a walk-on.
Photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
Nate McConnell comes away with disc while vying for it with John MacLean, aka Fast Johnny. “For those members of the ultimate community who are competitive and really take it seriously,” says Fast Johnny, “its kind of like a duty to run spring league and participate and help people out and teach people how to play.”

Despite opening night’s inclement weather, the size of the crowd and its enthusiasm prove the sport has come into its own in Missoula. The decades-old game—think of a cross between soccer and football, sort of, only using a disc instead of a ball—began as a countercultural lark for some late-’60s high-school students. But since its inception, it’s grown into a sport with a national governing body, the Ultimate Players Association (UPA), blasting almost 25,000 registered players.

In Missoula, from pick-up games to competitive traveling teams, ultimate has become a community force, and the burgeoning spring league—equal parts party and play—is the public face of the sport. (Since Frisbee is a trademark of Wham-O!, which is not the exclusive supplier of competitive discs, the sport’s generally known as simply “ultimate.”)

I came to spring league’s opening night to figure out what the fuss was all about. Expecting to do this from my observer’s post on the sideline, I arrived in the clothes I wore to work—cargo pants, a sweater, long sleeves and a windbreaker with heavy boots. But when the captain of one team turned to the hopeful walk-ons standing next to me on the sideline and told them to join his team, and I realized everyone else was about to do something more than watch, I laced up my boots tight and tried to learn the ropes.

I never touched a disc on my first night. A couple of times I came close while covering someone who had the thing. I even got open once or twice with the chance to catch it. To be honest, though, I didn’t worry about not getting the disc; I worried more about what I would do if I got it.

I’m in some kind of shape (though “great” wouldn’t be a word you could substitute for “some”). I swim three times a week, most weeks, and travel around town by bicycle. But I’m in no kind of condition for sprinting, and I’ve never been very coordinated anyway. So when I’m winded, the last thing I’m thinking about is about how to make a disc fly, especially if I can’t keep up with or get away from the guy playing opposite me. Yet every time I came off the field, teammates congratulated me for my play.

When I asked what I did to merit the encouragement, the veterans on my team just answered “spring league” as if that was enough of an explanation. Eventually, it would be.

“A different game”

Missoula’s ultimate players have a number of competitive outlets, not all of them places where playing like a rookie will get you treated like a king.

In addition to the hundreds of spring leaguers playing this year, Missoula boasts a traveling team, the Mental Toss Flycoons. Though the team’s name—adapted from the lyrics of Frank Zappa’s vibraphone-enhanced opus “Montana”—has been associated with ultimate in Missoula since the 1980s, the Flycoons’ current incarnation only formed in 2004, after a Missoula-based team called Trigger Hippy with members from Bozeman, Idaho and northern California won the national championship in 2001 and then disbanded. (In between some locals tried to form an all-local squad under the name Missoula Ultimate Liberation Army. Despite T-shirts sporting the face of Patty Hearst, the effort ended with the revival of the Flycoons.)
Photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
Penelope Taylor gets off a forehand pass against Leigh Greenwood. In ultimate, covering someone in a man-to-man (or woman-to-woman) defense essentially amounts to forcing the handler to throw the disc forehand by covering any passing lanes available for a backhand toss.

The Flycoons make up the most competitive level of Missoula’s ultimate scene. Three years ago, they made it to the Northwest regional tournament where, according to Flycoon and spring league Commissioner John O’Connor, “We promptly got stomped.” The experience made team members more serious about preparing for the championship season and, in 2005, the Flycoons missed a trip to nationals by just a single point. Redoubling their efforts in 2006 earned them a trip to nationals where they finished 11th out of 16 teams. The result left the team with “the feeling we have some unfinished business,” says O’Connor, which they aim to take care of at this year’s national championships in late October.

First, however, there’s six months of practice and tournaments. The largest component of practice is local pick-up games, played Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at River Bowl, the athletic field just west of the Madison Street bridge on the south bank of the Clark Fork River. Despite not being explicitly competitive, pick-up players tend to be less tolerant of ineptitude than spring leaguers; the pace of the games is quicker and skilled regulars predominate.

On Wednesdays during April and May, pick-up at the River Bowl is suspended in favor of spring league games, played on Missoula Parks and Recreation fields at Playfair Park. During spring league games, former members of Trigger Hippy and current members of the Flycoons share the pitch with rookies and rank amateurs. With a focus on recreation rather than competition, spring league tends to be something different from other ultimate.

“There’s this competitive ultimate out there and when you participate in that, it’s actually quite a lot of training and practice and stuff like that,” says Flycoon and spring leaguer John MacLean, known on the field as Fast Johnny. “It’s just like any other sport and so playing spring league is completely different. It’s basically a different game.”

On opening night, those differences are apparent. For starters, the five-minute warning for the start of matches comes 15 minutes late. Commissioner O’Connor, know as Johnny O., or just J.O., gives a pep talk to the team I’ve joined while I empty my pockets. It’s about having fun, he says. Don’t get upset if you blow your coverage or drop the disc. If we lose, we still get to drink free beer like everyone else.

Some strategy talk ensues, something about normally playing a zone but not this week, and then how we’re playing man-to-man (or woman-to-woman, this being a thoroughly co-ed sport), which I also don’t really understand. The basic rules are clear enough though: Ultimate is played by teams of seven on a field 40 yards wide and 120 yards long with 25-yard-deep end zones at either end; if someone catches the disc in the end zone, their team scores a point; the person with the disc can’t move from the spot where she caught it nor can she hold it for more than 10 seconds; if the disc hits the ground, it changes hands. And one thing becomes abundantly clear: it involves a lot of running.
Photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
Spring league Commissioner John O’ Connor, aka Johnny O. or J.O., prepares to throw the disc to start off a spring league game.

After my team’s first point, I rotate in. Defense suits me better than offense because I don’t have much idea about how to get open and would prefer to have the attention somewhere else anyway, something that seems most likely if I’m not handling the item everyone is focused on getting. Regardless, I’m hardly an asset going in either direction. I sub myself out. My teammate Skyla Sisco—a former Lady Griz basketball standout and WNBA player, and current Flycoon—is looking for a stick to draw a diagram in the dirt. I give her my notepad and she diagrams out the force defense we’re playing, which makes the concept clearer to me and the other rookies looking on. It boils down to always trying to make your opponent throw the disc forehand.

The match is exciting, full of bobbled catches and spectacular dives, long runs mixed with lightning-quick give-and-gos. I’m glad I’m not just a spectator, and my teammates seem glad of it too even though that means mostly tolerating my performance. I got beat for several points, maybe more than my team lost by, and it wasn’t just because I was confused either. I saw my guy running away from me and there was nothing I could do about it.

“I play to win”

Spring league might tailor its demands to a mellower set, but it still serves the needs of even the most competitive in the ultimate community.

“It’s really good to have a spring league,” says Fast Johnny, “because it gets new people playing ultimate and it gets the community aware of ultimate and it shows people that it’s a good thing, that it’s a lot of fun and so it helps the sport grow.”

J.O. points out that the competitive level relies on the recreational scene. “The more open you are and the more exposure the sport gets,” he says, “the better it will be for the growth of Missoula ultimate because if we can get one guy…who comes out to play barefooted with beads around his neck and then a year later he’s finding himself playing in the national championship—if we can get one of those a year we can keep the competitive team alive.”

He’s not just making that example up. Ken Billington, a UM student who traveled to nationals with the Flycoons last year, was first exposed to ultimate in 2005.
While the league has a “great relationship” with Missoula Parks and Recreation, from whom it gets field space at Playfair Park, J.O. says, the portion of park recently given over to Splash Montana is evidence “the available space for field sports in Missoula is getting squeezed further and further.”

“I found out about spring league,” says Billington, “[because] I was just walking through the park and they just picked me up. I was just barefoot and I like to play Frisbee and they were just like ‘Hey, you should play with us.’ I was like ‘Sweet, is it too late?’ and they were like ‘Nope.’ That was two years ago. A year went by then just last year I got on the [Flycoons].”

Part of developing new talent includes making spring league a priority throughout the ultimate community. Daphne Evans, a current Flycoon and former Trigger Hippy member who has been playing ultimate since the mid-’90s, points out how practice for the Flycoons deliberately avoids days that would interfere with spring league or pick-up games.

“We chose to train on a different day so that spring league wouldn’t fade away,” she says, “which I think was pretty important and pretty hard for the team because it meant four days of Frisbee if you were going to all the pick-up [and spring league games]. But it was important to the people who have been playing for years because it meant that we weren’t going to let it die…The ultimate scene is the pick-up scene.”

For someone like me who assumed ultimate was somehow laid back just because it involves sporting equipment stereotypically favored by starry-eyed love children taking a break from sun-drenched hootenannies, hearing that pick-up was the heart of the game in Missoula wasn’t so surprising. But seeing hundreds of people toughing it out in cold, drizzly conditions—and hearing about why they do it—shows ultimate is more than that.

“The joy that I find in ultimate,” says Fast Johnny, “is not the social laughing and joking around all the time. I mean, it’s still fun and I enjoy it, but that’s not where my joy in ultimate comes from.” Gesturing around at the clusters of competitors standing in the waning twilight with plastic cups of beer, he says, “Some people play ultimate for the party. I play”—and here he pauses a little like a heretic in a church—“to win.”

Judging from the mass of people milling toward and away from a keg on the ground next to the field, Fast Johnny has hit upon something elemental about spring league: plenty of people play for the party.

I can see why; it’s a good party.

“Value the disc”
As spring league progresses, the complexion of the game changes. I notice the opposing team introduces a zone defense. So there’s some theory, something to wrap my head around and watch as other rookies try to do the same. My team broke the zone most often with some long bombs. Hucking the disc the length of the field isn’t ideal—quick swing passes are the way to beat the zone with good form, says J.O.—but it is a way to score.

When we matched up man-to-man, I tried to defend someone from the other team that my teammates told me came to ultimate from disc golf. Carrying a couple of extra pounds around the middle (like me) but possessing a deadly ability to put the disc wherever he wanted (unlike me), he beat me most of the time. But at least I could hear him breathing. The first game, I couldn’t hear anything—I just watched as my guy repeatedly ran clear.

I get more advice as I come off the field. Don’t cover someone with the disc like he’s handling a basketball; since he has to pass and can’t dribble, the key is to obstruct the throwing lanes. Don’t move laterally. Crossings the field when there’s a bunch of people in play just clogs things up. Run up and back—pop in and out—and open up space for people to move the disc downfield by either occupying your own defender or getting clear of him. On a turnover, let someone who can handle the disc handle it; we need to value the disc.

If the hint of flintiness in that last piece of advice tilts toward competition at the expense of inclusion, it’s more than overwhelmed by the silliness built into spring league to ensure no one could possibly take it too seriously. Every week each team honors one man and one woman with awards like best spirit, best defense or best lay-out; the names are announced during a drawing for prizes like belt buckles and beer coozies. Team chants open each half of the game and each squad makes up a song about the other team, performing it at the conclusion of the match.

By the second half of the second game, my team seemed to have settled on a chant—our name, T. Hux!, followed by a long, low growl—not as elaborate as some others but elegant in its simplicity. Our songsmithing could use some work, however. At first, we had a pretty good one playing off the last couple syllables and the implicit promise of our opponents’ name—Teruanewactyl. The next time we were somewhere between passable and sad, adapting a lullaby to rhyme the words periwinkle (the color of our opponents’ shirts) and tinkle (what we would have done if the score was any closer). We also tried to execute a maneuver in which the lightest of us would flap her arms while rolling forward on top of us and screeching like the namesake of the Pterodactyl team we were serenading. We botched the maneuver horribly, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. I resolve to learn the name of next week’s opponent and come up with a better song for them. It seems like the least I can do.

“Social capital”

After Little League games, there’s no keg of beer. That’s a big difference between the inclusion-oriented sports of my youth and ultimate. But something else strikes me as incongruent: after the game is over, when I slap hands with members of the other team and say “Good game,” for the first time I can remember, I mean it.

While teamwork is a big part of play at spring league, the league itself—rather than the individual club teams—seems to be where players’ allegiances lie, at least in the early going.

“My concept of team,” Commissioner J.O. says, “has to do a lot more with wishing people well and caring for them than it does with coming together to crush somebody. We’re not really about coming together to crush somebody and make them whimper off the field.”

At least, not during spring league. Things like cheers that downplay the competitive angle of the game—after all, it’s almost impossible to take yourself or the results of the game too seriously after you’ve rolled around on the dirt and screeched like an extinct dinosaur in front of your opponents—aren’t forced upon it at the higher levels.

“We didn’t really cheer at nationals,” says J.O. “Nobody really cheered at nationals.”

But one element of the sport is consistent among all levels and every player says it’s ultimate’s defining feature: Spirit of the Game. Ultimate does not have referees; players call fouls on themselves and have to work out disputes through discussion, even in the heat of competition. That might seem feasible at spring league’s slow-pitch pace, but it’s a practice that carries up to the highest levels, both club team tournaments and varsity college teams. J.O. describes it as an ethical practice.
Photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
Will Sutton, left, passes while Nate McConnell looks on during a pick-up game at River Bowl, the athletic field west of Madison Street on the south bank of the Clark Fork River.

“From a formal point of view, [Spirit of the Game] means it’s self-officiating,” he says. “From an informal point of view you try to say idealistically that it involves integrity, honesty, fairness and respect for your opponents.”

In Missoula, ultimate players aim to use Spirit of the Game as a teaching tool as well. This year, they started a youth league in conjunction with the Flagship Program as a way to get young people active and have some fun but also instill virtues exemplified by Spirit of the Game.

“Because it’s a self-officiating sport,” says J.O., “what it does for high-schoolers who are full of hormones and whatever else is it makes them figure out conflict resolution on their own in a non-argumentative, non-hitting-each-other sort of way.”

Conflict resolution isn’t the only value taught through ultimate. The people who play it form a community, a social network in which people feel free to call upon one another for things that have nothing to do with scoring points during a match. Missoula ultimate maintains an e-mail distribution list with just more than 200 members; J.O. estimates about 30 of them “are interested in playing on a very competitive level and spending every waking moment thinking about ultimate.” The volume of the traffic on the e-mail list seems to bear that out; job postings and requests for a truck topper or the loan of a bicycle mix in with and often overwhelm official ultimate business and trash-talking.

“The thing I like about spring league,” says J.O., “is that yeah it’s a team sport and you’re sort of cheering for your team and all, but it’s a lot more about meeting people, having fun, getting some exercise, learning something different and really just being part of what I consider to be an extremely cool community.”

In his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, social scientist Robert Putnam discusses the decline of what he dubs social capital, defined as “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Evoking the image of a lone bowler knocking down pins without the social structure provided by a bowling league, Putnam traces a fair amount of malaise to declining social capital, noting, for instance, that children in places with greater amounts of social capital fare better by seemingly unrelated measures like health and literacy than children in places with less. Watching people socialize after an ultimate match, it’s clear those networks are being formed and the positive effects will extend beyond those networking.

The youth outreach program started this year is a case in point. While a UPA grant funded a portion of its costs, the majority of the money came from spring league registrants—100 players voluntarily paid an extra $5 when registering with the understanding that the money would fund high-school clubs.

The civic spirit embedded in those donations complements the benefit spring leaguers clearly perceive for themselves.

“After the games people are all hanging out,” says J.O. “You just meet so many different people, and you have a common thread so for me the idea…is taking that common thread and making it more solid…It is about building a community…That’s probably the reason I keep running the league even though I say every year I’m not going to do it next year.”

Ultimately, the connections are not just about the game either.

“When I need something or I have something [to get rid of],” says J.O. “I just send an e-mail to the group—‘I want to sell this to someone in the community. I’ll sell it cheaper to you than I would if I put it in the paper—and when I need something, I say ‘Does anybody know anything about this?’ If I needed carpentry work, I’d rather hire somebody who I play ultimate with than I would to go out and hire someone I don’t know.”

“I didn’t know you played ultimate”

The growth of Missoula ultimate is now up against constraints beyond the league itself. According to J.O., the challenge boils down to available field space. While the league has a “great relationship” with Missoula Parks and Recreation, J.O. cites the portion of Playfair Park given over to Splash Montana as evidence “the available space for field sports in Missoula is getting squeezed further and further.” That only compounds the fact, he says, that Missoula “already has a pretty pathetic amount of field space per capita compared to all of our peer cities.”

Not surprisingly, this community issue has spurred the invilvement of Missoula’s ultimate players in a community solution. The plan—to create a complex for field sports as part of a proposed Fort Missoula Regional Park, located on city and county lands between South Avenue and the Bitterroot River—was presented to voters in a 2002 county bond issue that would have funded the project. The bond passed in the city but still failed overall because of opposition in the county, although proponents—including Missoula ultimate—hope to get a retooled issue on the ballot again for next year’s election, says J.O.

“When I was [most recently] setting up the fields for the game I had three different groups of parents come and ask me if they could have space in the park for their kids to play soccer,” says J.O. “I had to say ‘I’m sorry but we’ve got it rented’ because we don’t have the space, which really bums me out and peeves them off. But I keep telling every one of them, ‘Make sure you support the development of Fort Missoula Regional Park because we’ve got the land out there.’”
Photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
Michael Farris and Jesse Adams return a keg to the truck after the conclusion of a pick-up game. Each week spring league games conclude with the draining of a keg by the nearly 200 players in attendance.

But at the end of opening day, when the competitors move off the field as a complimentary keg of beer is being tapped and the names of the best spirit winners are being called out, there is enough space, at least, for socializing. In the crowd are university students and their teachers, lawyers and freelance photographers, nonprofit administrators and real estate agents; a few players stand watch over baby carriages, including one woman who rushed off the field at halftime, explaining her daughter is “announcing to everyone that she has a poopy diaper.” All the while, familiar shapes and faces emerge from the deepening shadows.

“I didn’t know you played ultimate,” a few say to me.

I didn’t know I did either.

But I know I’ll be back next week, if my team and the league allow it. The thought gives me a little extra incentive to go out and run around the park or stop and throw the disc when I see a group of people doing so. Furthermore, it gives me a reason to look forward to Wednesday afternoons, when I’ll get in a good game, improve my play from the previous week, see some familiar faces and get to know some new people too.

Maybe when spring league is done, if I’ve improved enough or am just feeling ornery, I’ll drop in at River Bowl and play some summertime pick-up. Or maybe I’ll just wait for next spring to roll around to get my fix.

Either way, the next thing I need to do is get some cleats. I haven’t had a pair since playing intramural football in college, but someone else in spring league has already promised to hook me up.
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