Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Every once in a while I get sucked into some hideous comment board at CNN.com, over a hundred comments deep before pulling up, no longer able to bear such ugly civility. Has this always been the tenor of our discourse? Have we always been so rude?
I've been in many conversations about whether having the Spirit of the Game (note the caps) elevates the sport of Ultimate beyond others by enshrining in its rules that concept of Spirit, making it explicit and fundamental to the correct way of playing the game... or does it merely state what should be obvious, that in sports competition sportsmanship is necessary to ensure the validity of the results?
I find myself in the latter camp. I definitely appreciate that the concept of sportsmanship (which stripped even further reveals itself to be about effort, honesty, and integrity) is embedded in the rulebook, right there in the beginning of it, but Spirit is necessary in all sports and if you play without it, whether you win or lose, you're doing it wrong. But like I said, I think it's nice Ultimate took the time to write it in. I reiterate this point because when I speak about my stance with people in the former camp, they collapse the meaning of my argument that there's nothing unique about Ultimate because of Spirit into this wacky notion that I don't like Spirit, or Ultimate, nearly as much as they do. Which I'd be willing to argue.
Spirit, or Sportsmanship, capitalized or otherwise and whatever you call it, is actually incredibly important to me, within and without the sport of Ultimate; it's the most important thing. Your ability to maintain poise and civility during conflict and disagreement is an entirely personal challenge, and must be a requirement of each of us living in a country that grants free speech as a right. It's what DFW called the "Democratic Spirit", and as our world continues to interlace, it'll be necessary to navigate the disagreements that will naturally arise.
Being able to make your own calls, or foul at your discretion, in competitive games is an exercise in free speech. Sure, you can do so whenever we like, but do you really want to? What happens when people decide to take their liberties to the extreme, to yell bullshit calls on the field and type bullshit comments on news sites, simply because they can? The legitimacy of the game and the civility of the argument are both drowned out.
When I took the helm of the Hodags in '10, the team carried a reputation for cheap play and lack of sportsmanship, and there had been players in the years past that earned themselves and the team that reputation. The attitude and style of play that garnered embarrassingly low spirit scores could not be a part of the team's success in its future, and the young team bought into the goal of turning the reputation around.
We finished this past season without a single chippy game. Sportsmanship was never an issue and without being flawless our bad calls were few and our positivity high. Conversations I had with coaches after games ended with agreements that the game had been hard fought and with integrity. I was incredibly proud of the turnaround the program has had in these last three seasons. So it was no surprise, but certainly an honor, to view College Natties' Spirit score rankings, and to see our nearly flawless score, placing us in 3rd after a 2-way tie for 1st with perfect scores. In fact, you have to go down to 8th and 12th to find the next two quarterfinalists. To play a tournament and have that level of success against opponents who honor you with that spirit score at the end of your game is rare, and it speaks loudly to the character and heart of this team.
I repudiate the philosophy that you have to play with hate to get fired up or win. It's the antithesis of my own philosophy and also patently untrue. More valuable than a medal at season's end is intact self-respect. At natties, we came tantalizingly close to the medal we wanted, but the results of our tests against our sportsmanship and integrity were never in question. The Hodags will continue to keep perfection in our horizon, and I'm confident our march forward will reward our efforts.