Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Every once in a while I get sucked into some hideous comment board at, 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.


Kyle Weisbrod said...

Hector, I think this is a great post and I agree with you almost entirely. The only area I'm confused about is that it seems like you are drawing a false dichotomy in your intro. Perhaps it's just a useful tool for you to set-up the article but I don't see a difference between the two. Can't it both be obvious that sportsmanship is necessary to ensure the validity of results and that Ultimate is special (or perhaps more accurately, "exceptional" as in "an exception to other sports") by making that idea explicit?

Giving voice to what seems like an obvious concept allows discussions like this one to happen, helps create a culture that places value on it, and helps inform ways to demonstrate that value (like spirit scoring).

I agree that Spirit/sportsmanship/mutual respect in contentious or competitive situations isn't unique to Ultimate, isn't fundamentally and uniquely inherent to the sport, or even something that is or should be just important in sports. I think your CNN message board anecdote captures that.

It's something that is or should be a personal responsibility of everyone in all parts of their life whether they are having political debate or participating in a UFC championship match.

For me though, I appreciate that it is called out and made explicit in Ultimate and that, as a sport, we take it into account when we create our team and competitive culture. I think it is good that we have language around the concept to discuss it more easily.

I think that helps inform people in other parts of their life as well. I believe this is why Ultimate has been such a great tool in initiatives like Ultimate Peace or Emerald City Ultimate.

Anyway, great story, great discussion starter, and congratulations on your success this season in multiple ways. As Damien said, "if you win the game but haven't won the respect of your opponents, what have you really won?"

Hh said...

Kyle, I think this is a great response and I agree with you entirely. It was during the writing of the post that I realized why I had such a problem with labeling Ultimate as special or exceptional.

As I wrote, I appreciate that we took the time to make explicit in the rulebook the essential nature of sportsmanship. I don't want to come off as thinking it's a waste of time and space to do so. I am just very wary of proclaiming ourselves or the sport as exceptional for doing so. I worry that, if left unchecked, claims of exceptionalism can come to replace efforts to be exceptional, which is a concept that has implications far beyond disc.

Perhaps I'm a bit less enthusiastic on the noisemakers than others. By way of example, in games where someone makes an unquestionably poor call and then, after a few seconds of reflection, takes it back, I'll give them a "good spirit" with the same enthusiasm as my high-school-play standing ovation. Yes, it was good spirit to take the call back, but the call shouldn't have been made in the first place.

Aw, shit. I'm just being an old scrooge. Take it as certainty that I love Ultimate, and that Spirit and sportsmanship are vital to the sport, and our lives. And while I don't disagree with those who say we play a special -perhaps even exceptional- sport, I tip my hat mostly to those who spend little time proclaiming it, and most of their energy making it so.

Kyle Weisbrod said...

Yes, and yes. I was about to add something about walking the walk instead of talking the talk in my original post. But, yes, behaving in a way consistent with spirit will always trump talking about it. And not calling a bs foul is better than calling it and then retracting it (but both are certainly better than calling it and sticking with it).