Despite protests, ultimate frisbee continues to be a sport

Courtesy of Devon Hollahan via Flickr

While I was not yet a member of the Vassar Khalj ultimate frisbee team when that infamous Sunday email hit our mailboxes, I have since learned of the terrible slight by our institution’s very own president. 

For those of you who haven’t heard of the egregious error, here is a brief summary: President Bradley included a photo in her weekly email of the ultimate team’s cheering section at a varsity basketball game, with the caption “Who said athletes and non-athletes don’t hang out together at Vassar?” 

While Bradley quickly apologized, the damage had already been done. However, this is not just a problem at the upper levels of Vassar administration, as I have heard the same old quip from many an aspiring comedian: “Is frisbee even a sport?” As I now am the Sports Editor of The Miscellany News and no one can stop me, I have decided to take this chance to set the record straight once and for all. 

To begin with, I would like to present the definition I found on Google for sport: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment” (Oxford Dictionary, “Sport”). Anyone who has ever watched an ultimate game, perhaps at Vassar’s own tournament (October 5 and 6, be there), would be hard-pressed to argue that it does not contain all of the criteria required to fit this definition. Ultimate frisbee is an activity (again from Google: “a thing that a person or group does or has done”) involving physical exertion and skill (or at least physical exertion in my case), in which a team competes against another (for a sport that often involves cross-team rock-paper-scissors tournaments during timeouts, ultimate can be surprisingly competitive), for entertainment (I made my girlfriend come to a game once, she called it “more fun than I expected” and “definitely better than golf”). 

Looking at this incontestable Google definition, and the fact that ultimate frisbee obviously fits all of its criteria, I consider my job here to be done. It only took a paragraph, but that makes sense—this was really something only someone not paying attention or being intentionally obtuse would question in the first place. However now that I have already completed what I originally set out to do, I shall expand to a slightly more ambitious goal. Not content with convincing you, dear reader, that ultimate frisbee is indeed a sport, I intend to argue something further, something all of you haters weren’t expecting: Ultimate is not just one of many sports, but the best sport there is.

One important thing ultimate has going for it is that it is accessible. Just like the world’s current most popular sport, soccer, where all anyone needs to start playing is a ball and some space, ultimate can be played with just a disc and a field. While cleats are certainly helpful, they are far from required, and there are no expensive pads, sticks, rackets, bats, clubs or helmets that might otherwise create a barrier of entry for the sport.

Ultimate also has one other massive advantage over most other popular team sports: relatively straightforward rules. Hockey and soccer both have their own version of offsides, neither of which make much sense at first glance. Any NFL fan knows about the multiple revisions and re-revisions the league’s definition of a catch has gone through, and I can’t turn on a basketball game around my dad without hearing complaints about “refs just deciding different things on the exact same play every time.” Ultimate suffers from no such over-complication. I managed to play a whole year of a DIII sport with no problem by basically following two simple rules: “Don’t run with the disc” and “Don’t touch people.” 

There are, of course, more detailed rules to ultimate, but most of them are rarely relevant, and they are still for the most part common sense, understandable to a casual viewer or player, even if the minutiae go unknown. This focus on easily comprehensible rules stems from the very founding of the sport, where an emphasis was placed on “Spirit of the Game,” in which players hold themselves accountable and focus on sportsmanship and fair play (I know it sounds cheesy). Ultimate is often played in informal or low-level competitive settings with no referees (or observers, the referee-lite equivalent used for some competitive ultimate matches). Thus, players must discuss among themselves on rule-related disputes making self-explanatory rules must be necessary, so that new players can participate in these deliberations. 

There’s many other aspects of ultimate that make it the best all-around sport on the planet. Nearly continuous play during points avoids the infinite breaks and marathon games that disrupt baseball or football. The variety of strategies on both offense and defense keep each game from blending into the next—while DIII open ultimate tends to consist of hucking the disk super far and letting your tallest and fastest player go chase it, I’ve heard rumors of something called an “in-cut.” The sport’s popularity is rapidly growing, leading to an expanding community of dedicated players (if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who grew up near Amherst, MA). But at the end of the day, there’s one reason that ultimate frisbee is the superlative sport: It’s just so damn fun. 

There’s something so satisfying about watching a perfectly thrown disc sail down the field, floating and dipping on the wind. Even better is finally nailing the perfect toss yourself, a process that takes a surprisingly short time given how hard it seems at first. Less than a year ago, I had never thrown a forehand to anywhere besides the grass right in front of me. Now I can flick downfield with the best of them. For those who prefer a more traditional athletically impressive feat, watching an ultimate pro dive for a toe-tapping touchdown in the end zone or sky above multiple opponents to come down with a point is as impressive as anything in the NBA dunk contest. And unlike the dunk contest, you and I have a chance of replicating some of these feats, without a trampoline. 

I don’t expect you to agree with me yet, or perhaps ever. Everyone has their preferences, and I won’t argue with your right to have them (some people even like golf). But I encourage you to give ultimate a chance. Watch some highlights on YouTube the next time you have a homework assignment you don’t want to do. You can even show up on Noyes Circle any Monday, Wednesday or Friday afternoon and toss a disc around. At the very least, maybe next time President Bradley will call us athletes, and you’ll call ultimate what it really is: a sport.

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