Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Defense Doesn't Rest, Your Honor.

NASCAR. PBA Bowling. The World Billiards Trick Shot Championship. The World Series of Poker. Yes, even The National Beer Pong Championships. All of these events have received coverage of one sort or another by ESPN or Sports Illustrated. (Granted, the Beer Pong was in one humorous and quasi-satirical article for ESPN's Page 2, but still.) I don't inherently have a problem with any of this. ESPN's vast family of TV networks, online content, and a monthly magazine, ans SI's need to consistently fill their monthly publication, means that inevitably some features are going to filter through that broaden or loosen the definition of "sports." Which, really, is all well and good. But what continues to baffle me is the lack of any coverage, anywhere, of Ultimate Frisbee, which is certainly more athletically demanding than anything listed above. If we can find air time and print space for other such esoteric pursuits, why sports-oriented enterprises can't devote a little of it to a phenomenally demanding sport like Ultimate is beyond me.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am writing this from a bit of a privileged, biased perspective. See, I attended a tiny school you've probably never heard of: Carleton College in Northfield, MN. If this were the SATs, the answer would go thus: Carleton is to Ultimate Frisbee as Duke is to College Basketball. Yearly, the college fields four competitive teams, two mens' and two womens', something like Varsity and JV squads, if you will, all of which are routinely among the best in the nation. Even in the many intramural leagues, they take their "Bee" seriously at Carleton. Most people I know think it's a "hippie game", their only exposure having come from watching dreadlocked stoners toss the bee around in laid-back pickup games or from watching the "game" in PCU. But at it's highest level of competitive play, the sport is anything but lazy.
Some things to know about my favorite completely-underrated sport:

1. The Players are serious athletes with well-defined, highly specialized skill sets. If you were to watch the Ultimate Frisbee National or World Championships, you would be watching a group of athletes as finely tuned as any on earth. My freshmen year at Carleton, I went out for GOP (Gods Of Plastic), the "JV" squad. I've rarely been more exhausted than I was after that week. Just like the NFL Combine, they put us through a regimen of drills to evaluate skills, conditioning, and game instincts.

The requisite skills:

Passing: With variations, there are at least 15 ways to throw a frisbee, and doing so accurately with a defender (or sometimes two) on you is incredibly hard. It's like a cross between being a quarterback and a pitcher. Not only must the player accurately hit moving receivers, they must be capable of throwing forehand or backhand, and of releasing those throws from various heights (think of overhand vs. sidearm vs. submarine pitching delivery, and being able to do all three with equal accuracy). More over, to thread the needle on a pass, good players don't just throw on a straight line, they "bend" those throws when necessary to arc either inside-out or outside-in, like breaking balls. In addition to forehand/backhand, you must be able to execute the "hammer" (you basically imitate throwing a baseball, and the frisbee flies inverted to its target), the "airbounce" (throwing in such a way that the disc shoots downwards, sneaking under a defender, then bounces back up to the receiver without touching the ground), and several other useful options. Some players can actually do all of this with either hand. Yeesh. Try mastering any of these throws sometime. It's a challenge. Then picture trying to hit a moving target with a defender in your face and multiple defenders down-field.

Receiving: While not as refined an art as throwing, catching a frisbee that is moving towards you very, very fast and at any number of odd angles is not as easy as you might think. The "fundamentally sound" way of doing this is basically imitating a Florida fan doing the Gator Chomp, ensuring that both hands clap around this disc to prevent a defender knocking it away, but or course you have to be able to make one-handed catches with either hand as well, "flourishing" after the catch if required to secure possession, or to manipulate the bee into proper hand position for a rapid successive pass. Doing this on the run or in the air is a tough ask.

Athleticism: Excepting whomever is currently holding the frisbee, every other player on the field must be constantly moving, so you'd better be in shape and prepared to run. A lot. (When I went out for GOP, we ran "suicides" and cone drills in the gym, then went outside for a mile's worth of laps on the football field. In Minnesota, in January. You try running a mile in the freezing cold through three feet of snow sometime.) Just as in basketball, height and leaping ability are a plus, since many passes over the course of a game resemble alley-oops, and you need hops to clear the defender and make the catch. (Most of the elite players in the world have NBA-caliber verticals.) As in soccer, play in Ultimate rarely stops, so you're essentially sprinting around constantly. Tell me this ain't a sport.

The Game: I won't run you through the extensive list of rules, offensive and defensive strategies that govern Ultimate. (You can find a good general summary here: A few salient points: there's a "pull", with a coin toss like an NFL kickoff, that occurs to start the game, and after every point scored. As with a kickoff, the objective is to throw the frisbee as high and far as possible, giving the opposing team the worst possible field position and allowing the defense to get down field and set up. Once play begins, both teams employ a number of offensive plays and systems, and defensive counterparts. Just like hoops or football, defenses are either "man", "zone", or hybrid coverages, complete with strategies for double teams and traps (it's called cupping) to stifle the player with the disc, cutting off passing angles or forcing a throw to one side. Teams constantly communicate on the field, shifting strategies and adapting to the situation and the opponent.

One of my favorite things about Ultimate is the fact that there are no refs, and more importantly, no coaches. We talk about certain athletes being "students of the game", or having a "high IQ" in their respective sports. Well, in Ultimate, everyone is a student of the game, and everyone has to have a high frisbee IQ, because the team is, by committee, its own head coach, offensive and defensive coordinator, and GM. Fouls and violations are called by the players on the field, and there is a heavy emphasis on the spirit of the game, sportsmanship, and fair play. Really, the whole mechanism is ideal.

High-caliber athletes, game-specific skills, game plans, playbooks; sounds like a sport, right? It is. I'm not saying we can't have NASCAR or bowling events on sports channels or in magazines, but if we do, is it too much to ask to get a small camera and production crew out to the Nationals or Worlds for Ultimate Frisbee, which is decidedly more sporting? Heck, give me a call, I'd be happy to do the play-by-play.

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