Beyond the Bookends: Commitment to the Core

By Jake McKean


Commitment to the Core

Ultimate is the best sport on the face of the earth. It has the greatest people, a tremendous community, and is the best use of anyone’s energy and leisure time. Attend an Ultimate gathering and it will be clear that we are the happiest and healthiest group of individuals you will come across. Ultimate is more than a sport or a pastime, it is a lifestyle; and what a life it is!

Personally, Ultimate has afforded me so much. My greatest friendships, most of my romantic relationships, my health, and my zeal for life are all thanks to Ultimate. I discovered Ultimate in college while playing with a fantastic group of guys. I’ve played club at all levels and had the fortune of winning a national championship with Drag’n Thrust. I coach high school Ultimate, I serve on the board of our local youth organization, I’ve been a national tournament director for USA Ultimate, and I am a certified observer.

Last year I had the opportunity and privilege to play on the inaugural roster of the Minnesota Wind Chill. The Wind Chill is a semi-professional team in the Midwest Division of the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL). I can’t thank the franchise owner enough for the opportunity. I have a jersey with my name on it and a program that says I played on the first MN professional Ultimate team; an incredible transformation from the boy that dropped out of baseball in the 6th grade, soccer in the 8th grade, and cross country in the 10th grade. I never considered myself an athlete, but something about this sport was different. Ten years of Ultimate has developed my confidence and self-motivation to new levels, enough to become a professional.

Unlike other professional athletes I have to work a real job, you can’t make a living playing Ultimate….yet. Well, Wednesday morning on my commute to a work meeting the radio was abuzz with CVS Pharmacies decision to stop carrying and selling tobacco products. A decision that will result in the loss of $2 billion in annual revenue from tobacco product sales, a seemingly large loss.  However further investigation suggests that CVS Pharmacies is making a calculated business decision, as they look to capitalize on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and evolve their “pharmacy” business model into a “wellness center” that provides health services.   But in my idealistic mind I would like to think that some high-powered executives were sitting around the table at the top of a skyscraper somewhere making this bold decision because it was “the right thing to do”.

Similar to the moral and fiscal dilemma playing out in the corporate health & wellness space there is a dilemma unfolding in the sport of Ultimate. There has never been the potential to make money in Ultimate, until recently. At the surface there appears to be a lot of jockeying amongst organization to the get biggest slice of this fabled sports money. Corporations are sponsoring club teams, professional franchises are paying players, USA Ultimate has a broadcast sponsorship with sports media giant ESPN. And more and more frequently the professional leagues and USA Ultimate are coming in conflict, seemingly over money.

This conflict takes many shapes, this week there is a conflict about jersey sponsorships. Major League Ultimate (MLU), the rival professional league of the AUDL, offered jersey sponsorships to college teams, teams that compete in USA Ultimate’s Championship Series. Understandably, USA Ultimate has banned MLU sponsored jerseys for violating of their uniform regulations. There has been a large outcry about how USA Ultimate is making poor college players pay more for jerseys than they have to, USA Ultimate seemingly throwing their weight around as a governing body and overstepping their role in the opinion of some.

It is easy to focus on the competition for money, the best athletes, and broadcast opportunities in this conflict. But this perspective ignores the greatest fundamental difference between the professional Ultimate leagues and USA Ultimate Championship Series: officiating. The MLU and AUDL use referees, similar to every other major sport, but starkly different than most Ultimate being played. USA Ultimate is still dedicated to the way the sport was created over 45 years ago, with young men and women resolving their own conflicts and managing themselves within a sporting competition. This aspect of self-officiating makes our sport so unique, so special, and thus so critical to our future.

As we watch the Olympics over the next couple weeks we’ll see sportsmanship at its finest, but I would contest that the sportsmanship on any field with self-officiated Ultimate will rival that of Olympians. I know a lot of my teammates appreciate what referees have to offer; they believe that it helps keep the game moving, it provides the fairest outcome, and they believe it relieves a burden of self-officiation during an athletic competition. This is understandable, but it could come at the expense of what is at the core of our sport. A very reasonable compromise would be the employment of the observer system.

USA Ultimate utilizes the observer system; allowing self-officiation, conflict resolution, and sportsmanship to flourish. But in the heat of competition an unbiased negotiator or authority can be required. That is why the observer system should be employed by all Ultimate organizations. It allows the athletes to compete at the highest levels without jeopardizing the foundation of the sport. We all want the sport to grow, to attract the best athletes, and be awarded the coverage and media that it deserves. But I do not want any of those things if it doesn’t include self-officiation.

The only proof you need that this is the right course of action is to watch any other professional level sport, cheating is as common as wins and losses. If you attend many high school practices in a gym or on a field around the US you’ll see youth intentionally cheating, or at least the promotion of not being caught by officials. That simply isn’t sportsmanship. Even the well-intentioned youth who are not cheating are never presented with the opportunity to see their opponent has any more than an adversary. They are never given the opportunity to look one another in the eye and assimilate with them as sportsmen or sportswomen, capable and willing to resolve their own conflicts together. To remove this aspect of our game would be a missed opportunity to provide a greater community service than simply running around a field in pursuit of a flying disc.

Two summers ago I was fielding second base for a summer softball team on a fly ball to the outfield. When the throw came in from the outfield as the batter tried to double, it was a bang-bang play and the umpire called the player out. I knew that my foot was not on the base and I knew that I didn’t field the ball clean, so not really thinking about any implications I informed the umpire that the runner should be safe. He reversed his call and after the game the he cornered me with a serious look on his face. He quickly softened and told me that in 20 years of officiating city league softball that a player has never asked him to reverse his call for the benefit of the other team. I did not think much of it at the time, but the significance of what that umpire has experienced tells us so much about the condition of sportsmanship in the US. In Ultimate that would never be the case. If I had let a call like that slide on the Ultimate field the guilt would have been too much, and I am certain one of my teammates would have later called me out on it. Imagine if the entire sporting community held athletes to the standards of Ultimate.

There was a big media storm a couple years ago when a Detroit Tigers pitcher, Armando Galarraga, was one incorrect call away from a perfect game add in cart at an easy rate tablets without rx – . On review it is clear that the 27th batter he faced, who was called safe at first base, should have been the final out of the game. Imagine if that runner had realized the error and was supported within the structure and community of the sport to correct the call. Imagine if the media and public had been consumed by a demonstration of sportsmanship, rather than the need for instant replay. Ultimate could be the exemplary sport to make those stories a reality.

It may be a long shot but I really believe as an Ultimate community we can withstand all the pressures of folks trying to make money, of big marketing schemes, of worldwide exposure and success to maintain what makes our sport the greatest in the world. If the AUDL or MLU would commit to a self-officiated game I truly believe that they can position themselves as a partner with USA Ultimate, rather than a competitor. They would also accomplish what CVS Pharmacies has seemingly done; advancing their brand in a competitive marketplace for simply “doing the right thing.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are mine alone, and are not meant to be representative of Drag’n Thrust, USA Ultimate, MN Wind Chill, the AUDL or MLU.

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