First Person / The ultimate sport

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The recent firing of Rutgers' basketball coach Mike Rice for insulting and assaulting players is yet another black mark against the insular culture of hyper-competitiveness in American sports. The arrest of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and fall from grace of the beloved Joe Paterno are two more. Meanwhile, retired NFL players accuse the league of lying to players about the health risks of repeat head injuries.

Amid this concern over what we could call moral erosion in organized athletics, one game is emerging from the sidelines as an alternative. It demands high levels of athletic ability, skill and toughness, but the ethos of the sport is captured in its slogan: "Spirit of the Game."

The game? Ultimate, often identified as ultimate Frisbee, though real Ultimate players scorn Frisbees for "discs," which they find vastly superior throwing implements.

Bringing up ultimate often invokes a confused "huh?" or a snide chuckle. Mention "Frisbee" and imaginations run to players in tie-dye with unkempt hair shuttling around lackadaisically in sandals.

But ultimate players look just like other athletes, except maybe leaner. Games run for an hour or two, involve seven players (plus substitutes), and for official competitions are played on fields 120 yards long. It's a throwing game and a running game and is very fast-paced. Soccer is probably the closest analogue among mainstream sports.

The good news for Pittsburghers is we need look no further than our own backyards to see ultimate played well. How many residents of Pittsburgh know that the University of Pittsburgh won the men's Division I National Championship in ultimate last spring? Or that the men's team is now ranked No. 5 and going to the national championship for the ninth year in a row? Or that Eva Petzinger, formerly of Pittsburgh's Allderdice High School, now at Dartmouth College, won a spot on Team USA for the World Junior Ultimate Championships held in Dublin last August?

Ms. Petzinger and her friend Eliza Pugh (who's now at Harvard), started the women's ultimate team at Allerdice and their alma mater is now part of the thriving Pittsburgh High School Ultimate League or PHUL.

PHUL and David Hogan, who played ultimate for Pitt from 2006 to 2009 and now works there as an assistant coach and trainer, has organized a middle-school ultimate league for Pittsburgh, called PMUL. Registration recently opened, and parents looking for a hyper-athletic but confidence-building rather than possibly ego-bruising sport for their kids can find out more about it on the website.

Even younger players can learn the game at the Pittsburgh summer camp called "Spirit of the Game." My twin daughters first attended when they were 8 years old. Now 14, they are fixtures there and look forward to a full six weeks this coming summer. They distilled Camp Spirit's uniqueness in the following tart bit of tween wisdom: "This camp doesn't suck."

Over time, my husband and I discovered why our daughters felt such an affinity with Camp Spirit and ultimate. The game is physically demanding and very competitive, sure, but as the USA Ultimate website explains, "The integrity of ultimate depends on each player's responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game, and this responsibility should remain paramount." Thus, ultimate has no referees; disputes are resolved by the players during the game.

Fairness and respect are central to ultimate, meaning the game has a built-in moral component. Does that mean there are never disagreements or slight bendings of the rules for an unfair advantage? Of course not -- it's still a game played by human beings, with all of our complex motivations. But unlike the truly immoral behaviors that have been unmasked at Rutgers and, sadly, the football program at Penn State, ultimate seems designed to resist the corrupting effect of high-stakes competition. At least that's the idea behind "Spirit of the Game": Winning is not inevitably accompanied by humiliating whoever loses.

Ethical bona fides don't come any more solid than those of the founder of "Camp Spirit," Andy Norman, an assistant professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. Coach Andy, as my daughters know him, is attracted to ultimate partly because of the poetry of the disc, which he describes as, "An almost magical toy -- the way you can float it, bend it and hover it." But more importantly, without cynicism or irony he describes ultimate in terms of reputation and moral worth: "Winning is nice and important, but playing the game honorably and well is more important."

Seeing my daughters' dedication to ultimate has been heart-warming. For them it's foremost about being good at something they love, not being better than everyone else. The coaches for the middle-school league seem almost like anti-coaches in that they never yell at or berate players. Gentle razzing among teammates is par for the course, but no one gets aggressively blamed for a mistaken play or scorned for a dropped disc.

In the end, ultimate is about community, and that may explain its growing popularity worldwide and the emergence of semi-professional leagues in the United States. What I see is a modern sport with old-fashioned values that really should never have gone out of style: Playing games means working hard while having a good time. As Coach Andy says, "In ultimate, the play is an end in itself."


Theresa Brown, a registered nurse, writes an opinion column for the New York Times called "Bedside," and is the author of "Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between" (


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