The Spirit of the Game


    20:5.1 million   That is the ratio of Ultimate Frisbee players at Latin to the total number of Ultimate players in the world. What started as a game invented at a small New Jersey high school in 1967 has recently climbed the sports ladder. 37 years later, Ultimate Frisbee is ranked as one of the fastest growing sports, along with lacrosse and rugby. With its unique sense of sportsmanship and teamwork, Ultimate’s popularity has been expanding at the high school, college, national and international level.  Over 700 college campuses have Ultimate Frisbee club teams, and over 25,000 amateur athletes compete through the Ultimate Players Association and the World Flying Disc Federation.  The sport has hit mainstream, and is now being used in the same sentences as conventional sports such as football, basketball and baseball. At a small private school, without a football program, you would think that the Ultimate vibe would quickly catch on it. However, at Latin, this has not been the case. For some reason, Ultimate has not been accepted as a legitimate sport at Latin,  while at other schools, it is climbing to the ranks of football, basketball, and baseball.  Latin still views it as a club activity, associating it with Scholastic Bowl and the Robotics Team. Now, the Forum and the entire student body have the utmost respect for the Scholastic Bowl and Robotics teams, but as a sport requiring the perfect combination of athleticism, intellect, and sportsmanship, why is it that Ultimate’s popularity is not rising at Latin? This past week I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. van Benthuysen, the faculty sponsor of the Ultimate Frisbee Club, as well the coach of the Ultimate Frisbee Team. Mr. van has been playing Ultimate for almost 20 years, starting when he was in high school and has been the coach since 2012. He likens the feeling of coaching to that of teaching, saying that “watching [his] players achieve something they hadn’t achieved before, seeing their improvement throughout the season is incredible.” In regard to the lack of popularity, Mr. van believes, “the main reason why Ultimate is not as popular as other sports is that there is confusion about the difference between the club and the team.” Mr. van assured me that they are two separate groups, and emphasized the teams legitimacy: “The team plays other high school teams, has real tournaments, and even competes in the State championships in June. We are not just a group of people who go across the street and toss a Frisbee around.” Because there is no basketball or baseball club, students at Latin simply do not associate Ultimate Frisbee with the other sports. However, Mr. van recognized the relevance of the club, understanding that it was what ultimately led to the creation of the team three years ago; he hopes that “[the club] will be a good way to get people interested in the sport first, without much commitment and then potentially convert those club members into team members.” So, why should someone play Ultimate? The common person associates Ultimate Frisbee with hippies, Birkenstocks, hacky sacks, and, especially, a bandana-wearing dog leaping through the air. Mr. van, along with most Ultimate players dislikes the hippie reputation, saying “that’s what makes people chuckle when I tell them I coach Ultimate.” People simply ignore the striking similarities to extremely popular sports such as soccer and football; because there is a flying disc instead of a ball, it cannot possibly be a sport. Or at least, that is what they think. Ultimate Frisbee requires the same, if not more, levels of athleticism, hand-eye coordination and intelligence as other main sports. Being one of the only sports without judges, or referees, Ultimate breeds a sense of sportsmanship that has almost disappeared from the individualistic and highlighted-driven sports world we live in. Mr. van refers to this sense of integrity as “Spirit of the Game, which is basically the idea that each player bears the burden of responsibility for fair play, including respecting the opponent, maintaining a safe game and adherence to the rules.” Along with the goals of another conference championship and a top 3 finish at State, Mr. van aspires for “continued growth to point where the team and sport are self-sustaining at Latin the same way, say, the basketball team is – to the point where being able to field both a Varsity and JV team is realistic.” He wants to spread his love for the game not only to his players, but also to the entire school, hoping that they will realize the beauty of the game he grew up on. In recent years, several sports writers have criticized the selfishness that college and professional sports have embodied over the past couple decades with the rise of ESPN and Sports Center; Ultimate provides an opportunity to recreate what sports were in the past, and deserves a more recognized presence as a sport for real, talented athletes and not hippies in Birkenstocks with their bandana-wearing dogs. And, hopefully, someday we can even out that overwhelming ratio.  ]]>