People like Alex Pozzy, who has organized Portland’s summer league since its inception in 1993, have made it a life goal to raise Ultimate to the level of other mainstream sports in America, with televised matches, corporate sponsorships, the whole nine yards. Doing so means getting the sport into the schools and legitimizing it in the eyes of the larger community. But, with that desire to see Ultimate shed its marginal position in sports comes a risk that what we know and love about the game, its laid-back attitude and camaraderie, will be lost.
In Portland, an entire community has developed around the sport, complete with traditions and intermarriage. Some say Ultimate is a culture of its own. “It’s that feeling that you could go anywhere in the country, move anywhere, look up on the Web, ‘I want to play Frisbee,’ and you will find a local group,” says Maureen “Moe” Lucey, 35, who has been playing Ultimate in Portland since 1994. “Everyone is extremely welcoming and loves to have you there. It’s this common bond that instantly solidifies you.” Perhaps it’s that invisible bond that prompts people to weather a hailstorm to keep playing Ultimate.
From invisible bonds over time has sprung a culture, a real system of beliefs, customs — even artifacts — that keeps the group together and is now being transmitted to the next generation.
One of the sport’s guiding beliefs is an ethical code of behavior known as “the Spirit of the Game,” which is even a registered trademark of the Ultimate Players Association, the governing body of the sport. The Spirit of the Game encompasses everything about the sport, from the fact that it is self-refereed and demands fair play, to exhibiting good sportsmanship. I’ve been to many an Ultimate game and witnessed a player spike the disc after a score only to get booed by onlookers. The Ultimate players I know expect that type of behavior to remain part of the mainstream sports we all left behind.
In that same vein, one Ultimate tradition is for each team to cheer the other at the end of every game in a show of goodwill. I’ve heard many non-Ultimate players, as well as some younger folks on the field, say the cheer is lame. But the cheer is a ritual that has persisted thanks to true-spirited Ultimate players. And like many aspects of culture that appear arbitrary from the outside, the cheer serves a real purpose. “[The cheer] sort of blows off steam,” Lucey says. “So even if the game got hot and heavy, at the end everybody still went away with a smile on their face and hugging each other, slapping hands, saying ‘great game, good playing with you.’ And when you don’t always do that, you don’t always leave with a resolution.”