Saturday, December 22, 2007

Senior Paper: Increasing the growth and legitimacy of Ultimate

Kimber Coles, a senior at Churchill High School, developed her senior paper on the subject of growing the sport of ultimate specifically in the area of the college women's division. The paper highlights a division of the NCAA that encourages emerging sports. The implications are huge if Kimber's proposal was to be taken, but even more interesting is the translation one could make to the high school division.

Many have discussed the issue of ultimate gaining varsity status in specific areas in the country. From my limited knowledge, the only schools that have gained this status are private schools. And the title 'varsity status' simply has meant the ultimate programs at those schools have been given the same support as traditional sports (paid coaches, guaranteed fields, and legitimacy by both administration and student body). The title has nothing to do with state-wide recognition.

From the one limited conversation I had with the athletic director at Churchill High School in Eugene, for ultimate to gain varsity status in the state of Oregon, it would take at least 40 independent schools with current ultimate teams to even begin the process of becoming sanctioned. For reference, there are 40 5A High Schools (Churchill HS is 5A and South Eugene is 6A) and over 300 total High Schools in all of Oregon. Varsity status would give the OSAA, the governing body of athletics in Oregon, complete control over the sport including influence of its' rules and officiating... This I believe is the greatest reason why there hasn't been movement in our country by those in the high school ultimate arena to push for official varsity status.

Kimber's paper looks at these same implications for the college division and is worth the read.

Her complete paper is below if you click "continue reading..."

What are your thoughts?

Kimber Coles
Churchill High School
Eugene, OR
2007 Senior Paper


Some people call it “glorified fetch” and others don’t call it a sport at all, but to the more than 20,000 ultimate frisbee players in the U.S., it is definitely a sport (UPA.ORG). Some would even say that it is the “ultimate sport,” and that is how it got its name. The year was 1960, and Jared Kass was playing frisbee football as a college student on the quad of Amherst College; the pre-curser to the sport we know today. He was running to catch a disc and feeling the joy of the moment exclaimed, “This is the ultimate game!” (Leonardo and Zagoria 4). Kass would go on to teach a few friends of his at Mt. Herman Summer Camp and the rest was history. Ultimate frisbee is now played by people as young as six and as old as 60. Ultimate frisbee is played by 2,211,00 people compared to 1,079,000 people playing lacrosse and rugby combined (Sporting Good Manufactures Association). In spite of this, the sport has yet to earn NCAA or National Collegiate Athletic Association recognition. The reasons for this are varied and complicated, and unfortunately it has caused the public to view ultimate frisbee as being on a lower level than more traditional sports like basketball, baseball, and football. The area that has struggled the most in gaining recognition and respect is women’s ultimate frisbee.
Now in its 28th year, ultimate frisbee is run and organized by the Ultimate Players Association. The UPA is a non-profit organization with its’ primary goal to make ultimate frisbee as widespread as possible, while maintaining the atmosphere that it began with. The UPA organizes and runs many high school, college, and club tournaments.
Ultimate frisbee is unique in that it does not have any referees; it is a self-officiated sport. The players on the field make their own calls. All players are trusted to have the integrity to make fair calls by something called the spirit-of-the-game. As the sport becomes more and more competitive, the spirit-of-the-game faces serious threats. In the 1986 Club National Championship game, it was reported that “defenders would blatantly run into receivers knowing the disc would go back to the thrower, or worse, hoping they would drop the disc” (Leonardo and Zagoria 67). As the sport has continued to grow, the question of spirit-of-the-game and referees has been a very debated topic. In a 2007 study, the UPA asked its members what they thought of having referees. Of those who responded, 18% felt that “referees would ruin ultimate and they should never be allowed”, 34% said, “It is dangerous territory and integrity of the game will be at risk”, 26% said “I might be okay with it”, 16% said, “I’d like to play with it, but only at certain levels”, and only 5% said, “It’s the future of ultimate and that it’s the only way” (UPA.ORG -Ultimate Revolution). What must the UPA change in ultimate frisbee in order for it to become an NCAA sport, how would this effect the spirit-of-the-game, and how could the spirit-of-the-game be preserved?
I believe that the UPA could easily meet the NCAA requirements for ultimate frisbee to qualify as an NCAA sport and would greatly benefit by doing this. The spirit-of-the-game would be challenged, and would require creative and collaborative solutions for its preservation.

NCAA Emerging Sport Status:
Ultimate frisbee must fit the definition of a ‘sport’. A sport is defined as a “physical activity engaged in for pleasure” (Merriam-Webster Online). Ultimate fits this definition easily in that it is both fun and qualifies as physical activity. Most people would say it is just as strenuous as a game of soccer or basketball. Ultimate frisbee is played seven on seven with a disc. The point of the game is to score by throwing the disc to one of your teammates in your opponent’s end zone. A player cannot run or walk with the disc and can only hold the disc for ten seconds. Most games are played to fifteen and have time caps at ninety minutes. The players on the field make all the calls. For example, if a player throws the disc to a teammate and feels that he or she is fouled on the throw and this has affected the ability to throw accurately, the player can call a foul. The opponent must then contest, meaning they disagree with the call made, or state no contest, meaning they agree that it was a foul, and the disc goes back to the thrower. Some calls the opponent cannot contest. A travel, for example, is a call that the opponent cannot contest. A travel is when the player takes too many steps with the disc or when the player moves his or her pivot foot when it has already been established. Again, all the players on the field are expected to act out of spirit-of-the-game to make their calls and decisions.
The NCAA has something called an emerging sport. “An emerging sport is a sport recognized by the NCAA that is intended to provide additional athletic opportunities to female student-athletes” ( The purpose of emerging sports is to allow institutions to meet NCAA minimum sports-sponsorship requirements. To become an emerging sport there must be 20 or more varsity teams and/or competitive club teams that currently exist on college campuses in that sport. There are more than 215 registered UPA college women’s teams, according to the UPA’s score reporting system (UPA.ORG). There are more than enough college women’s ultimate teams in the U.S. to fulfill this requirement.

Also the sport must have other information that demonstrates support for that sport. For example, non-scholastic competitive programs demonstrate support. Ultimate has many non-scholastic competitive programs. There are over 115 women’s club teams. These teams have no relation to a school or university. Most large cities have ultimate leagues that are open to anyone and take place in spring and fall seasons. Another example of support demonstrated for ultimate is from companies that produce ultimate products. Gaia Ultimate was one of the first ultimate frisbee companies to emerge. Gaia is passionate about the development of the sport at all age levels. They believe in supporting grass root athletes at their point of participation by sponsoring leagues, tournaments, clubs, charities, and over 300 athletes annually ( There are also several other brands such as Five Ultimate, VC Ultimate, and Discraft that all support the growth and development of ultimate similar to Gaia.
If ultimate were to gain emerging sport status, all NCAA institutions wishing to sponsor ultimate at the varsity level would have to abide by all NCAA regulations. This would include limits on playing and practice seasons as well as recruiting regulations and student-athlete eligibility. These are reasonable and achievable requirements that the UPA has already put into some limited practice. If UPA achieved the standards of the NCAA, this would increase ultimate’s credibility as a sport.
To become an emerging sport one must submit a proposal that includes general information and rules of the sport. The UPA regulates all of the rules and rule changes; they have rulebooks and information about ultimate suitable for an emerging sport proposal. In addition to the proposal, 10 letters of support are needed. The letters are to come from 10 member institutions that sponsor or intend to sponsor the sport as an emerging sport. The letters must also include signatures of the president and the athletics director of those institutions. These letters have to be dated within one year of submission of the proposal. I believe there are many ultimate institutions that would sponsor ultimate in an effort to become an emerging sport. Washington Area Flying Disc Club, Sacramento Ultimate players association, and Mercer County Ultimate Disc League are just a few of institutions that would likely support the growth of women’s ultimate at the college level.
If college women’s ultimate became an NCAA emerging sport it would open the door to many other opportunities for these female athletes. It would also give ultimate a chance to be more legitimately recognized at the college level, show the NCAA how serious the UPA and its’ players are about the growth of the sport, and it would encourage sponsors to get more involved with ultimate in their region. Gaining an emerging sport status for its women’s division is ultimate’s first step towards recognition and professionalism. If women’s ultimate became an NCAA emerging sport, this could pave the way for men’s ultimate as well.

The UPA would not have to change the structure of its organization and could remain very involved in the ultimate community. Although the UPA would be giving up a portion of its responsibilities and authority to the NCAA, the two have similar mission statements. Their goals do not conflict with one another, making it possible for easy collaboration. The NCAA mission statement is; “to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount” ( The UPA mission statement is; “to uphold the Spirit of the Game including personal responsibility and integrity, and to provide a framework for players to organize and conduct competition and other activities related to Ultimate” (Parinella). Both organizations emphasize preserving integrity and fairness in competition.
Ultimate promoters can learn from the journey of other sports that recently took the leap to becoming NCAA. Lacrosse became an NCAA sport 1971. In that year the National Collegiate Athletic Association created the NCAA lacrosse championship, in which the top 12 Division 1 lacrosse teams compete in a tournament each year to determine that year's champion (Lund.) Lacrosse is similar to ultimate in that it is a new sport and growing rapidly. When lacrosse became NCAA it did not have an organization like the UPA organizing everything. It was not until January 1, 1998 that US Lacrosse was created. It is currently the national governing body of lacrosse. Its goals are also similar to the NCAA’s and the UPA’s. “Through responsive and effective leadership, US Lacrosse strives to provide programs and services to inspire participation while protecting the integrity of the game. We envision a future which offers people everywhere the opportunity to discover, learn, participate in, enjoy, and ultimately embrace the shared passion of the lacrosse experience” ( It has been 36 years since lacrosse has been an NCAA sport and 9 years that the NCAA and US Lacrosse have been working together to help the growth of lacrosse. Now, lacrosse is one of the fastest growing team sports in the USA. Youth membership in US Lacrosse has doubled since 1999 to over 60,000. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that in 2001 more than 74,000 students played high school lacrosse. With club teams, private schools, and states not yet having sanctioned lacrosse, high school-aged participation is actually much higher. Varsity college participation has grown by one-third since 1995, and collegiate and post-collegiate club teams field thousands of players as well (Lancaster).

We can see the possibilities for ultimate if it were to become an NCAA sport, but what would be the effect on spirit-of-the-game? Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate non-sportsmanlike conduct from the ultimate field.
At the 2007 Club Open Regionals tournament in Stevenson, CA, in the game to go to Nationals there were six significant calls made in the same final point between Portland’s Rhino and San Francisco’s Revolver. Rhino was up by two points, but Revolver had the disc. If Revolver could score before the hard time cap that was seconds away from being called, they could force one more point to be played and have a chance still to win. Unfortunately, those 6 calls made by both Revolver and Rhino players ended up taking more time than was necessary, and the hard time cap went on. Even though Revolver would score the last point, it would not matter as they were still down by one. Rhino would end up winning the game 14-13 and move on to Nationals three weekends later. So with Nationals on the line, it was clear that spirit-of-the-game was not primary to either Rhino or Revolver players, and thus spirit-of-the-game was sacrificed in order to win.
Unnecessary calls and such actions as “taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players” (UPA.ORG). This is unique and unlike any other sport. Spirit-of-the-game is a large factor that draws many people to the sport.
Some people believe that ultimate frisbee needs referees to become more credible. If ultimate were to become an NCAA refereed sport, large aspects of the game would need to be changed and there could be a loss of spirit-of-the-game, one of the most important factors in ultimate. On the other hand, if ultimate were to remain the same, without referees, high level competitive games would become highly disputed. “Excessive calls are killing ultimate’s beauty, excitement, spirit and marketability. Something needs to change,” states Steve Courlang, team leader of Tsunami Ultimate (Leonardo and Zagoria 76).
Fortunately, there is a compromise. In 1990 Robert “Nob” Rauch, the national director of the UPA, launched the Certified Observer Pool (COP) to qualify observers. The observer’s purpose is to settle disputes between players on the field. If a player in the field calls “travel” on the opposing team and that player does not believe it is a travel, there is often a lengthy debate that slows the game down and usually results in the disc returning to the player who either did or did not travel. Observers help make this kind of call move faster as well as remove the abusive nature many calls are made with. Most games and tournaments do not have UPA observers, but at every UPA Championship Series tournament (Sectionals, Regionals, and Nationals) they are made available and are now required at the National semi-final and final games. Many people would agree that having UPA observers, not referees, at all major tournaments should be required. David Waters, a Liquid Assets player from Minneapolis states, “I feel that Sectionals, Regionals, and Nationals should have observers for every game. All other tournaments should continue with self officiated games, unless an observer is called upon.” (Ultimate News 5). This sentiment is shared by most players who responded to the UPA 2007 survey; Only 2% said “Observers will ruin Ultimate”, 10% said “it is dangerous territory”, 22% said “I might be okay with it”, an overwhelming 44% said, “I’d like to play with it, but only at certain levels”, 15% said “it is the future of the Ultimate and the only way”, and only 6% said “Observers don’t go far enough and refs should be brought in”. With observers present only in games where they are requested as well as at the furthest points in a tournament, spirit-of-the-game would remain intact. Observers help focus players on the spirit-of-the-game and only take that responsibility away when players struggle to remember its priority.
Ultimate: The Bigger Picture
As the sport becomes more and more competitive, preserving the spirit-of-the-game will become more challenging. Although observers are necessary at the NCAA level, there could still be club teams that don’t have observers or referees. Ultimate could still have the same spirit-of-the-game, just not at the NCAA level. Josh Seamon, UPA board of directors, states,
“Lots of people absolutely do not want an organization like the NCAA telling Ultimate players what to do. I'm really not sure how much that worries me since if Ultimate becomes an NCAA sport, there can always also be club teams. This is similar to the idea of refs in Ultimate -- Just because they are used on one level doesn't mean that have to be used on all levels” (

Josh makes a very good point here. The NCAA doesn’t need to regulate the rest of the ultimate community. It is simply a tool to help ultimate expand and grow and reach people who do not yet know about the sport specifically at the college level. I believe that ultimate frisbee can continue to hold strong the principles of spirit-of-the-game through its other levels of ultimate that would not be regulated by the NCAA.

Ultimate frisbee has changed a lot since its beginnings in 1968, but some things are still the same. It is still self-officiated, continues to hold spirit-of-the-game as a priority, and it remains as a club sport not yet recognized by the NCAA. Contained in these three issues are some of the most heated topics in the ultimate community. Should ultimate do away with self-officiating and adopt a system for referees? Should ultimate just abandon spirit-of-the-game as it often struggles at the highest level of play? And should the UPA release its hold on college ultimate to allow it to become officially recognized by the NCAA?
Ultimate should get observers for all NCAA endorsed games. This will help people respect ultimate and the rules. This will also allow spirit of the game to stay somewhat intact. And because not all ultimate games would have observers, only NCAA games, ultimate would still be run off of spirit-of-the-game at the youth and club level. Spirit-of-the-game should not be completely abandoned as it provides a highly unique aspect of sportsmanship that is especially important at the youngest age level. And, hopefully it would still be part of the game even at the NCAA level.
Ultimate needs to become an NCAA sport to continue growing and expanding. The growth and attention it would get from becoming an NCAA recognized sport would be a huge milestone for ultimate frisbee. “I think aligning collegiate competition with the NCAA is absolutely something that should be explored in depth. Seeing what the NCAA might be able to do for the sport of ultimate is a new way of approaching growth and one that could potentially be a huge boost to the sport,” says Josh Seamon. If ultimate frisbee were to become an officially recognized sport by the NCAA, it would help pave the path for other sports not yet recognized by the NCAA. It would provide female student athletes additional athletics opportunities. Lastly, it would give athletes playing ultimate new opportunities to play and enjoy the sport they have come to love so dearly.


Kevin said...

Didn't read the paper, but afaik multiple public schools, such as Amherst and Nathan Hale, are varsity.

MRB said...

I did read the paper. It would be interesting to examine the ins and outs of the 'emerging sport' program. The only thing I found lacking was examples of sports using said program to gain Varsity status.

One question - would the 10 'letters of support' be coming from Universities willing to sponsor women's ultimate, or organizations that already support ultimate?

Second... do we need to send UPA Ninjas in to survey Title 9 compliance and find 'target schools' which need helping meeting those requirements?

Kyle Weisbrod said...

The UPA's ninja budget is currently WAAAYY underfunded.

I believe (despite what Kimber's paper implies) that the "letters of support" would need to come from NCAA member Universities/Colleges. Basically, we need 10 schools saying they are ready to fund a varsity women's Ultimate program. To me, that seems like it is still several years off.

What will help is for college teams to start raising serious $$ from their alums. Brown University is actively doing this and will hopefully have an endowment set-up for their Ultimate team within the next year.

Anonymous said...

I think the key point is that NCAA status wouldn't ruin the sport we have worked so hard to create. The NCAA doesn't govern any sport; it just governs college play. Maybe the UPA could break down the statistics that the "revolution" gathered and see what the college kids think. I would imagine you would find a much higher pro-ref/observer attitude because of the intense level of competition that the collegiate atmosphere has already created. If its the college kids that would have abide by NCAA regulations then they should be making the decisions.

Anonymous said...

So, would the NCAA require refs, or observers? I feel like the way Kimber referred to observers coming into (all) college ultimate was a little uninformed... college already uses observers, and it has kept spirit intact (in a sense).

I was also a little confused about the "excessive calls" accusation. I've played college, club, and youth womens' ultimate, as well as other high school sports (I'll use basketball as an example), and I've found that refs in basketball tend to make way more calls than anyone in ultimate. Many ultimate coaches and teams will tell their players to only make a call if it affects the play (fouls excluded, because if it doesn't affect the play it's not a foul), but refs are there to maintain ALL rules, regardless of their relevance.

That said, I'm intrigued. Very interesting paper, Kimber. I'd love to see the UPA take this and run with it... Womens' Strategic Planning Committee?