Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 2
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Sports and Culture / Michael Stout ’08
More Than a Fling

By Adam Conner-Simons ’08

Spending a year traveling the world and tossing Frisbees sounds like quite a vacation. But Michael Stout ’08, recipient of a $25,000 Watson Fellowship for 2008–09, has been mixing in plenty of research with his recreation. Beginning in August, he set out to discover just how well the U.S. college sport of Ultimate Frisbee is, well, flying overseas. More specifically, Stout is investigating the universality of the sport’s unorthodox “Spirit of the Game” principle, exploring how this ethos of mutual respect and self-officiating translates in countries that include Venezuela, Canada and Argentina.

Invented by high school students in Maplewood, New Jersey, in 1968, “Ultimate” (the brand name “Frisbee” is rarely used) fields seven-member teams, with the object being to throw the disc from teammate to teammate until it is caught within a specific section on the opponent’s side of the field. Blending elements of football, soccer and rugby, the sport now has more than 500 colleges and universities nationwide now fielding competitive teams.

But Ultimate is only now starting to gain popularity internationally. While the Ultimate Player’s Association (UPA) reports that the sport is played by more than 100,000 people worldwide, half of that group is American, and even Ultimate’s largest tournaments—like the World Ultimate Championships that took place this past August in Vancouver—are barely 20 years old.

Stout says that the main roadblock to global success is a lack of organization. “It’s hard to start a sport and just get everyone playing at once,” he says. The newness of the sport on the international scene is what got him interested in the project. “I figured that to study a sport in its infancy across a variety of countries would reveal a lot about the nature of self-officiated competition across cultural boundaries,” says Stout, whose Watson Fellowship provides for a year of overseas research.

The “Spirit of the Game” principle is an official UPA-sanctioned rule stating that Ultimate relies upon “a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player.” This tenet of self-officiating is meant to encourage competitive play, but, importantly, “never at the expense of adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play.” SOTG discourages such practices as taunting and intentional fouling but gives players the freedom to make those judgment calls at their discretion.

Stout started playing Ultimate for the Claremont Colleges “Braineaters” team during his freshman year, and for him, “The Spirit of the Game” is what set the sport apart from others. In particular, he admired the philosophy for helping drive out the corner-cutters and foul-fakers who might initially pursue the sport. “When officials are present, circumventing the rules is expected,” he says. “In Ultimate, the self-officiation puts the onus on the players themselves [and] self-selects for players interested in upholding the integrity of the game.”

Three months into his fellowship, which began in Canada and has continued to Venezuela, Stout says that the biggest take-home message from his journey so far is that each region’s sports atmosphere strongly colors the manner in which it plays Ultimate. The game in Canada is very physical, which Stout says is “true to the image of the rough-and tough hockey player.” While this more aggressive mentality is not viewed negatively in the Great White North, it can spark culture clashes in international contests. One of Stout’s Canadian teammates said that a New Zealand player once called him a jerk in the middle of a game (using slightly more colorful language). The Canuck’s response? “No, you’re just a wimp!”

Indeed, Stout has been surprised at the highly aggressive nature of the game’s incarnations in other parts of the world. He recalls with a mix of bewilderment and bemusement an argument during a game in Venezuela that ultimately devolved into a full-blown brawl. When he asked a teammate why nobody tried to talk things out, his friend told him, “It doesn’t work that way. You have to fight, and if you don’t, you’re a weakling.”

With such exchanges in mind, Stout is curious to see how his other target countries will approach the sport, from Argentina’s, with its soccer theatrics, to Brazil, known for warm hospitality. “It’s tempting to hypothesize about each country,” he says, “but I really can’t say for sure until I’m there and a part of the culture.”

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