Ultimate In The Media: ESPN, Brodie Smith, And Stereotypes

Last Friday, our commentary on the seriousness with which ESPN covers ultimate garnered more attention than anticipated. The idea that our sport deserves more respect from the media — and public in general — seemed to be a rather innocuous concept. Based on the responses, though, ultimate’s relationship with the press appears to be an unexpectedly divisive issue.

To quickly summarize the argument made in Friday’s article: mainstream sports media sources should be more serious and thoughtful when covering ultimate. The sport has historically been presented as a novelty and persistently associated with stereotypes that undermine its legitimacy. As such, even though ultimate has been getting more coverage lately, the fashion in which is it represented diminishes the benefit of the increased exposure.

The most visible reaction came in a video blog from Brodie Smith, who is mentioned in the article and is recognized as ESPN’s Ultimate Frisbee video correspondent. He touches broadly on a number of topics — Ultiworld is not mentioned, for the record — while stressing the need for reflection on how far the sport has come and general positivity about ultimate’s recent progress. Brodie’s comments make it clear that he disagrees with many aspects of our article but the underlying intention of the video isn’t to actually refute specific claims, it’s to offer a different perspective.

This is an important distinction. Instead of just trying to undermine facets of our article, Brodie expresses his own views on the topic, contributing original ideas to a larger discussion about where the sport is headed. This is the type of dialogue that’s absolutely necessary for ultimate to continue growing and improving as a sport. Constructive criticism and unique perspectives are what fuel progress. The fact that we’re discussing ideas with the intention of advancing our sport is much more important than actually agreeing on them.

With this in mind, we have compiled below some of the more compelling responses stemming from our initial commentary. Brodie made a number of interesting points in his video — some agreeable, some not as much — that warrant more attention. A handful of comments posted on Ultiworld and other internet platforms that deserve recognition are also included, with links, at the end so everyone can check out the discussions being had across the web and contribute themselves.

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Let’s take a look at a few of Brodie’s more intriguing comments. Around the 1:42 mark in his video, he offers an insightful explanation of how Dylan Freechild’s highlight from Labor Day didn’t rank higher than #6 on Sportcenter’s Top 10:

“The reason why it wasn’t higher than #6 is because it was out in the middle of a field, there weren’t really any fans around, there wasn’t a crowd, there wasn’t a stadium, there wasn’t a lined field, there wasn’t [sic] referees…”

The point he’s made here is smart and valuable to recognize. ESPN’s audience has come to expect certain things from the sports they watch on TV. Ultimate lacks many of the elements that are common to the majority of televised sports. Presenting the sport in a fashion that the average sports fan finds more familiar — something the AUDL has done — could go a long way towards getting ultimate better coverage. NexGen produces footage that does a great job replicating this feel, particularly for the NexGen Tour, but the game itself doesn’t meet the expectations of sports fans.

After this, the explanation takes an interesting turn:

“if you take away [Freechild’s] beanie cap, or whatever he wears, and make him wear a team Rhino hat. If you take away all of the stereotypical things that ultimate has been in the past and actually make it where you want it to be, that #6 play actually could be a #1, #2 or #3 play.”

This reasoning came as a bit of a surprise. I certainly agree with the underlying point that looking the part is half the battle — even though this guy was great for the NBA — but it seems to contradict something said earlier in the video. In response to complaints — like Ultiworld’s — about the media’s persistent use of stereotypes when covering ultimate, he says:

 “I really don’t care what they say. As long as the sport is being shown, I really don’t care.”

It’s hard to reconcile those two sentiments. How do we simply ignore that ultimate is marginalized with stereotypical references while simultaneously pushing to eliminate the rare instances — like Dylan Freechild’s headwear — that could cause the generalizations to appear true? It’s alright for sports anchors to insinuate that we’re all dirty hippies, as long as we don’t look that way on the field? This logic doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I think it stems from this idea that is mentioned towards the end:

“[ESPN is] watching Ultimate now. Their eyes are on us. I don’t think it’s wise for us to be posting articles, or Facebook statuses, or anything like that talking about how it’s stupid they’re talking about our sport in a negative way.

“We gotta stay positive, we gotta stay happy for what exposure ESPN has brought to our sport. And just remember, our sport’s young. It’s only really gotten these views and stuff in the past year…We don’t want to make the people upset because they are helping us out by showing our sport.”

Maybe this is where our perspectives diverge. Personally, I just don’t see how someone at ESPN — or anyone at all, really — would be upset by ultimate players not wanting to be stereotyped. I’m under the impression that the only people who are still pro-stereotypes are considered racists, bigots, and homophobes. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that ultimate clips be televised without it being implied to the audience that every person in them are drug users.

Yes, I am very excited about the attention ultimate has recently been getting. The exposure is great for the sport and I hope it keeps moving in the direction it’s headed. I completely agree with Smith when he makes the point that the onus is on us to professionalize and put ultimate in a better position to appeal to the average sports fan. Does this mean we should be content with whatever coverage the sport receives for the time being?

I don’t believe so. We should constantly be looking to better ultimate. Respectful treatment from the media would give a huge boost to the sport’s public image and, ideally, create a positive feedback loop that leads to even more coverage.

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These comments are included because they either make an intriguing point, a legitimate critique of our original article, or are simply hilarious. Check out the links included to see the rest of these users’ posts and the larger discussions that are happening all over:

“The Top 10 Plays segment regularly has joke videos like people jumping off bridges with homemade hang gliders and shin-kicking competitions. When ESPN puts on a clip that isn’t a mainstream sport, a video that most people won’t immediately recognize, they treat it like that.” – Onomatopoeiac, on Reddit

“I’m sure when some wicked googly from a cricket match makes the countdown, somewhere cricket players are going ‘oh come ON! Number 7!?'” – Alex Peters, on RSD

“And why you hating on ‘stoners’? Too many nerds playing this sport and not enough true burner jocks. You got a problem if there are folks out there that get fired up then crush it at the gym and/or on the field?” – Stephen Poulos, on Ultiworld

“I’m actually not so worried about the level of coverage. I think altering the perception of the sport as a stoner college fun game is a better challenge to solve. That way, at very least when it is covered, it’s just shown as an impressive play and the next clip is played.

“People who see that and go ‘awesome’ will then seek the sport out. But if the clip is qualified with a ‘stoner’ reference, that could exclude audiences/potential sponsors from finding out more.” – mench, on Reddit

  1. Wes Cronk

    Wesley Cronk is the Vice President of Business Development of Ultiworld. Originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, he started playing ultimate in high school and split his college ultimate between the University of Florida and New York University. He has played open club with Vicious Cycle (Gainesville) and Fox Trot Swag Team Unity (New York). He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can reach him by email (wes@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@wescronk).

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