Bringing Humanness Back Into Ultimate

It’s been a while now, but it’s still something I think about every day. The relentless wondering: what if I had played?

In terms of my life or any of my teammates’ lives, really, if I’m honest, little would be different. But I feel the specter of that would-be universe running alongside this one every day. I look over and see the world where I didn’t let down my friends and the team I love. I see no failure, whatever the score may be. And I see the other would-be me looking back, OK with himself. Happy, even. Then I see him and the rest of his would-be universe whisk away again, sure to return some other time, just to check in.

That ghost is the haunt of my final year playing with UCLA Smaug in 2012. Throughout the season, my co-captain and I worked damn hard to revamp the program and try our best to turn it into a Nationals contending team. For most of the season it was going well.  We had some of Smaug’s best results in many of the tournaments we regularly attended.

But one night in early April, less than two weeks before Conferences, I got a call from USA Ultimate informing me that I was ineligible to play for the remainder of the season.

Although it was only my second year playing college ultimate, during my four years at community college (working on a school newspaper) I played a few pickup tournaments and had registered for them under the UPA. I could have ignored the registration process and just played, as there would be no way of them really finding out, especially with pickup teams, but I registered anyway. I wanted to support ultimate and the people who helped keep it going.

And I was penalized for it. Even worse, my team would be penalized for it too, as our regular season results would be nullified as punishment for breaking the rules. The representative from USAU told me that if I hadn’t signed up for those pickup tournaments I most likely would have been eligible to play. And to wrap up the shock in a nice package, the eligibility structure has no appeals process, no way to make a valid case based on rationale and communicate on a human level. There would be no discussion of the infraction. The refs had made their call and no coach’s challenge was available.

I was crushed. The main focus of my life for essentially the past year had been slipped out from under me, and now I was just floating in dead space. I told my team soon after. It was one of the most embarrassing and disgraceful things I’ve had to do. I abandoned them when it mattered most and there was nothing I could do about it.

It was then decided that in order to protect the team from being disqualified from Nationals contention I would in no way play, just to be safe. It was also decided that in order to protect the chemistry of those who would be eligible, I would no longer participate during practice, other than helping plan it and giving feedback where necessary. So I watched from the sidelines for the last month or so of the season, wanting to cry from shame every time I was involved with anything ultimate-related, but trying my best to be positive and supportive any time I was near a teammate.

In the greater scope of things, I understand that it’s not really a big deal. The team worked hard the rest of the season and played with heart at Sectionals and Regionals. Sure, Smaug didn’t finish too well at either of them, but I was still proud of my team and how hard everybody worked. During that last stretch of the season, though, I had a lot of time to think.

I thought about the lunch periods in high school. The maybe six to twelve of us running around that square of blacktop, not knowing the rules or how to throw, but running hard nonetheless. The cruel force flicks when we only had backhands. The plastic Wham-o disc carved to a serrated edge along the rim, courtesy of the concrete. Our collective blood spattering the inside. And us not realizing that until we got back to class and found dark red streaks on our notebooks.

I thought about the Friday nights before tournaments, and most of the Saturdays, where I couldn’t sleep because I was too excited to play. It’s why I’ve taken combinations of sedatives and various sleep facilitators since I was 17. One year when we played Centex, I spent the entire Friday night staring at the wall. We played five games the next day and I still could only muster an hour of sleep Saturday night. I was just so excited to be playing a big, fun tournament in another state with my buddies. And, dammit, I wanted to get on that field and work my ass off to prove I was grateful for the opportunity.

I thought about how there was not a single night during the season where I didn’t think about playing in the game-to-go before mercifully falling asleep. Not that all I cared about was us making Nationals, or us winning games in the first place, but that I wanted my team to play well and do well so bad that I had trouble focusing on really anything else from September to May.

I thought about USAU’s decision, where it came from, and what it meant. It’s not about age. There’s plenty of people older than me playing the college circuit right now. It’s not about experience. There’s plenty of people with Worlds experience who got to go back to their college teams and dominate. It’s not about unfairness. There are plenty of other teams that still spanked us.

It was about rules. I get it. Rules matter. Without rules, there’d be no in-bounds, no stall count, no endzone, no way to score, no way to determine what to play for, really. Without rules, it’s pretty much the hippie sport in the park most people in the world think it is. But I also know that rules are meant to be broken, or at the very least thought about, discussed, and most of all questioned. Much like how the self-officiating element is one of the reasons I switched over to ultimate.

I used to play basketball for hours pretty much every day since the age of about five. When I wasn’t required to be at school or family functions, or playing video games, I was down at the park or in my backyard, with or without teammates and opponents, shooting until sundown and sometimes after. Because I love the game. That’s the main thing. I didn’t just practice because I wanted to get better. That was a big part of it, sure. Getting better at something usually makes it more fun, because you can do more and experience more. But the main thing is that I just loved playing it.

Sure, some tournaments could have been run better and certain events seemed like they were finalized too late. But most all of my qualms were at the micro level, things that could’ve been addressed by those directly involved in the particular context. I didn’t really have a problem with the game. That’s why I played it so much. It’s what drives just about every team I’ve ever played with to play disc games in the pool Saturday night at just about every tournament, even though we all just spent the entire day playing ultimate. Our screams of awakened cramps echoing through the hotel rooms when we lurched up to grab the floaters in Three Flies Up.

As much as I loved and still love ultimate, switching over from basketball was not easy. I had spent so much of my life devoted to basketball, so it didn’t just feel like I was redefining a huge part of my life but a huge part of myself, too. I chose to make the switch because I was tired of jerks and posturing and people playing to the referees and not to the game. Ultimate was largely devoid of all the garbage that ruins great games like basketball. And despite all the awkward feelings, I have no doubt that it was one of the best decisions of my life. But something about the ineligibility experience soured me about many of the directions the sport is headed.

The knowledge that USAU’s tagline is essentially “Play Ultimate” is one my favorite aspects about the sport. It communicates well the spirit of the sport that attracted me to it in the first place and got me hooked. It was a spirit that I found lacking in the other sports, sports that I would’ve liked playing way more if the people involved in them were better at understanding and promoting one basic concept. Just because we all want to compete and play our hardest — and to be fair, we all want to win, just not at all costs — doesn’t mean we should ever forget our humanity. Should such an occurrence happen, we must work swiftly and with great care to remember it.

This is what most upsets me about what happened. It’s been almost two years now and I’ve calmed down. I no longer foolishly see it as me being personally shafted or as the ridiculous consequence of an organization more interested in red tape and image than community and mutual respect. I once wanted to write this essay essentially as a big “Screw You” to USAU and all the people out there who thought it was more important to uphold a slavish concern for silly rules than to just let people play the sport they love.

Now, given the time to reflect, I see that was but the mere kneejerk impulse of someone who was hurt. Though I still feel terrible about what happened, I no longer feel the bitterness. After all the reactionary sentiments have been sifted out, what is left in my core is what I feel to be the pressing issue at the heart of the matter. It is the pressing issue at the heart of just about all matters of the modern world. I’d say humanity, but that has too many other connotations and has been largely denatured. So I’ll say this: it is about the human-ness.

The human-ness to share your case with another human and appeal to them on the level of complexity that context creates in every situation — the kind of case-by-case basis of judgment that a flimsy inanimate rulebook simply cannot compute. In this case, I’m speaking of an appeals process. But in terms of the point I’m trying to make, there are a number of areas where such an approach, I believe, would greatly benefit the sport, like setting up a committee to decide regional bid allocation instead of a static algorithm.

I understand that there could be many different reasons why an appeals process or a bid committee or any other move away from automation might be difficult to institute from a logistical point of view. Whether it be because of resources or time or simply different focuses, such points nevertheless seem troubling to reconcile with the ethos of ultimate: the spirit of the game that we all love so much. Though I certainly am in favor of the sport’s growth and like many of the directions it’s headed, I just hope that we as a collective work to keep in mind the aspect of ultimate that just might be its greatest asset: the people.

  1. Alec Surmani

    Alec Surmani and some close friends began playing ultimate in high school and started Hercules Jabberwocky. He played college ultimate with UCLA Smaug and has played with various Open and Mixed club teams in the (former) Northwest and Southwest divisions. He started and now leads the team Bay Area Donuts.

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