Thursday Mailbag: Redshirt Freshmen, Spirit v. Sportsmanship, Mixed Division Changes

Euforia celebrates after winning the 2012 Colombian Nationals against Mamoots.Mailbag! Bonus extra long edition to make up for missing last week.

Q: Has USAU ever considered an injury exemption like the NCAA has an injury redshirt? Since ACL tears are so common in ultimate and if a player loses that whole season, doesn’t it seem logical that they would get to keep that year of college eligibility?

– Alex L.

A: USA Ultimate is currently very clear on this: if your eligibility has started, you’re cooked.

Let’s consider a couple angles here. First of all, in NCAA sports, you only have four years of eligibility, but you can extend that by becoming a redshirt (for one or even two years) and not playing in games for those seasons. Your clock then starts once you play in your first season of games.

College eligibility under USA Ultimate lasts five years, so in some ways the two organizations are already close on that.

The NCAA also allows for injury redshirt exemptions, where if a player has their season ended by an injury and has played fewer than 30% of the scheduled contests, they can be granted redshirt status for that season. Could something similar exist in ultimate?

In theory, sure. It would sure be nice to have your star freshman get a redshirt year because she blows out her ACL. I think the actual implementation of this rule would be really tricky. There would be people faking injuries, USAU would have to field crazy requests for waivers all the time, etc.

The simplicity of five years is pretty nice. Even if you lose one of those to injury, you are still playing out a normal NCAA amount of seasons.

Q: Does the Washington DC AUDL/MLU partnership on last week’s games have any larger ramifications?

-David S.

A: For those that don’t know, last week, the AUDL’s DC Breeze and MLU’s DC Current collaborated on a sort-of “doubleheader” where, if you bought tickets to both games, you could get each for $5. It’s a good idea, and it probably helped boost attendance at the margin.

Is this the first time that the two leagues have even acknowledged each other on a business front? Could be. It’s a single market, and a small partnership at best, but it’s something. What encourages me about this is that almost certainly Jeff Snader signed off on the deal, as MLU teams are all centrally owned by the league.

Does it mean the leagues are about to merge? Definitely not. But is it encouraging the leagues want to work together when they see the potential to make more money? Absolutely.

I don’t think this fundamentally changes anything, but it is a small step towards an almost certain future where the leagues merge in some form.

Q: With the larger field the AUDL/MLU use, should they experiment with more players on the field?

– Sheady

A: Why not? They’ve been aggressive with rule tweaks and changes. A surefire way to make defense a bit easier is to add some players to the vast expanses of the football-sized field.

An eighth player might help the defense to run some actually useful zones and slow down the huck onslaught of the current pro game. I think it’s hard to know if it would improve the game, but it is 100% worth a try.

Someone should come up with some cool 8 person zones: 3-2-2-1 or 3-1-3-1 both seem interesting. Could you do a 1-3-3-1, or would that be too much chasing for the guy setting the mark?

Lots of opportunity for new strategic thinking.

Q: Could we get some analysis on the Colombian style of play? It looks a lot different than most North American team styles.

– Michael W.

A: In my relatively early Ultiworld days, I had an opportunity to get crazy cheap airfare from New York to Bogotá on Spirit Airlines, something like $380 round trip. First of all, never fly Spirit Airlines. That has got to be the worst flying experience I’ve ever had, from the brutal bag fees (that’s how they get you) to the surly flight attendants. Not worth it.

Regardless, I timed my trip to coincide with Colombian Nationals, which was held a few weeks before the USA Club Championships. It was great fun, and an eye-opening look at a different frisbee culture.

The Colombians are, on the whole, extremely athletic. Sick sky after sick sky. But a really notable difference from American players: they’re much shorter.

So think about how you would play if you had a team stacked with fast, explosive players almost all of whom were under 6’0″. That’s what they do. But they also play with no turnover fear. Lots of hucks to speed, lots of wild layouts, lots of giant skies. Highlight reel stuff. They’ve got a guy nicknamed “El Cartero” (The Pickpocket) for his ability to “steal” discs away from players in the air.

What the Colombians lack is top-level disc skills from top to bottom (the top Women’s team, Revolution, may be the exception). They also don’t have the same kinds of training protocols implemented that the US does. It means that they often find themselves a bit physically outmatched against top US teams, even if they have the raw athleticism to compete.

The top players are very good, as evidenced by strong performances from the Colombians at international events. But they need to work on developing more elite players before their clubs can really compete with top US clubs.

INTERMISSION

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Q: USA Ultimate may still reference Spirit of the Game, but can we stop referring to the concept as “Spirit?” How about sportsmanship or something like that? A few years ago (2011 or 2012), either Tom Crawford or Will Deaver promoted the idea of “playing with honor” at the captains’ meeting the night before club nationals started. I would argue that even a phrase like “playing with honor” requires much less explanation than “Spirit” – its meaning is easier for casual fans to infer and understand. (Note: This is not an anti-Spirit or anti-Spirit-fairy rant — I support Spirit’s tenets and want them to maintain a central place in ultimate’s development.)

– Ian T.

A: This has got to be the most obvious way to “Make Spirit of the Game Real For Today’s Ultimate Players,” the 4th goal of the six year USA Ultimate strategic plan.

New player: “Spirit of the game? What the hell is that? Can we scrimmage yet?”

OR

New player: “Sportsmanship? That’s a vital part of the game? OK, that makes sense — I won’t cheat in this scrimmage.”

For me, there’s a concerning thread of arrogance running through SOTG that really needs to go away. Ultimate players: you are not better people than basketball players because spirit. Sports are sports, and while ultimate may generally attract cool people, there are still rampant issues with bending and breaking the rules, just as there are in any other sport.

I think calling it sportsmanship or something that any lay person can understand helps to shed the elitism that so often permeates frisbee “lifers.” Let’s make the game accessible, not try to shroud it in jargon and act like only a certain, anointed few can truly play and understand the sport.

Q: I play ultimate for my high school. I love the game and hope to improve my skill at the game and play it when I go to college. How good do you have to be to play on a college team?

– Stephen S.

A: Well, Stephen, let me tell you a story. I already take a thorough amount of ribbing from friends from this, so I might as well continue to publicly embarrass myself.

I played ultimate my junior and senior year of high school in Albuquerque. I was one of the better players on the team (which I started) so of course I thought I was a beast. I sent this email to Alex Kuo, one of the captains of NYU, once I knew I was going to New York for college:

Hey Alex,

I don’t know if you are even at NYU any longer, the Purple Haze website is a bit out of date. I’m an incoming freshman and I’ve been playing for 2 and a half years now. Just wanted to let the team know that I’m coming out and I was wondering if there are any fall practices or city leagues or anything.

Thanks!

–Charlie Eisenhood AKA Pigeon (cause I sky the shit out of everyone)

Perfectly reasonable email until I decided to include that last line. Understand that I am 5’9″ and, while reasonably athletic, I’m not exactly dunking on the basketball court. So saying that I sky the shit out of everyone is, well, hilarious in retrospect. As a sidenote, “pigeon” is thankfully no longer a nickname.

So what’s the point here? If you are playing in high school, you already have a leg up on a lot of players. Don’t come in and think you’re gonna be the freshman stud (I was not; that distinction went to Lu Wang). But you should also be confident that you can have a role on most college teams.

If you go to a really big program like a Colorado or a Wisconsin, depending on your skill level you might get relegated to the B team for a year or two. That will give you the development you need. To sky the shit out of everyone.

Q: I do not know if you guys have the capability to do it, but I think it would be interesting to re-run the USAU ranking algorithm (or convince them to do it) after each of these regional weekends to see if or how things would change.  You know, see if the cream rises to the top!

– Jim W.

A: I honestly don’t know why this isn’t already a thing. Maybe because of the manual labor required to run the algorithm at all (it is a major headache for USAU staff)?

But it would sure be nice for College Championships seeding purposes (lots of comments on our seeding predictions about this) to see where teams stand after Regionals. How much should Texas A&M fall after a surprise loss to Colorado College at Regionals, for example? I put almost no weight on that loss, because they won when it counted. But certainly it would affect the rankings if churned through the algorithm.

Seeding this year is so difficult, and the current method may not be the best. Should UNC fall down to the 7/8/9 spot because of their loss to UNC Wilmington, when they would have been #1 had they won? Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a seeding perspective, but with the current USAU method, that’s exactly what will happen.

The system seems ripe for some refinement — fresh rankings would help.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What is the role of mixed going forward?

Mixed allows for a town/area with fewer players to field a competitive team (e.g., Flycoons), but it can also stunt the growth of single gender teams (particularly, women’s teams). Most people believe that the talent level in mixed is lower than in Open/Women’s (pointing, for example, to the lack of mixed club players on the World Games team), but I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about how the existence of mixed teams spreads talent thinly, even in ultimate hotbeds.

Given that USA Ultimate and WFDF seem to be pushing mixed as one point of their strategy for increasing the sport’s visibility, are we going to see player’s attitudes towards mixed changing? Are we going to see talent re-align? Are players going to prioritize making the best mixed team in an area over the second-best open team?

One of the reasons this question is interesting to me is that in 2007, CLX actually split up and played as Open and Women’s. Both teams (Van Buren Boys and Small Rackages) made nationals, but placed 16th and 15th. Both teams appear to have folded in 2008 and CLX came back in 2009.

– George B.

A: Man, is this a good question. There’s really a lot to unpack here, and I hope others have some ideas in the comments.

The reality is, at least for now, that Mixed takes a definitive back seat to Men’s and Women’s play in terms of skill, interest, and even player dedication. That is not a slight on the Mixed Division, simply a fact. Mixed teams, on the whole, practice less. In big cities like Boston and New York, they tend to have an average player that is less talented than the average player on the single-gender teams (that is not to say there aren’t some total studs playing Mixed, though).

In Albuquerque, where I grew up, there aren’t really enough players to support Men’s, Women’s, and Mixed teams. The Men’s and Women’s teams are decently competitive, but have no chance of making it to Nationals. A few years back, the teams merged into something of a superstar Mixed team. They lost in the game-to-go. I think Mixed can make sense for smaller communities like ABQ.

Now to get into some thornier territory. I simply don’t believe Mixed is a compelling division to watch. Not because there aren’t some great players or storylines, but because it is just a bizarre, unbalanced playing field.

I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of touches for the Mixed semis and finals from the 2013 Club Championships. Men touched the disc more than 80% of the time, despite an “expected value” of only 57% (with 4 men and 3 women on the field). This was consistent across all three games, and fits with my more subjective sense that men’s players do far more on the field in Mixed.

That said, there are plenty of players who gladly choose to play Mixed, despite knowing that tight games often mean more involvement from the male players. There are women who prefer Mixed to single-gender play. But if you’re looking for an argument that says Mixed takes away from women’s development, there it is. The women just don’t get touches. Often, one or two elite women on a team dominate the women’s touches that do happen, because they are more able to get open, or huck consistently, etc.

It is often said that the success of your mixed team comes down to your women, because good mixed teams can more easily exploit weaknesses in the women. That certainly rings true, but when it comes down to it, it is a male-dominated division. I think USA Ultimate knows that, and there has been some buzz about the Division moving to a required 4-3/3-4 split, where you have to alternate between having four men and four women on the line.

Regardless, the division seems like it needs a rethink, if it is going to be considered a serious competitive division. If it wants to continue to be a lower commitment option for players to play with friends/boyfriends/girlfriends, fine. But then it needs to embrace that.

Here’s a thought: with the Triple Crown Tour shifting into the summer over the next two years and culminating in presumably an August National Championships, move Mixed to the fall. Everyone can play, teams will be more competitive, and it becomes something cool to watch. The best of the best men and women from each city, maybe playing in local qualifying tournaments and then at Nationals in (duh) Sarasota.

So you would have:

College/Youth: January-May
Men’s/Women’s Club: June-August
Mixed Club: August-October
Beach: March-July
Pro: March-July OR August-October
Indoor: November-March

I like it.

***

George B., you win two Ultiworld video downloads.

As always, hit me with questions on email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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