The Hall of Fame is packed with greats. But are too many players being left out?
August 17, 2015 by Tony Leonardo in Analysis with 3 comments
Nicole “Sprout” Beck (8 club titles) and Billy Rodriguez (10 club titles) are two of the most decorated players in the history of ultimate but they haven’t even been nominated for the Ultimate Hall of Fame. Is it just a matter of time for them? Or is there something else going on? The answer is complicated.
Guidelines and History
The Hall was talked about for years before being founded in 2004 by a group of volunteer ultimate players and alumni with support from the Ultimate Player’s Association (UPA – now called USA Ultimate) to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the founding of the UPA.
The inaugural class featured five players whose contributions to the sport were critical and for the first three or four years the most deserving and obvious nominees were duly elected and the guidelines for induction worked. But lately there’s been some concern. Some feel that deserving inductees aren’t being nominated in a timely fashion—others think that deserving inductees are being left behind altogether and that the Hall of Fame process is too stringent.
Guidelines for introduction into the Hall, written in the early ’00s, are thorough and don’t mince words. They include:
• Was the Player ever regarded as the best player in ultimate?
• Was the Player the best player on his/her team?
• Was the Player the best player at his/her position?
• Was the Player the best at a particular skill (e.g., skying, popping, hucking)?
• Did the Player have an impact on a number of Nationals?
• Did the Player display the Spirit of the Game by upholding the standards of sportsmanship?
• Was the Player a good enough player that he/she could continue to play regularly after passing his/her prime?
• What players of the candidate’s era and of the current era are most comparable? How is this player better or worse? Are those comparable players in the Hall of Fame (or worthy of being in the Hall)?
• Was the Player a team leader or strategist whose teams seemed to outperform their abilities?
• Can the history of ultimate be written without including this Player?
It’s good stuff. But are the end results good enough?
The Voting Process
Nominations and inductions to the Ultimate Hall of Fame are determined by players and former players, not a panel of sportswriters or group of non-ultimate administrators. It’s part of what makes ultimate special—self-determination and a community of peers.
Final admission to the Hall of Fame is determined by Hall of Fame members themselves. But there are several steps in between.
For this article I queried Hall of Famers Suzanne Fields; chair of the Hall of Fame committee Jim Parinella, an early consultant for the Hall before he became a member himself; and David Barkan, the Open Peer Pool Coordinator. Fields, especially, helped explain the process to me.
First, the ultimate community is invited to nominate candidates to one of three Hall of Fame categories: Women, Open, and Contributor. Anyone can submit a nomination — even you. Those nominations are then sent to a corresponding Peer Pool group divided into the same categories.
The Peer Pool groups represent a wide swath of playing regions and playing eras and each Peer Pool has a coordinator who manages the discussion of the members, somewhere between 25 and 75 people. For the Open and Women’s Peer Pools, the members include Hall of Fame nominees (when you are nominated, you are also invited to join the Peer Pool) as well as past team captains and leading competitors from 1988 forward.
Candidates for the fourth HoF category, Special Merit, are identified by the Hall of Fame committee.
The Peer Pools go over the nominations and add their own (when needed) to create and then vote on a ballot of nominees. The top vote-getters from the Peer Pool ballot are then forwarded to the Hall of Fame Vetting Committee. The Vetting Committee considers the age of the candidate, regional distribution, and a balanced number of candidates among the three categories relative to their playing era and creates the Slate of 8—up to eight official candidates for that year’s Hall vote.
The 2014 Vetting Committee was composed of Hall of Famers Fields, Robert Rauch (WFDF President and Contributor Peer Pool coordinator), Dave Barkan (founder of Ultimate Peace and Open Peer Pool coordinator), and Gloria Lust-Phillips (Women’s Peer Pool coordinator). Henry Thorne participated as the USAU Board representative and replaced outgoing member Gwen Ambler as the only non-HoFer on the committee.
Once the Slate of 8 is determined, USAU publicizes and posts a “Call to the Community” for input on the candidates. A Player Candidate questionnaire is compiled either by the candidate or by a champion for that candidate to summarize their ultimate career. That information and the input from the “Call to Community” is then provided to the Hall of Fame members for their consideration in voting.
And then the last step occurs when the current Hall of Fame members vote on the Slate of 8. The ballot allows for votes on five or fewer candidates. 60% approval for a candidate and they are in. Simple!
Except when it’s not.
So What’s Wrong?
First let’s start with what’s right. The Ultimate Hall of Fame, as it stands, has only brought in the best of the very best. The Hall has made the effort to get it right—inviting everyone to be involved and actively seeking peer groups of players to judge the merits of fellow competitors and teammates. Those peer pool groups have a very active and engaged debate on players and their merits so we can be assured that nominees are not getting shoed-in or sloughed off. And the Hall does a decent job of bringing in lore important to the history of the sport: the “Johnny Appleseeds,” the Wham-O 80 mold, the Discraft Ultra-Star, and others.
For all its merits, however, the Hall lacks a certain transparency. How many votes are nominees getting? Who are the top nominees? Which players are added by the Peer Pool groups and why are the Slate of Eight names chosen only by the Vetting Committee? Why only eight nominations on the slate but the Hall only allowed to vote for five?
The Peer Pool group nomination process also has some peculiarities. As Parinella explained, “[Nominations] can be an ad hoc process. If no one bothers to nominate a player, or if that player doesn’t respond to emails at all, they won’t appear in the group.”
In other words, some obvious Hall-worthy players aren’t nominated because no one nominated them or they weren’t contactable.
This partially explains why someone like Rodriguez, whom many would consider a first-ballot Hall of Famer, hasn’t appeared on a ballot even though he stopped playing more than a decade ago. He’s just waiting in line and so no one bothered to nominate him—but why wait when the Hall could simply expand the Slate of Eight and the five-person vote limit?
Rodriguez and Beck face another strange obstacle to timeliness: what I call the ‘Legends of the Game’ bottleneck.
Back in 2004 when the Hall began, I co-wrote and co-edited an extensive book on ultimate’s history, Ultimate: The First Four Decades.
The First Four Decades told the history of a sport that had previously been conveyed orally. The game’s earliest legends and leaders, some overlooked or forgotten, were committed to print and many—but not all—were subsequently elected into the Hall of Fame.
Therein lies part of the problem. Not only did The First Four Decades miss some players but many of the legends we did write about did not find enough traction to be voted in to the exclusive Hall of Fame. They may be close and they may be considered legends, but their names remain in limbo, creating something of a bottleneck. Is the Hall too selective?
The 2014 induction of the Special Merit category “Johnny Appleseeds”—a group of 29 men and women who founded seminal ultimate teams and programs in the 1970s that kept the sport alive—alleviated some of the concerns about the Hall’s selection criteria but highlighted others.
“Johnny Appleseeds” was a necessary addition but one has to wonder if some of those early founders and developers of ultimate deserve to have their name in the Hall of Fame on their own and not part of a catch-all Special Merit category?
Furthermore, what about some of the rock stars of the ’80s and early ’90s whose careers never reached the monumental stature of early inductees like Dan Roddick and Tom Kennedy but who were nonetheless icons and dominant athletes?
A key player with both a Nationals-level college team, the Kansas Horrorzontals of the 1980s, and NYNY’s five-year championship run in the 1990s, Matty Jefferson, expressed the sentiment clearly in a post on the Ultimate Frisbee Alumni & Hall of Fame Facebook page in 2014: “Clearly the USAU needs a few catch-up years where the number of nominees is doubled. Clear to almost all except USAU.”
Age Against the Machine (Looking Forward)
And then there’s the flip side: is the Hall’s elite status tuned right? Do arguments like Jefferson’s need to be brushed aside so that the problem of not inducting deserving mid- and late 90s players like Rodriguez, Beck and others can be resolved?
Like Oscar voting, the Hall of Fame might have an age problem. The Hall of Fame members—and therefore Hall of Fame voters—are players primarily from the 70s and 80s (and 90s) but they are now voting on players from the late 80s and early 90s (with some notable voting recusals among the 70s crowd).
“The current focus for Ultimate Hall of Fame nominees/candidates are ultimate competitors whose careers included playing at the highest levels between 1989 and 1994,” said Fields.
But the Peer Pools are still focused on the earlier range of the spectrum. “The peer review pool because is still an older crowd,” wrote Parinella. “Although technically the eligibility is Masters + 10 years, the de facto age limit is closer to 50 for men and maybe 45 for women. Many feel that there are still a lot of ought-to-be HoFers who played in the 1980s.”
Many voters in the Open Peer Pool group believe good candidates (aka the Legends) from the 70s and 80s are being left behind and don’t want to proceed into candidates from the 90s yet.
“There was a step in 2014 to modernize the peer pools but a lot of the talk wants to renew the focus on older players rather than trying to modernize and bring in newer generations,” wrote Parinella.
Parinella’s induction highlights the conflict—his heyday came when Death or Glory won six straight starting in 1994 yet he was inducted in 2014 when the Hall’s focus was on elite players from 1988 to 1993. In essence, Parinella is the poster boy of modernizing the Hall vote.
Modernizing might make sense: many in the Hall haven’t competed with or against the current crop of nominees. This changes over time, but only gradually, and there’s a certain lack of media for players from the ’90s and ’00s—Ultiworld, Skyd, NexGen, and ESPN coverage didn’t exist then.
Several notable suggestions for improvement have been added the Hall of Fame Committee as of this month. One of the most notable is the following:
[The Hall could] develop a catch-up process for potentially overlooked players prior to 1989. Options may include an “old timers” committee (similar to MLB), and/or a one-or-two-time “catch-up” vote (possibly induct more than 5 per year), or some combination with the intent to institute a “catch-up” throughout the 2016 to 2018 HoF processes, leading up to the next HoF gathering and 50th Anniversary of ultimate.1
So are there deserving “old-timers” from the 70s and 80s who need to get in? I guess it depends on your opinion of what makes a Hall of Fame career.
A High Bar of Entry
After 47 years of ultimate and 11 years of the Hall of Fame, there have been 13 women and 32 men elected on an individual basis, and five of those as contributors, not players. That makes 40 players in 11 years, over the couse of 47 years of play, including the founding of the sport.
There has been a line drawn between great players and the best of the best. Fields agreed. “Some Hall members believe that the bar should be very high for induction,” she said. “I thought that we had a strong Slate of 8 in 2014 and was hopeful that we would bring in our full complement of five.”
Instead, only two were elected (Parinella and Liz Marino).
Parinella explained how the Hall’s structure was originally put together. “We looked at other HoFs in coming up with the process and refining it,” he said. “Baseball doesn’t have a set number [of candidates] but voters can vote for no more than ten and typically about two inductees get in each year. Football has 15 finalists and typically five-to-eight get in. [For ultimate] five seemed like a reasonable number of picks each year. If a typical career is ten years and you have five per year, then that would mean that in any given year there are 50 HoFers out there playing.”
50 sounds like a high number but remember the Hall very rarely elects five a year and, even if they do, one will likely be considered a contributor. The average has come out to a litle under three-and-a-half player inductees a year.
Is between three and four player inductees a year going to be enough? Is it an accurate assessment of what it means to be a Hall of Fame player?
“Clearly, the current process is flawed. It worked very well for the first three years, but as the pool of eligible voters has grown, there has been some shifting of philosophy amongst the voters,” writes Hall of Famer Jon Cohn in an article calling for change.
In baseball the list of nominations and vote-getters is highly publicized and followers can debate the merits of the good, the very good, and the greatest players.
In fact a clever baseball term, the Hall of Very Good, has been coined to recognize players who were amazingly awesome but not awesome enough to be Hall-worthy.
Taking a cue from the baseball vote, it would be both fun and informative to know when players are close to getting in year-to-year by publicizing vote percentage totals. Why not publicize vote percentages for nominees who get over 35%, for example? We would know they are being strongly considered and a player who shows up with 55%—close but not enough—might be a good bet the following year and would be, at the least, a member of the Hall of Very Good.
Is this something we can look forward to one day in ultimate? Even seeing all of the nominations celebrated—not just the Slate of Eight—would be great for the players and the sport.
Different Calls for Different Halls
Looking forward, we can see where some changes may be necessary. The Hall first needs to solve its “Legends” bottleneck and its complicated Peer Pool to Vetting Committee process that spends an inordinate amount of time winnowing names down to eight when even that is, apparently, too many for voters (or conversely, too few).
The guidelines for what it takes to be in the Hall of Fame will eventually have to be modernized to reflect players from the ’00s who faced ever-increasing competition and barriers to greatness that they nonetheless overcame. Modern ultimate has doubled or tripled in size and scope from even a decade ago. Shouldn’t it affect Hall voting?
Other changes are on the horizon. Not long ago, everything we knew about ultimate and its star players could be placed on a single timeline. But now the specific cult of Ultimate has grown into the universal sport of ultimate. Could the ultimate Hall of Fame, not formally registered with USAU but nonetheless viewed as part of USAU’s “alumni relations” initiative, diversify to include new categories, new halls even? The College Ultimate Hall of Fame, the High School Ultimate Hall of Fame, the Hall of Fame of Beach Ultimate, the Hall of Fame of Mixed Ultimate?
And, outside of USAU, there will be levels of greatness in the pro leagues that will merit their own Halls. The Ultimate Hall of Fame is the first of its kind but the Hall is supported by the USAU and one day there will be others, and not just the Ultimate Canada Hall of Fame.
Which presents another vote quandary: what to do with the Canadian athletes who’ve had significant careers within the UPA and USAU structure? Will being in the Ultimate Canada Hall of Fame be a detriment to inclusion in the USA-focused Ultimate Hall of Fame?
Modern players—and many of the stars of the past as well—specialized and dominated in their position on the field but might not have been the best goal-scoring thrower, for instance. Will there be a Hall of Fame for receivers? For handlers? For D players?
Will the Ultimate Hall of Fame stay associated with USAU or break off entirely to be its own entity?
Currently the Hall is focused almost entirely on a player’s elite club playing career only. What to do with an elite club player who racks up success in the MLU or AUDL, kills it at Beach Worlds, and dominates the college division? How much will those accomplishments contribute to a player’s nomination to the Hall of Fame? Right now the answer is very little.
Here is a list of common characteristics for Hall members to consider, if they choose, when voting. The ordering will be different for each Hall member, or even ignored entirely, but for your reference, here is how the Open Peer Pool group coordinated by David Barkan ranked 1-10 the importance of Hall-worthy criteria:
1. Fear of/Focus on
4. Skill Breadth
6. Level of Competition
8. Field Position Breadth
9. Number of Championships
Back to Nicole Beck and Billy Rodriguez—two very different cases with some similarities. Beck may have won a lot of titles playing in San Francisco but like almost everyone on this list she was surrounded by talent. As solid as Sprout was, was she a Hall of Fame player? Her longevity, level of competition and number of championships put her at the top—but does a candidate have to hit the mark on all 10 of the bullet points? Rodriguez was a defensive stalwart, first with NYNY and then Death or Glory, and has plenty of support to get in the Hall of Fame with an impeccable resume and the most championships of any male player. But…
“We’re not to his heyday yet,” Barkan told me, and I know this is partially true, but then again Rodriguez was defeating Parinella on the field for five straight National Championships from 1989 to 1993 and yet Parinella is the one who got in first. Why?
Well, no one nominated Rodriguez. No one nominated Beck either. It’s clear: the Hall of Fame process needs fine-tuning.