Ultimate 2030: The Difference Between Spirit and Sportsmanship

How can we spread a clear message of what SOTG means, what it doesn’t mean, and why it is important?

Fury celebrates teammate Alex Snyder winning the 2015 Kathy Pufahl Spirit Award. Photo: Alex Fraser -- UltiPhotos.com
Fury celebrates teammate Alex Snyder winning the 2015 Kathy Pufahl Spirit Award. Photo: Alex Fraser — UltiPhotos.com

Throughout this series, I have tried to address some of the largest and thorniest issues related to our sport’s future. After explaining how we should approach optimizing the growth of ultimate, I addressed how we could develop the best professional model and then the impact of various officiating models. Reading this article will help you answer the following question: How is Spirit of the Game (SOTG) different than sportsmanship?

SOTG has been interpreted in many different ways by the diverse ultimate community. The concept is a unique and fundamental part of the sport’s culture, yet some believe we have no higher claim than any other sport with a traditional notion of sportsmanship. As ultimate continues to grow, it will be important to spread a clear message of what SOTG means, what it doesn’t mean, and why it is important.

Our first stop is taking a look at the most common descriptions for both SOTG and sportsmanship.

Spirit of the Game

“Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior are contrary to the Spirit of the Game and must be avoided by all players.” – USA Ultimate’s 11th edition rulebook


“Sportsmanship is defined as ethical, appropriate, polite and fair behavior while participating in a game or athletic event. When a basketball player plays by the rules, is fair to his opponent and is gracious when he loses, this is an example of sportsmanship.” – Google’s top pick

“fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport or other competition” – Merriam Webster

“the character, practice, or skill of a sportsman; sportsmanlike conduct as fairness, courtesy, being a cheerful loser” – Dictionary.com

Despite obvious similarities, I believe the two concepts do have distinct differences. Most of the confusion when comparing the two comes from the fact that SOTG attempts to build upon what we know sportsmanship to be. Over the course of SOTG’s lifespan, the philosophy has gone beyond a strict definition, as many interpret the concept to be relatable for themselves. In a largely self-officiated community, it is something that we discuss more frequently than other sports and it connects our international communities. To really get a firm grasp on the qualities that define SOTG today and how it differs from sportsmanship, there are two areas we will explore: SOTG History and philosophy of sport.

SOTG History 101

When ultimate was invented at Columbia High School in 1968, the founders created rules that allowed the sport to be officiated by referees. However, because there weren’t usually players who wanted to sit out to referee, the teams called their own fouls and played on an honor system. Amongst this small group of friends, sportsmanship was high and it increased the joy of play.

As the sport spread in the ’70s, this same honor system found its way to new teams. Many of the early college programs had ties to the original members of Columbia High School, which meant the sport and honor system were learned just as it had been originally developed. In 1978, when the 7th edition of the rules was in development, the writers incorporated the concept of this honor system and gave it a name: Spirit of the Game.

Takeaway 1: Within the first decade, we already had two clear signs that the sport was intended to be played competitively: referees were an option and the rules explicitly stated “highly competitive play is encouraged.” Many of those who currently oppose the traditional interpretation of SOTG usually do so because they think it restricts them from playing their best if they also have to focus on how their actions are interpreted by others. This is in part due to how supporters of SOTG sometimes uphold the concept above gameplay itself.

In the 1980s, there was a tipping point. Newer players were learning the sport from second-generation players and starting to focus increasingly on competition. They had no personal link to Columbia High School nor to the honor system the founders had built into the game. As college and club leagues began to grow, there was more pride on the line and the desire to win emerging championships grew stronger. Elimination games were starting to become more unruly, and players who entered ultimate from competitive sports background leaned away from self-control or let their desire to win overshadow their desire to play fairly.

The thought of referees was starting to fill some players’ minds as they dealt with teams they felt were intentionally cheating. Meanwhile, many enthusiasts were afraid these changes would start to diminish Spirit of the Game and wanted the sport to remain primarily recreational. As the debate intensified, “Uglimate” went through its first identity crisis.1

Observers were introduced as a middle-ground between referees and self-officiating, creating checks and balances to make sure teams played fairly and conducted themselves properly without moving fully to 3rd party arbitration. This system was inevitably imperfect in its infancy and became a source of controversy when the 1991 women’s club final ended on a close call from an observer. Two players running deep got their legs caught up and tripped as the disc sailed over their heads. When the offensive player called foul and took the call to the observer, the only options available to the observers were to rule either that there was significant enough contact for a foul or there was not. Without the ability to send the disc back in the case of incidental contact or if it was unclear if a pass was catchable, a ruling was made and the offense was awarded the disc on the endzone line, punching it in for the winning score. The play remained a source of heated discussion, mostly surrounding the role the observers played in the outcome. “While this game is played and done, the proper role of observers is far from decided,” wrote the defensive player in the incident in a letter to the UPA Newsletter.2

The majority of club players began to reject the use of observers all together and wanted to revert to pure self-officiation, despite the problems that had previously arisen without any third party arbiter. With the introduction of the “Callahan Rules” in 1997 — which provided more detail around foul calling and resolution guidance — players were given clearer direction in how to properly self-officiate. The observer model would continue to receive trials and additional experiments while the foul-calling skills of the player base improved, but the phrase “Spirit of the Game” remained tied to the concept of self-officiating for those who supported that system; over time, the two blended together.

Takeaway 2: While ultimate had its growing pains as the sport became more competitive, SOTG was a powerful enough concept that many players felt it was worth fighting for. In addition to clarifying the rules and innovating with the observer system to maintain self-officiation, leaders in the sport sought to explain the SOTG concept in a way that would find common ground for casual and elite players alike. In 1997, UPA Executive Director Holly Larrison explained it this way, which will still ring true for many players today: “Spirit of the Game was never meant to prohibit the drive and competitiveness that athletes must have to reach the top of a field, but rather to intensify the challenge – to reach the top with sheer talent, skill and physical discipline and not rely on tactics that undermine the efforts of the opposing team.”


1997 is a convenient time to shift to another element of this discussion, as it was the year a highly referenced text by Scott Kretchmar summarized the history and evolution of philosophy of sport, a sub-discipline of philosophy.

As sports were becoming a larger and larger centerpiece of American society throughout the 20th century, academic professionals pursued this area of study to better understand how sports had shaped — and would continue to shape — our culture. While we continue to explore the differences between Spirit of the Game and traditional notions of sportsmanship, it is worth learning about this philosophical discipline, how its pace of development compares with the rest of the sports industry, and what territory it is looking to explore next. Likening it to a business ethics course for an MBA, philosophy of sport can open us to the potential of what sports could become, not only what they currently are.

Philosophy of Sport 101

The origin of philosophy of sport spanned from 1875-1950 in the form of defining physical education principles. This period focused on highlighting the importance of physical activity and the way it can help in the overall education process; it was during this time that sports like baseball, football, and basketball were developed and gained popularity in the United States. Concepts such as mind-body wholeness, balance between physical activity and play, and social responsibility were promoted to give a deeper purpose to such activities.

From 1950-1965, academics tried to connect these sports concepts to more established philosophies like idealism, realism, and naturalism as a way to categorize them alongside other human activities. While theories about the ideal nature and purpose of sports continued to be explored by philosophers, the connections were not considered validated until official studies could be done to test those theories. By the time philosophy of sport was officially recognized as a legitimate discipline of study in the 1970’s, MLB was already a century old, the NHL and NFL had each passed their 50th anniversaries, and the NBA was closing in on 25. Even the Olympics, a sports organization that had long espoused principles of sportsmanship as a key element of their product, had run 26 Games in its modern era. Beyond that, much of the infrastructure of organized athletics beyond pro leagues were also well on their way to their modern forms.

Takeaway 3: While there is no way philosophers could have been early to the party in terms of studying sports’ influence on our culture, the professional leagues and other industrialized elements of our sporting infrastructure definitely gained a head start in establishing how our society defines and utilizes sports. Culture can obviously vary from sport to sport, but much of what we today see as “sporting” comes from what professional leagues present and what trickles down to the recreational level. Without philosophical questions being asked amongst sport leaders and organizers, we have seen many negative side-effects as reviewed in a previous Ultimate 2030 article. Ultimate, meanwhile, has incorporated a moral compass since its inception in the form of Spirit of the Game, which is largely what has created the international culture of our community. If we can look past where our definitions and bias’ related to “sports” are coming from, we may agree: Philosophical considerations belong on the playing field, because our actions and choices in sports impact other parts of society.

As the end of the twentieth century approached, with more academic research and studies being conducted within the realm of sports philosophy, signs were pointing toward a simplified approach that could be useful in restoring some of the original purposes to sports at large. Kretchmar explains in his 1997 text: “Today some indicators suggest that philosophy is returning to Aristotle’s marketplace, where educated people with inquiring minds, common sense, a thirst for truth, and normal language abilities can communicate fruitfully with one another and make philosophic progress on practical human problems. … All this may be signaling the arrival of a fourth historic period in modern sport philosophy, distinguished from its predecessors by its lesser concern for the categories, terminology, and standards … It would be more interdisciplinary, more flexible, more interested in sport and other forms of human movement, still rigorous but more fun-loving.”

Takeaway 4: Educated people, common sense, truth-seeking, fruitful communication, rigorous and fun-loving. Does this sound like a community, officiation model, or sports philosophy concept we know of? Ultimate constantly asks these bigger philosophical questions in the middle of foul call resolution and SOTG discussions. While it will be a long and difficult transition for other sports to catch up — or even a long shot that they would actually want to — ultimate shows signs of becoming a sport that can benefit society by promoting cooperation just as much as competition. For anyone that sees our current state as “trailing behind” what other sports are today, it is important to understand our collective societal bias when it comes to imagining a standard for sport, something that has largely grown out of the monetary intentions of professional leagues.

The Main Differences

As lengthy as this article already is, there is still much more I could elaborate on that has helped me break down my bias of what sports are today.3 As I’ve done so, I’ve been able to start thinking about how the self-officiation and SOTG concepts could contribute to some sport-society utopia. To that end, let’s return to our original question: How is SOTG different than sportsmanship? After researching and thinking over the years, so far I have identified three main differences between my interpretation of today’s SOTG and what is traditionally considered sportsmanship:

Word Composition – From a morphology approach, the way the concept words are constructed has an impact on how they are taught and interpreted, especially amongst an unfamiliar audience. SportsMANship focuses on the individual from the atomistic viewpoint,4 pinning the responsibility on each athlete with no overarching community factor. From the holistic viewpoint, “spirit of the GAME” creates an invisible leader and common purpose for the sport’s community, inherently creating social pressures for sportsmanlike conduct. Because SOTG takes a holistic approach, outside of the individual, the wording is also the cause for SOTG’s many known interpretations.

Philosophical Purpose – SOTG is a philosophy that grew out of self-officiation in order to correct some of the weaknesses the model had on its own. Because of this, the true nature and root meaning of SOTG, beyond personal interpretations, cannot exist without self-officiation. SOTG stays alive in a observer model because players can still make their own calls, but it disappears when that responsibility is taken out of the hands of the players. If referees determine the holistic social standard within a game, there is no more discussion about a community philosophy. Sportsmanship, on the other hand, can present itself in any officiating model, but is more rare (in contrast to the use and practice of SOTG) in traditional 3rd party arbitration systems that overwrite any atomistic individual drive to play fair. For the case of philosophy on the playing field, SOTG improves conduct better but it owes much of its success to the self-officiation model it emerged from.

Gender Compatibility – SOTG is a gender neutral phrase whereas sportsmanship is an extension of the word sportsman. Gender neutral language can help a larger audience adopt an idea or principles, especially personal and philosophic ones. The ultimate community certainly embraces and pursues gender equity and this reason alone may make Spirit of the Game an important phrase to use, even if someone still personally doesn’t understand its difference from traditional sportsmanship. Gender equality within sports is an important topic deserving an article all its own, and I will probably point a finger at other language and ultimate jargon in the future. (Looking at you, Man Defense)


Essentially, SOTG is the evolution of sportsmanship. The world of sports has changed immensely in the last century and the concept of sportsmanship should too, especially if is currently overshadowed by a larger or more prevalent focus on winning. This widening gap between how much our literature uses the words sportsmanship and championship is most likely brought on by the industrialization and professionalization of sports. In contrast, SOTG is a concept that still stands apart in the world of sport. It has been largely embraced, discussed, and celebrated in our niche community. It is something we can prepare — and should be proud — to show the world as we enter the spotlight.

Overall, this is a very unique time period for ultimate and philosophy of sport. There’s the potential opportunity for SOTG to lead a crusade towards a more balanced definition of sport with a deeper purpose for humanity. By putting our best foot forward, we can potentially have a larger impact on other sport cultures and society as our time on the field and values we practice carry into our day-to-day lives.

To me, SOTG is worth preserving, discussing, growing, and celebrating as we take our sport into mainstream view by 2030.


Thoughts from the Expert Panel

“I am a firm believer in the relevance and power of self-officiating and Spirit of the Game, which I like to refer to as Honoring the Game. Seeing complete control in the hands of kids, of all ages (and this includes adult aged-kids!), is not only refreshing, it can be life changing. As an elementary P.E. teacher and middle school and high school coach, I have the opportunity and the obligation to teach sportsmanship. And I have seen countless kids turn a corner in their behavior because kids fervently want things to be fair. It is not just sportsmanship that is being taught and developed, after all. Competitors get to “exercise” building relationships, participating in community, becoming a better citizen and learning how the space around us is affected by honorable behavior, all in the oftentimes highly charged setting of competition. Amazing how keeping score can elevate the experience… the medicine ball effect! As with physical improvements, these behavioral skills take practice. From my experience, teaching what it means to be an honorable competitor is well worth the investment, as it improves play on the playground, enhances conduct in the classroom, and makes a positive impact out in the real world.” – Michael Baccarini

“I think that spirit of the game is about being accountable for your actions and respecting teammates, opponents, and observers. In addition it is flexible, which is by far the hardest part of SOTG. The other issue that comes up in the realm of SOTG is determined by how your opponents perceive your actions which is something the player does not have control over. I see the same thing happening with fouls and it is up to the players to recognize our opponent’s point of view. Lastly, it may only be one person who is unspirited but they have the power to bring down the whole team. With all of this said, I think self-officiating is an extremely important part of ultimate. It can be a tricky and elusive thing but it leads to major character development for kids and adults. I have learned that I can not just get on the field and do whatever I want because it makes me happy or pumped up, I have to take into account the other people on the field or in the community. This is what I try to instill in the players I coach as well.” – Alyssa Weatherford

This ends the fourth, but not final, article of the Ultimate 2030 series. There are many more topic ideas, each exploring similar or sub-topics of the previous. Before going on another writing run, it would be helpful to get some feedback on what I have presented so far. You can email me your thoughts at [email protected] to keep the comments section for this article focused on discussing this particular topic. Thanks for reading and I hope the information and discussions have been stimulating!


Editors note: A previous version of this article misstated the source of observer controversy in the 1991 Women’s Club final. It has been amended to more accurately describe the situation.

  1. “Uglimate” was a term used by Steve Mooney in a newsletter sarcastically describing a new sport emerging after Windy City spiked their trophy at the 1986 Nationals. Source: Ultimate: The First Four Decades, page 70. 

  2. Source: Ultimate: The First Four Decades, page 88. Thanks also to Jim Parinella for the link to a video of this play. 

  3. Perhaps fodder for future articles in this series… 

  4. See a discussion on the differences between an atomistic and holistic viewpoint in my last column

  1. Ken Kaminski

    Founder of Aero Ultimate with previous experiences at USA Ultimate and the AUDL, Ken is best known for his expertise in college team startups and the meaning behind ultimate's culture, systems, and future. He began his journey starting Kettering University's Ultimate Team, obtaining annual funding of $18,000, and now continues to mentor many other teams towards the same goal. Ken is a natural problem solver and is dedicating his abilities to young leaders, teams and the future of ultimate.

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