More Than a Game: Why Ultimate’s Absence Hits So Hard

Ultimate isn't a distraction from the real world. It is our real world.

Zoom out far enough and it’s all so fragile.

Sports being played has always been an arrow pointing towards civilization, like keeping planes in the air or Waffle House open. It’s the assurance that the calendar will keep flipping from one day to the next, just like when we were kids and the only thing “March” meant was college basketball. October meant the World Series. Sundays meant football. Literally, the meaning of Sundays was that football was on.

We set our internal clock to sports, because it is a constant and orderly way to organize our experience of time. The nature of sports is part of the fabric of being alive, the same way that brushing your teeth, it raining sometimes, and having parents were all part of the deal. Sports isn’t the American Flag and apple pie, it’s time itself.

Of course, zoom out far enough and sports is just hauling some leather around a gridiron or slinging some plastic towards another guy who also got cut from the varsity basketball team in high school. Yet, despite all that, they contain the genuine capacity for wonder, heartbreak, and purification. One of the most beautifully tragic events of the 20th century was played out by some depressed guys slogging a soccer ball around in rubber boots.

World War One, the pinnacle of humanity’s ignorant cruelty backsliding into madness, reached a temporary Christmas truce in late December 1914. Across thousands of miles of trenches, here and there German and English soldiers cautiously traversed barbed wire and gun emplacements to have a kick about with each other. They rolled the ball around the frozen ground mere feet from the places they would soon have their flesh melted off with mustard gas and gatling rounds. A brief moment of something civilized, something understandable, amidst the insanity of reality.

For me, these truce time games throw into sharp relief the absurdity of treating sports as a proxy for war; the favorite pablum of high school football coaches everywhere. It’s a juvenile comparison. Sport isn’t a substitute for war; it’s a testament to our ability to be at peace enough for a game to take place. Organized sports that don’t involve, say, stabbing your enemy have only been able to exist in the brief flashes of time when human society has achieved some semblance of stability.

Stability seems to be in short supply right now across the major economies of the globe and with COVID-19 winding its tendrils around society. Sports have become one of the first major pillars to fall. European soccer, the NBA, and, yes, ultimate have all suddenly ceased.

Look, there is plenty to keep us occupied while ultimate is gone. Can I interest you in placing bets on the weather?

The deep emptiness of seeing ultimate and the rest of the sports world disappear does not come from an inability to fill our time, it’s feeling the collapse of the systems that create a sense of normalcy. Losing the marker of our sense of time (league is on Monday, pickup Wednesday nights, Fools Fest in two weeks…) is seeing the fragility of society and human life laid bare.

Ultimate is something we are allowed to do because we aren’t constantly foraging for food or fending off invaders at our doorstep. This makes it both expendable and deeply meaningful at the same time. For most, it’s not a job but it’s far more than a hobby: it’s something you have to be seriously passionate about just to get past the barrier for entry. It’s a privilege to be able to care so deeply about a sport, to let it become an ethic, a community. For most of us, ultimate isn’t a distraction from the real world. It is our real world.

In my mind, the great appeal of sports is that they exist both in and out of reality. A game of ultimate is happening in the real world, the outcome an unwritten future that wasn’t conjured into being by a human brain. But simultaneously it is cloaked in the guise of fiction. There are rules that do not exist in nature, the narrative arc of a game or team’s season exists only within the artificial construct of the sport. Sports are one of the best ways for us to process stories because they are real, but have no real stakes that could make your enjoyment potentially perverse.

These stories of a game, a season, or a career provide a concrete narrative arc, whereas real life can sometimes lose the plot. Part of the deal with sports is that we get an ending. Maybe it ends in tragedy, but it still ends. Unlike reality, where nothing ever really ends, sports gives us a hard out. Zeroes on the clock. It’s a catharsis that both fans and players can feel and that most of the time they need. We process the story and come to terms with its ending, an essential practice for all of us mortal beings.

As the current college season is wiped off the map, the end of teams’ seasons doesn’t feel like an ending, at least not in the way sports promises us things end. There is no big game that is either won or lost. No final trial that a protagonist either passes or fails. No sense of finality to be had. It is of course particularly cruel that this would happen during the college season because the finite nature of a college career gives us one of the most important finalities in sports.

From the first time a player steps out onto the line as a freshman, they are walking a path that ultimately is leading them to the last point they will play years later. Maybe at Conferences, maybe in a game-to-go to Nationals, maybe in a Championship final, but there is that moment when their story as a college ultimate player comes to an end. That the story concludes with pages torn out of the back of the manuscript disrupts the cathartic cycle that helps us process loss, grief, and endings. As a fan, it is frustrating. For the players experiencing it, devastating.

Zoom out far enough and you remember that life will go on. Ultimate will return someday, maybe even someday soon. Let us remember to really take the time to enjoy it whenever it comes back. To appreciate the moment, and our ability to inhabit it. Not just the thrill of double game point at Nationals, but some random pool play game at a regular season tournament. Feel the coherence of a world in which this is something you can care about.

Remember to zoom in on those moments, though they are part of a much bigger story, even if it’s just a pickup game somewhere between a few people looking for a little clarity in an uncertain world.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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