Home > Uncategorized > Can Ultimate Frisbee Save the World? I Doubt It… Can Self-Regulated Play Do It? Possibly

Can Ultimate Frisbee Save the World? I Doubt It… Can Self-Regulated Play Do It? Possibly

August 22, 2018

Jennifer Moylan’s op ed article in today’s NYTimes is titled “Can Ultimate Frisbee Change the World?”Her answer, like mine, is pessimistic. But one paragraph in the essay does reveal where self-regulated games like Ultimate Frisbee MIGHT make a difference. She writes:

Ultimate — which is kind of a combination of football, basketball and soccer — has a unique twist: There’s no referee. The sport is wholly self-regulated by its players, and competitors from opposing teams are called upon, when there’s a dispute upon the field, to come to an agreement among themselves before play can resume.

This paragraph brought to mind a section of Neil Postman’s 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, dealing with the then emerging trend of adults interposing themselves into children’s athletics. He posited that one of the great values of sandlot baseball and football and playground basketball was that the participants had to set and enforce the rules. Some of the rules were easy to enforce and necessitated by the venue. For example, a ball hit into the neighbor’s yard might be a ground rule double, or the hedgerow on the side of the yard was out-of-bounds, or an inbounds pass might be thrown one-step away from a chainlink fence. But the interpretation of many rules require some kind of mutual understanding that is best achieved through reasoned dialogue. Did the tag precede the runner arriving at the base? Was it offensive or defensive pass interference? Was it a blocking foul or a charge? Having grown up playing pick-up sports of all kinds, we mostly resolved these disputes without coming to blows or causing deep seated resentments.

Fast forward two decades to the time when Mr. Postman wrote his book, to a time when Little League Baseball metastasized into Pop Warner Football, Lightning Soccer, and AAU basketball and pick-up games disappeared. And when pick-up games disappeared, childhood disappeared with it and the collateral damage was the loss of self-regulation. Children who played sports from the late 1960s onward have increasingly played under the supervision of adults in highly structured and organized leagues that feature uniforms, landscaped fields, and adult arbiters of the rules.

I believe it is important to allow children to squabble among themselves and figure out how to navigate a healthy compromise. When the inevitable squabbling that happens in sports is always resolved by an outside authority figure, it is not surprising that the “fans” on one side or the other believe the arbiter is ruling in favor of their opponent.

In the short run ultimate frisbee is unlikely to bring peace to places like the Middle East. But if children are allowed to play sports like ultimate frisbee without the “benefit” of adult arbiters, it just might be possible for future adults to figure out how to reach harmonious agreements on contentious issues.

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