Hippie Roots

May 3rd, 2007

Say you were asked to design a sport to represent Brown in all  its open-curriculumed, do-it-for-the-experience-not-the-grade  glory. You’d want something less rigid than football, whose players  are faceless inside military-caliber armor, and something more  generous than soccer, whose scarcity of goals can create a scoring  elite.

The game you’d want would be freewheeling. It would allow for  creativity and self-expression, as players improvised their moves  and piggybacked on one another’s talents to get the job done.  The dress code would of course be casual, and the sport would  have to pass up such authoritarian figures as umpires and referees.

The sport would be Ultimate Frisbee, which has flourished on and  off at the University since the bearded and beaded days of the  mid-1970s. "It definitely has hippie roots," admits graduate student  Fortunat Mueller, last year’s winner of the Callahan Award, which  is given to the nation’s best collegiate Ultimate player.

Although both men’s and women’s teams are club varsities, they  differ from other University squads in several ways. Thanks to  a national rule allowing for five years of college eligibility,  they include a sprinkling of graduate students. They also are  neither Bruins nor Bears; the men are called Brownian Motion and  the women are Disco Inferno. And finally, like all Ultimate squads,  the men and women do their own officiating, making and verifying  foul calls against their own teammates as they flip-pass the Frisbee  up the field to try to get it over the opposing goal line.

"Self-officiating is very foreign to most people," says Kate Leslie  ’00, captain of the women’s squad, but as teammate Sarah Cook  ’01 explains, Ultimate Frisbee players are, well, different. "Most  athletes," argues Cook, "are used to trying to get away with as  much as they can." In Ultimate Frisbee, on the other hand, the  player with the best view of a foul or a sideline is expected  to make the call. "If you call yourself in," explains Justin Safdie  ’00, "and someone nearby on your own team disagrees, you back  off."

Ultimate Frisbee was invented in 1968, in the parking lot of Columbia  High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. The inventors took the game  with them when they went off to college, and it arrived at Brown  in 1976. Interest surged again in the mid-1990s. Last year, both  the men’s and women’s teams made it to the national semifinals,  and a certain professionalism has crept into Ultimate’s gypsy  tent. The teams have hired part-time coaches out of the funds  they scrape together from alumni donations, the Student Activities  Organization and by selling T-shirts and Frisbees.

"There’s this tension between being a ‘serious’ sport and being  a fun activity," says Leslie. "Because we’re called Disco Inferno,  we used to actually wear sequined skirts when we played, and we  had disco music on the sidelines. Now both the men’s and women’s  teams have uniforms."

"Some things have definitely gone by the wayside," says graduate  student Matt Kromer. "For example, before each game we used to  sacrifice a Dunkin’ Donuts Boston cream or jelly donut – slicing  it with the edge of a Frisbee."

According to Kromer, the standard offense for the men’s squad  involves a lot of long passing and diving. "For the one or two  diving catches you might see a football receiver make on a season,"  adds Mueller, "in a tight game I’d probably hit the ground upwards  of twenty times. It’s as fast-paced as any sport. You’ve got the  running of soccer, the jumping of basketball, the diving of volleyball,  and the decision-making of football."

"Not to mention the camaraderie of bowling," jokes Jonathan LaRosa  ’00.

Leslie explains that the women’s team relies more heavily on short  cuts and careful lead passes. "My mother came once to watch one  of our games," she remembers. "She said that the way a Frisbee  flies during Ultimate is just so graceful. There’s something so  beautiful about it."

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Related Issue
January / February 2005