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."