Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

November 4, 2009

The Ultimate Anthropologist

With tongue firmly in cheek, ultimate-frisbee player and writer Tony Leonardo explains his sport to the masses.

Michael S. Gerber

Tony Leonardo has played ultimate—what some people simply call "frisbee"—for more than two decades. He calls it one of the "world's most secret and clandestine sports." In his first book, Ultimate: The First Four Decades, he and co-author Adam Zagoria told the history of the sport that has become increasingly popular in high schools, colleges, and local parks across the United States and the rest of the world. In his most recent book, Ultimate: The Greatest Sport Ever Invented by Man, Leonardo described some of the seedier and more ridiculous sides of the game—tales he had to leave out of the first book, but just couldn't keep to himself.

Tony Leonardo catches the disc.
"Ultimate is most definitely goofy, geeky and a little bit culty, so making fun of ultimate is something ultimate players do quite well themselves already."

Tony Leonardo catches the disc.



A New York-based freelance writer, Leonardo has traveled around the world to play and research the sport of ultimate. Most recently, he attended the Ultimate Players Association (UPA) club championships in Sarasota, Florida. Reached via email, Leonardo talked to Gelf about ultimate and whether it's just a hippie cult or a sport that deserves respect. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Gelf Magazine: In New York, walk through Central Park or Prospect Park and you're likely to come across people playing ultimate. The same is true of the National Mall in Washington and parks across American cities. What is it about ultimate that has made it so popular?

Tony Leonardo:
1) It is simple to play, and addictive.
2) It is still cheeky, countercultural, and not beholden to special interests, and it has not sold out to money. So in others words—the kids love it!
3) Players like to invite others out and are always open to newcomers. It is a very inviting sport. In this way, ultimate stays both grounded and vibrant with newness.
4) Ultimate isn't as popular as the major sports; it is far less common than games of pickup soccer, flag football, or pickup basketball; and it is not often seen in the rural US (outside of universities and liberal-arts colleges).
5) That being said, ultimate is continuing to grow at a pretty good pace. There are 600+ men's college teams and I think 600+ high-school teams and there's no reason to see those numbers do anything but rise.

Gelf Magazine: But at the same time, ultimate is still laughed at and not really seen as a serious sport by most people, and a lot of others haven't even heard of it. If it's become so popular among some people, why hasn't it become more popular in the general population? What will it take for people to take it seriously?

Tony Leonardo: In general, people who laugh at ultimate don't know the sport. They haven't seen it played, or if they had, it was some low-level pickup game, which can be akin to watching Div II college football.
Secondly, our culture makes fun of everything it doesn't deem to fit the canon.
Thirdly, a lot of people are just ignorant. Almost half this country voted for George W. Bush twice.
Fourthly, ultimate is most definitely goofy, geeky and a little bit culty, to use a made-up word you hear in ultimate circles, so making fun of ultimate is something ultimate players do quite well themselves already.
What will it take to go to the next step? The answer is, again, high school. The more the sport grows in popularity in high school, the more people will understand it and maybe even become fans.
That, and better TV camera angles.

Gelf Magazine: Do only hippies play ultimate? If that isn't the case (and the film PCU was wrong), then how can ultimate break that stereotype?

Tony Leonardo: I've tried, and it's very difficult: Playing ultimate not stoned is almost impossible. It's like being in the NFL without steroids or playing tennis without an attitude. But the truth is you will see more tie-dyes at a Giants football game than at an ultimate tournament. Hippies are long gone and the younger kids bringing ultimate up tend to be more on the engineering side.
To break the stereotype, more ultimate players need to get arrested for crystal meth (like Joba Chamberlain's mom), drunken bar fighting (like David Wells), and dogfighting (a la Michael Vick). Then people will see ultimate for what it really is: just like every other sport substituting for out-of-control egos and insatiable aggression.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of stereotypes, your book describes several different types of ultimate players. Which one are you? Has anyone been offended by the way you've portrayed them in the book?

Tony Leonardo: There are eight stereotypes in the book: The Athlete, The Partier, The Engineer, The Greenie, The Rec Leaguer, The Local Oldster, The Oddball, and The Permanent Grad Student. I've been told that I am a mixture of all eight personalities, and I would agree. The book is patently modeled on The Hipster Handbook and The Official Preppy Handbook, all credit due to those authors, and surely like those, very few of the targets of laughter have been offended by their associated stereotype.

Gelf Magazine: One possible explanation for ultimate not catching on as a "real" sport is its lack of referees and the "Spirit of the Game." How would you explain Spirit of the Game to someone unfamiliar with the sport? Does it actually work? It seems that many of my ultimate games break down at some point into a passive-aggressive argument over whether or not a player's foot landed inside an imaginary line.

Tony Leonardo: Well, just like every sport there are different levels of play: pickup games, league games, tournament games, and championship-level tournaments. Each of these has different types of players and a different type of play. The big tournaments have lined fields and referees (called observers), and thus arguments are cut down and play looks much like any soccer game without as much of the fake injuries, excessive hand-wringing, and overbearing dramatics.
At this point in the mind of the casual reader or writer, all of these different levels of the game are lumped into one, which is because most people haven't seen an ultimate game, so that's understandable.
"Spirit of the Game" can be explained as simply a code of conduct for ultimate. It's also a very interesting sports/sociology experiment. In ultimate, you call your own fouls. There are several historical reasons for this that would take a bit to explain, but the result is that the players make calls and the referees only make rulings when disputes occur.

Gelf Magazine: Will it take a more concrete rule system with referees in order for ultimate to move to the next level?

Tony Leonardo: A concrete rule system with referees is already in place and it works quite well, so that is not a problem. "The next level" is essentially a myth: Ultimate has fought hard to retain its independence, so it won't be selling out anytime soon. Besides, no one is really that interested in buying. Frankly speaking, if I sold anything other than good-quality beer, cleats, modern athletic wear, or Clif Bars, I wouldn't advertise in ultimate circles.

Gelf Magazine: In your book, you include a glossary of ultimate lingo. Why do ultimate words sound so ridiculous? Can you imagine a TV commentator on a major sports network ever using the phrase "The Greatest" without breaking into fits of laughter?

Tony Leonardo: Ha ha, yes, absolutely! Do you not watch sports? There are so many ridiculous phrases that have just become common words to fans of that sport. Try explaining a balk to your non-baseball friend. Try telling your niece why a football that falls out of the quarterback's hand in the end zone and is landed upon by a defenseman is a "safety." What is the origin of the phrase "hat trick" in soccer and hockey? Seriously, "hat trick" taken out of context sounds quite silly.
But in particular, with this book, you are only getting the jokey phrases common to the sport and ones that I made up (like "fluffer"). Not many people actually use these words with much seriousness, although you will often hear the phrase "that guy is a turnover machine" at tournaments if you listen long enough.

Gelf Magazine: Will ultimate ever have its own point-shaving or steroids scandal?

Tony Leonardo: Point-shaving scandals, no. There won't be betting lines on ultimate because there aren't a lot of middlemen in the game. Steroids scandal—yes. There have already been a few cheating scandals in the history of the game and steroids in the future will be one of them. Already the world championships has some sort of anti-doping rules in place. One of the funny things was that in 2004 you could be randomly drug-tested at the world championships in Finland. One of the drugs on the banned list was marijuana, because it was considered a drug that could gain one a competitive advantage. This, of course, was quite silly. At the time, the anti-doping organization World Anti-Doping Agency was trying to get all of the major sports to buy into it, and the one group that basically said, "no way we're signing that" was FIFA, soccer's international governing body. Eventually, in my mind because of FIFA's refusal, WADA dropped the marijuana test. Not that it would have mattered much to ultimate at that level. If you're competing at worlds, you're not going to be spending a lot of time getting high.

Gelf Magazine: You were just in Sarasota for the UPA club championships. What was that experience like? How does ultimate at that level differ from the serious but informal pickup games played in parks every day?

Tony Leonardo: The UPA club championships feature 60 teams across four divisions of the best teams in North America. It tends to be city-based: Top clubs come out of Atlanta (winners this year in the men's division), San Francisco (won women's and masters), Los Angeles, Houston, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, Portland, Ottawa, Toronto, and so on. In the mixed division this year, the team from Charlottesville, Virginia, with the cheeky name Axis of C'ville won the championship. It's this kind of regional diversity that makes the championships quite fun. You get to see teams and players from these different areas of the country somewhat infrequently, so it's always cool to see the different styles of play and levels of competition.
And, as expected, comparing the UPA club championships to informal pickup that you might see in the park is like comparing the World Series to sandlot baseball. Teams have strict uniform requirements, and the players are all incredibly in-shape and well-trained. Teams have set offenses and defenses and wide-ranging strategies. There are referees and scorecards, timed games, medical personnel, live streaming video webacasts, photographers with huge lenses, and a defined structure to win the championship. However, unlike the World Series (and many other sports, for that matter), there are not that many fans. The tournament structure of the game has really been anathema to creating a fan base, unfortunately.

Gelf Magazine: You're appearing on a panel with an author who wrote about Manny Ramirez and another who wrote about a pioneer of women's wrestling. How would Manny or a female wrestler fare on the ultimate field?

Tony Leonardo: That's difficult to say. I think almost anyone can play the game, but it does require some basic field sense and good hand-eye coordination, and you really have to run a lot. That being said, Manny would probably be too lazy to play defense and too erratic on offense (precision, accuracy, and consistency are good values to have in the game). But, with his superior hand-eye coordination, like many baseball players, he could be an excellent poaching D player, one who could see different angles in the game and could get valuable blocks by stepping into throwing lanes quickly.
A female wrestler? I've only known a few former college wrestlers to have become ultimate players (we get players from all sorts of sports). There's nothing to suggest a wrestler would be good or bad on an ultimate team. I suppose because they can grapple, maybe they can catch the disc well. Who's to say?

Gelf Magazine: Is there another ultimate book on the horizon?

Tony Leonardo: Nope, but I am working on a script for a jokey feature comedy on ultimate for a Toronto-based film company. I hope to be able to go all Dodgeball on it and really mock sporting clichés, but I'm not sure the budget will be there, so I may just have to borrow and re-contextualize some standard pot humor and fish-out-of-water comedy to make it come together. In any case, expect the sport to be roundly thrashed and exulted at the same time.

Michael S. Gerber

Michael S. Gerber is a freelance journalist and ultimate-frisbee champion based in Bethesda, Maryland. Learn more at michaelsgerber.com.







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Article by Michael S. Gerber

Michael S. Gerber is a freelance journalist and ultimate-frisbee champion based in Bethesda, Maryland. Learn more at michaelsgerber.com.

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