Harvard goes Ultimate

Frisbee heads to Nationals for the second year in a row.

While frisbee may bring to mind light recreation on grassy meadows, the Harvard Red Line Ultimate Frisbee team says they’re all about business. The team, which was founded in 1976 and boasts 50 players, practices almost every day and travels on weekends in the spring for scrimmages and tournaments.

“We are a serious and a competitive team, but at the same time we have a sort of light atmosphere,” Co-Captain Jack M. Marsh ’06 says.

And their hard work seems to have paid off, for the second year in a row. One year after placing 11th at the national championships in Oregon, the team will compete again for a national title this weekend in Columbus, Ohio. The Red Line qualified for nationals after winning the New England Regional Championship the weekend of May 5.

“There will be a ton of good teams, so the title will be up for grabs,” Marsh says. “We are the 15th seed out of 16, so we aren’t expected to do well, but we have a really strong team.”

Although Ultimate Frisbee, which originated in a New Jersey high school in 1968, was originally associated with a liberal, counter-culture movement, the game has evolved into a more competitive sport.

Harvard Red Line Co-Captain William P. Chen ’06 says associating the sport with hippies is a misconception.

“Some teams are still like that, but because people are taking it more and more seriously, there is less room for that. If you aren’t serious, you aren’t really good,” he says.

Many students decide to take up Ultimate Frisbee in college because, although they want to be active and involved in a team, they do not want to commit themselves to varsity athletics, according to team members.

“I think the main draw is that it gives you the same experience without the hassles of playing a varsity sport,” says Marsh, citing the team’s ability to choose its own practice times and tournament destinations as perks of being on a club sport.

Members of the Harvard Women’s Ultimate Frisbee Team, Quasar, also say they enjoy the flexibility of a student-run team.

Quasar Coach Jeff Listfield ’02 says the leadership of Ultimate team is largely the responsibility of the players themselves.

“I’m there to be a voice of knowledge, to help them play as well as I can. But I have little to do with the recruiting and organization of the team and try to leave much of the motivation to the players,” he writes in an e-mail.

Quasar Co-Captain Caitlin N. McDonough ’06, says that Ultimate Frisbee is “not as hippy as it comes off,” despite other teams’ choices to don skirts and play in bare feet—such as the Middlebury teams.

“There are always kids wearing dresses and having fun on the fields. Lots of dreadlocks,” McDonough says. “But when it comes down to it, people take us seriously as a real sports team.”

Shimrit F. Paley, co-captain of the Middlebury Lady Pranksters Ultimate Team, says the physically demanding aspects of the game make the team a serious one, despite its emphasis on fun.

“We play in skirts, our guys play in skirts. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t competitive,” she says, adding that more serious teams are “public relations oriented, trying to convince the rest of the world that we are a real sport. And we are.”

Despite the freedom they allow students, club sports at Harvard do not receive much financial support from the College, leaving teams to rely on fund-raising and student pocket-money to cover expenses. Harvard Red Line receives a small amount of money from the Athletics Department and the Undergraduate Council each year, according to Chen.

“We don’t get the funding or the access to facilities that varsity sports do, and that can be a bummer. But we are in control of our own destiny,” Marsh says.

Ryan John, media and communications director at the Ultimate Player’s Association (UPA), the governing body for Ultimate Frisbee in the United States, says the overall membership in the UPA has grown between 15 and 20 percent in the past five years. As the game rises in popularity, college teams are becoming increasingly competitive.

According to John, the “Spirit of the Game” is the most attractive element of the sport and has contributed to its rising popularity.

The “Spirit of the Game” is a unique concept in Ultimate Frisbee by which the players themselves are responsible for enforcing the rules of the game. There are no referees. According to the UPA web site, “in Ultimate, the honor system works.”

“It is still pure, still about the competition and about having fun,” John says.

McDonough says this element contributes to a more positive game atmosphere.

“It’s a nice change from the culture of sports where soccer moms are yelling at kids when they are five years old,” she says.

But Co-Captain of the University of Colorado’s Ultimate Team Rick Hodges, says the open-ended structure of the game could lead to unfair outcomes.

“When it works and you have a spirited game that was won or lost based on pure athletic talent it’s amazing...[but] the game can easily be ruined by individuals or even teams that use the self officiating rules just to gain an advantage,” he writes in an e-mail.

Marsh says that, ultimately, the soaring popularity of Ultimate Frisbee is the result of a very simple reality.

“There is something beautiful about a Frisbee flying and people chasing after it,” he says.

—Staff writer Mathieu D. S. Bouchard can be reached at mdsbouch@fas.harvard.edu.