What the NFL Could Learn from Ultimate Frisbee

By Hanna Kim

In response to a recent series of flagrant tackles sending football players to the hospital with concussions and other injuries, the National Football League announced last month that it would begin suspending players for dangerous hits.  From the NFL and football at the high school and college levels to other sports such as college soccer (we all remember that New Mexico female soccer player suspended for throwing elbows and hair pulling last year) the serious risk of brain injury and other permanent injuries have been garnering a lot of public concern lately.  Time Magazine recently tackled this issue in their feature article, “The Problem with Football: How to Make it Safer.”

 So, the question is this: other than suspensions and fines, how can professional football players be held accountable for their actions?  How can we avoid dangerous and illegal collisions from occurring on the sports field?

In reflecting on this question, I turn to my favorite past time and sport of choice: Ultimate Frisbee.  In Ultimate Frisbee, there are no referees and players are responsible for calling their own fouls, travels and other violations, even at the most highly competitive levels.  “Fouls and travels in Ultimate Frisbee?” one may query.  Ultimate Frisbee has graduated from its hippy past and has grown to become a highly popular, competitive sport.  It can best be described as a fusion of the non-stop movement and athletic endurance of soccer and the transitions and quick turnovers of basketball, with the aerial passing skills of football.  In Ultimate Frisbee, everyone is a receiver, defender and quarterback.  As a recent ESPN article on Ultimate Frisbee summarized, “It’s football without the concussions.”

 Although similar to traditional sports in many respects, Ultimate Frisbee’s most distinctive feature is the ethos of the “Spirit of the Game”—a tradition of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the players rather than referees.  As the Preface to the Official Rules of Ultimate (11th Ed.) provides:

“The integrity of Ultimate depends on each player’s responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game, and this responsibility should remain paramount.” 

Although highly competitive play is still encouraged, it is never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the rules, or the basic joy of play.  Having this ethical guideline in place ingrains in Ultimate Frisbee players a sense of responsibility, and protection of this spirit of sportsmanship successfully serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct like intentional infractions and dangerous aggression.

 So, is suspension effective in eliminating foul play?  Should the NFL get rid of its refs?  There is a wide spectrum between self-regulation and suspension or the imposition of fines.  Perhaps NFL teams can find a happy medium by borrowing a page from the Ultimate Frisbee rulebook and incorporating into its rules its own version of the “Spirit of the Game.”  However, my personal recommendation is for players to head over to the local park on the weekend and play in a pickup game of Ultimate Frisbee.  I know I wouldn’t mind throwing a pass to Hines Ward or catching a huck from Tom Brady.      

Hanna Kim is an avid Ultimate Frisbee player and a member of the Connecticut Ultimate Club.  You may reach her at hk2302@gmail.com.

For more of Hanna’s Ultimate Frisbee coverage, see the post Olympic Special Feature: Is Ultimate Frisbee Worthy of Olympic Status?

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  1. […] a special thanks to Featured Columnist Dan Canavan and guest columnists Rob Romano and Hanna Kim for thier contributions over the past […]

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