No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. – Eleanor Roosevelt
Many years ago, while discussing ultimate, Andy Borinstein, UPA Hall of Famer, used a phrase which I have since borrowed from him many times, without proper attribution. He described ultimate as a sport that “catches people who fall through the cracks” of other sports. I have always used the phrase in the way I believe he meant it, which is to say that people who might not be tall enough or strong enough or sleek enough or fast enough to play more mainstream sports find a home in ultimate, where hand-eye coordination and stamina go a long way to assuring at least a modicum of success, whatever one’s other shortcomings might be. Recently I have come to realize that there is another way to interpret the statement. Whether or not Andy meant it this way is irrelevant; the shoe fits, so we might as well wear it.
In various discussion threads and blogs, the question has been raised whether intimidation belongs in ultimate. By that I mean, it has been suggested in some cases, and stated outright in others, that intimidation is a violation of sotg and anyone who intimidates an opponent is guilty of a violation of the rules of the game. By extension, a player who purposely intimidates is knowingly violating the rules of ultimate, and therefore a cheater. With apologies to those of you who interpret the sotg clause this way (sotg specifically refers to “belligerent intimidation” without explanation), I am of the opinion that it is laughably ludicrous, and only players who have little to no understanding of competitive sport could think such a thing. Yes, ultimate catches people who fall through the cracks of other sports. In this case, I suggest that we try to make the game a coarser mesh sieve.
NY ultimate lore is full of many entertaining little tidbits that we never tire of rehashing. One time at worlds, while playing against Sweden, I found myself being guarded by a very young, eager, and wide-eyed player, who seemed a little bit nervous. As the disc was being walked to the line, the deep, reassuring voice of one of his teammates called out a bit of last minute advice: “Don’t look at his muscles.” Clearly there was a concern that the young man might be intimidated by my physique. Should he have called a foul, and required me to wear a baggy, long-sleeve shirt?
1989 National Finals against Tsunami, I am on offense, running down a hanging huck in the end zone with Marty Stazak right on my hip. Marty gets a great run and leap, but he’s a touch early. My timing is better, and I catch the goal. In retrospect, I’ve come to believe that Marty, aware of the rumors of my leaping prowess, might have been intimidated into making his jump early, and that enabled me to catch the goal. Marty, if that is the case, I’m sorry I cheated you out of the D.
1992 National Semifinals against Rhino Slam, we pull downwind and play zone to start the game. Rhino shows astonishing patience, throwing what must have been fifty passes while working it two thirds of the way up field before an errant pass sails out of bounds. I walk the disc to the side line and throw one pass, a long forehand to Walter, for the goal. Rhino, possibly intimidated by how efficiently and quickly we struck, is never in the game, losing by an astonishing margin. I realize now we should have thrown more passes and been less intimidating. A replay of the game might be called for.
1993 Worlds, also in the semis against Rhino Slam, we’re on offense trailing late in the second half, when I call timeout on a high count. We set up what looks like a standard dump play to reset the count, but we also isolate Cribber in the end zone. On the restart I throw the forehand (which they were giving me) to Cribber in the far corner (which they were giving him) for the goal. We run the table to win the game, and I realize now that Rhino might have been intimidated by our willingness to go big when circumstances (trailing late in the game) called for the safer play. They are arguably the 1993 World Champions.
OK, so these are pretty ridiculous examples, but no more so than the suggestion that sotg prohibits intimidation from ultimate. For comparison, let’s take a look at an example from another sport with a sotg clause, golf.
When Tiger Woods has a one stroke lead on Sunday, does a PGA official tell him he can’t wear red? Do they tell the media not to remind everybody within earshot of the guy’s record of greatness? Of course not. Tiger wears red, and the media reports go out and Tiger’s opponents spray it all over the course, and then once in a blue moon somebody like Y.E. Yang comes through. Why? Because Tiger wasn’t intimidating that day? Because he wasn’t wearing red? No. Because Yang wasn’t intimidated.
Intimidation is the flower of self-doubt, and in the absence of self-doubt, intimidation cannot flower. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, people can’t be intimidated unless they allow themselves to be. Yang didn’t allow it. Rhino did. Whose fault is that? Should anyone be held accountable when players or teams allow themselves to be intimidated?
As indicated earlier, the sotg clause refers specifically to “belligerent intimidation,” but based on RSD posts and blogs, a few people have decided to apply it to all forms of intimidation. This is at the heart of so much of what is flawed about the sotg clause and its enforcement. Individual players selectively emphasize certain words or phrases while ignoring others. The language itself is so vague as to open itself to multiple interpretations even when players agree on the wording. Case in point: “belligerent intimidation.” What does it mean?
If I’m on a team that hasn’t lost in months and I happen to be belligerent, is that belligerent intimidation? What if I’m a belligerent but mediocre role player on a great team? Is that belligerent intimidation? What if I’m the belligerent leader of a terrible team? Is that belligerent intimidation? A poster to Parinella’s blog suggested (perhaps with tongue firmly in cheek) that he has made many bad calls but nobody cares because he’s a mediocre player. Does the “belligerent intimidation” provision in the sotg clause effectively apply only to good teams/players, because people don’t really care too much what the teams/players that lose are doing (and because, generally speaking, there’s nothing especially intimidating about losing)?
The point I’m trying, and perhaps failing, to make is that a self-officiated sport must place a greater emphasis on specificity in its rules. The officials in officiated sports attend regular clinics and meetings where they are TOLD precisely how to interpret gray areas in the rules. In ultimate, every player makes his or her own subjective interpretation, so that at any given time there are as many as fourteen different versions of the rules being enforced and/or adhered to. For the purposes of illustration, and because I find the topic rather amusing, I have chosen to focus on a single, two-word term from what is said to be the most sacrosanct clause in the rules and shown how, taken to an extreme, it can yield some pretty absurd results. But the sad truth is that a quick read through RSD will tell you that some people are quite serious about using the vague terminology in the sotg clause to suggest that intimidation, an essential component of ALL competitive sporting endeavors, has no place in the game of ultimate. What other less obvious but equally absurd interpretations are being made on a daily basis?
Finally, because I really can’t get it out of my head, I’d like to ask someone, anyone (Henry Thorne perhaps) to define “belligerent intimidation.” This should be good.
Me: So what exactly is “belligerent intimidation?”
Henry: Well, it’s a little hard to define, exactly. But I know it when I see it.
(With apologies to Potter Stewart.)