Flying Into the Mainstream

A local ultimate Frisbee league takes steps to become a legally recognized nonprofit organization

A sign at the Kino Sports Complex at Tucson Electric Park advertises the spring training-tenant Diamondbacks to cars passing by on Ajo Way. The Chicago White Sox also call the complex their spring training home, and, of course, the Sidewinders spend all summer there. But the 150 acres of fields are largely deserted in autumn.

Except on Sunday nights.

In the one corner of the complex, fields are quickly tailored for Tucson's fall Ultimate League. Seth Jaffee, one of the league coordinators, looks up expectantly at the lights, waiting for all 300,000 volts to stage his fellow players and their sport of choice.

Anyone in the Tucson area may join the league. They just have to be willing to run their joints thin. In the ultimate week, Sunday is not a day of rest.

The unrest begins around sunset, at 5:30 p.m., when 10 teams convene. Teams are distinguished by different colored shirts with the league logo branded on front. Fields are mottled by small orange cones that divide games and indicate end zones.

Waiting for the rest of carpooling latecomers to show, friends warm up. They toss the Frisbee to each other, barefoot, and breathe in air saddled with the smell of fresh-cut grass. Unleashed dogs sprint up and down the sidelines between Gatorade bottles and nylon camp chairs.

This picnic atmosphere is uninterrupted until Jaffee, wearing a red shirt he insists is brick-colored, announces the start of the clock. Jaffee is an engineer in his late 20s who has yet to break his glasses during a game. In the early '90s, he played for Sunburn, the UA team.

Todd Shipman, who could be seen on the ultimate field as far back as 13 years ago, grew up alongside Jaffee.

"Back when I started playing," says Shipman, "you would see people, like a lot of college guys, playing in skirts. Most of the players had long hair. Now, they wear NBA shorts."

Ultimate tournaments are Jaffee and Shipman's most vivid memories of being students, but there is little nostalgia: Competing against one another in this league provides the same athletic satisfaction they felt years ago.

Jaffee and Shipman are part of an ambitious few who recently extended their dedication to the game beyond the playing field and into the legal system. In an attempt to stabilize funding and create longevity for the sport, they filed a 501(c)3 for status as a nonprofit organization. The filing is still pending.

Filing for nonprofit status is as mainstream as a club or sport can get. But ultimate was not always popular or mainstream. The first kids to play ultimate wanted something different than the standard organized sports. As the story goes, in 1968, in a comfortable New Jersey town, student council members at Columbia High School designed the first set of guidelines for a sport played with a Frisbee. Initially, it was the non-athletic types that played in the only place available: abandoned parking lots. They rejected referees and declared a self-officiated game that relied solely on an honor system.

Today, the game is still self-officiated. "You have people that come in and naturally have to drop their aggression, play by the rules and call their own fouls," says Deb Weis, a league captain for the green team, Granny Smiths.

This honor system is referenced in the official rules of ultimate under "Spirit of the Game" and is the guiding principle to ultimate's fundamental law of sportsmanship. Board members in the Ultimate Players Association, established in 1989 in Boulder, Colo., wrote 19 chapters of detailed guidelines. These rules teams abide by today. "Spirit of the Game" is not treated lightly by veteran players, and there is a consensus among them that the game has changed through the years.

"I would say that the level of spirited play has definitely gone down," says Shipman. "It seems to me that I hardly ever see people call fouls on themselves anymore. People used to cheer after a game, cheer the other team and that's not even common anymore."

During a recent league game, a college student who also plays for the UA team abandoned the field after a tough play and retreated to the sidelines. In his frustration, he kicked a gallon milk jug filled with water into the fence facing Ajo. The jug exploded like a champagne bottle, but to dripping spectators and tired players sitting out for a point, it was neither refreshing nor celebratory.

On this Sunday, the sun is burying itself behind the Tucson Mountains, making it difficult to see the flight of a Frisbee. Jaffee points out team members, double-knotted in cleats, lining up in the end zones waiting to receive the first "pull" of the night. He rattles off a lineage of the dedicated. "See that guy right there? He's playing with a torn ACL. The best players in town? Probably this geophysicist and this doctor. Oh, and those college kids. They've been playing in a tournament since 8 this morning. Some of the guys in league work together at a missile plant and even play ultimate on their lunch breaks."

Jaffee and others understand that "Spirit of the Game" is on the line and fears a direction the sport may take. But ultimate has always been a transition game. Players continuously move between offense and defense until either team scores a goal. Turnovers occur after a dropped or intercepted pass, or when a player holds the disc for longer than 10 seconds.

If the league becomes a nonprofit organization, ultimate may undergo a transition itself: It seems destined for conventionalism. Even though veteran players like Jaffee are the ones pushing for recognition, they are not quite prepared for everything that comes with mainstream territory.

"As soon as there are officials, money, bearing and professionalism," he says, "there are some people that are like, 'Well, that's not ultimate anymore.'"

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