Ultimate Frisbee :: The Platypus of Sports

Ultimate Frisbee :: The Platypus of Sports
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This is Part I in a series of Six Articles on the History of the Rules of Ultimate Frisbee

By the time you read through the following interview with Irv Kalb and really absorb the implications of his responses to the questions, you'll understand why Ultimate Frisbee truly is the Platypus of Sports.

Like a Platypus, Ultimate can't decide if it's a downs-oriented sport like football, or a possession based sport like basketball, and it can't decide whether it's a contact sport like soccer or a non-contact sport like croquet.
Like a Platypus, Ultimate can't decide if it's a downs-oriented sport like football, or a possession based sport like basketball, and it can't decide whether it's a contact sport like soccer or a non-contact sport like croquet.

For those who don't know me, I'm a long time player and long time antagonist to the game of Ultimate Frisbee. Like all of you, I love the game but unlike most of you, I also hate it with a passion. The reason I hate it is because of the way I've been treated over the years.

The amount of pain the Ultimate community has caused me these past 35 years is unfathomable and all for one reason. I think differently from you. I'm a heretic and for that, I've been ostracized for it and somehow, you're OK with that because of some sort of misguided Spirit of the Game violation. All the usual suspects will crawl out of the woodwork and attempt to discredit me, tell you what kind of jerk I am, accuse me of being an internet troll, say that I'm a delusional fool and to not listen to me. All I ask that you look past all of that and read the following interview with an open mind.

As someone has spent a lifetime perfecting my craft on the field and a self-described expert on the game, I see Ultimate as a stagnant, unwatchable, fundamentally unsound and ugly sport. The game simply hasn't evolved much in the past 40 years and in many instances, has devolved. Sure, the participants are more athletic and the attire is improved somewhat, but the way the game is played is stuck, not really advancing as all the other major sports did after 40-50 years of existence. As much as you love the game, it could be much, much better if you actually took the time to vet the rules against their original intentions, the original Spirit of The Rules.

So last year I interviewed Irv Kalb to understand his thinking that went in to the game to get a glimpse of the concepts behind the sport. While Joel Silver is credited with inventing Ultimate, it was really Irv who was responsible for formally codifying the rules.

As you're about to see in the following article, his answers to my questions are shocking (even to me and I've been a historian to the sport more than anyone I know). I also think that its important to note the both Ultiworld and Skyd were offered these articles and both declined because they were considered irrelevant. huh? You tell me if this interview with the sport's founder is irrelevant.

Part I -- The Spirit of The Rules

When Ultimate Frisbee was codified into a refined set of rules back in the early 70s, it was based on a set of novel, well intended concept; self-officiating being the most notable of course. But it didn’t end there and it’s crucial that the ultimate community understand that The Spirit of the Game also included an ideology that probably most players of today would be shocked with.

In law, there is both the letter of the law, as well as the spirit of the law. A good lawyer, for instance, will argue what the intention of the law is and how that impacts his client’s trial and a good judge will take the original lawmaker’s thinking into account when adjudicating a case. If you get pulled over for a citation and can successfully convince the police officer that what you were doing was within the spirit of the law, he’ll likely let you go.

In most sports, such as the NBA, NFL and MLB, rules are constantly being reevaluating for modifications & improvements and it is incumbent on the respective rules/competition committees to not only take into account what they feel would be in the best interest of the game moving forward, but to also have a keen understanding of the history of their sports and the spirit from which previous decisions on rules had been made. In sports as well as the judicial system, there is both the letter of the law as well as the spirit of the law.

As an Ultimate player, this is important to you whether you’re a semi-pro player with the AUDL or MLU, or the casual weekend pickup player because 95% of the game is still based on a set of intentions that almost no one knows. Furthermore, because those intentions were never documented or effectively communicated, they were simply neglected when it came time to revisit the rules and revision after revision of the rules have been ratified without anyone involved in the committees having any basis for why the rules were the way they were.

In Ultimate, as you will see in the interview below, what has been undeniably absent in the evolutionary process that has shaped the rules for over 30 years is the perspective of Ultimate historians who would have been able to carry with them the legacy of the original ideology behind each rule. It’s somewhat interesting that so much emphasis has been placed on the Spirit of the Game, when at the same time, the actual intentions that went into creating the game’s framework, The Spirit of The Rules, has been utterly neglected (mostly because no one even knew what they were).

That said, just about everyone reading this article should be astonished at the original Spirit of the Rules (SOTR) of Ultimate.

I was fortunate enough to interview the creator of the first codified set of rules, Irv Kalb (photo below), to find out what kind of thinking he used in crafting the rules, and here are his responses. What’s important to realize is that while Joel Silver is credited with having created Ultimate, it was Irv who more or less came up with the original framework and structure of the game. Remember, Irv was a nerdy 19 year old kid how had been playing a lot of touch football at the time. I don’t know about any of you but in my neighborhood, we either played basketball or we played tackle football, but touch football was for nerds.

Irv Kalb (left) fictional TV Nerd (right); uncanny resemblence
Irv Kalb (left) fictional TV Nerd (right); uncanny resemblence


Here’s what Irv had to say.

The answers to these question are not what you’d think they would be! Enjoy!!

Q: Why are jump passes illegal, or why did you never legalize jump passes?

A: Jump passes ARE legal, what are you talking about?

[*Subesquent to the interview, Irv did go back and review all the revisions of the rules he had and couldn’t find a specific rule in the rulebook overtly making jump passes legal, but when he was playing in high school and college, a thrower could jump to throw a pass, but had to release the throw before landing. He was practically indignant at my question]

Q: What thinking went into not making a hard cap on the number of steps for travel?

A: This was mostly out of convenience. You’ve got to understand, we were a bunch of kids that wanted to concentrate on having fun. If we put a limit on the number of steps for traveling, that would mean that you’d have to count players’ steps while we were trying to play so instead, we just made the rule that people had to stop as quickly as possible and relied on their integrity and the honor system to stop as quickly as possible.

Q: What was the intention behind making picks illegal?

A: You’ve got to remember that Ultimate was developed on an asphalt parking lot and injuries were a huge concern. And if you remember, back at this time in the NFL (Irv was and still is huge into Football), setting basketball-like picks in football was legal. You can imagine someone getting clocked and seriously hurt in a parking lot so we eliminated setting [basketball style] picks. It was strictly for the players’ safety as we wanted to keep it a fun non-contact sport. [nb—I’ve played maybe 5000 games since 1979 and watched many more, I’ve never once seen a basketball style pick set]

Q: Why was it made illegal to swat the disc out of the thrower’s hand (this response shocked me probably the most and is really telling about the perspective that went into drafting the rules)

A: This is because a pass wasn’t completed.

Q: Huh? What do you mean? Why would that be relevant?

A: Yeah, the only way for a turnover to happen is when a pass is incomplete. Once a pass is complete, a turnover can’t happen until another throwing attempt. The basic mechanism of the game is that turnover opportunities only happen during a ‘play’, when the thrower passes the disc to another player. [ed This is a critical and significant insight into Irv’s thinking and the Spirit of this rule has repercussions throughout the rules]

Q: There’s a tremendous amount of contact in the game today. For a game that was based on being non-contact, how do you feel about that? I’m neither for or against contact, but had you envisioned a game with as much contact as there is in today’s game, wouldn’t you have wanted to put in some sort of restraints that provided a coherent “risk/reward” kind of ratio?

A: I have not watched a game in many years, so I am unaware of how much contact there is. We certainly envisioned the game as a true non-contact sport. It was vital to us that any behavior that might result in an injury, must be unthinkable – even if it meant that the opponent would wind up making a big play or a score. For this reason, there really wasn’t any reason to put safeguards in place to deter players from making contact.

Q: In Ultimate, other than there being kickoffs (which are a fairly minor part of the game) and a huge rectangular field with endzones (which are proportionately more than 4 times larger than a football fields are), the rules for ultimate aren’t at all like football’s and actually much closer to basketball. What discussions did you have that went into making it a turnover to pivot or have momentum carry you out of bounds?

A: The framework for Ultimate was based on a very simple principal. And this is that the game was a series of either ‘plays’, either completions or incompletions. The only way a turnover could happen was an incomplete pass. Once a pass was completed, it was immaterial whether or not someone stepped or pivoted out of bounds. We were just trying to have fun.

Q: In the rules it says that there aren’t any harsh violations for infractions, and yet a stall count violation results in a turnover so that sounds pretty harsh.

A: But a stall count violation is different than fouls or travels or whatever. It’s more objective and definitive. It’s an extension of the principal of turnovers only occurring as a result of a throw where a stall count violation is basically considered to be the equivalent of an incomplete throw.

Do you want to know why we added the stall count? In the beginning, games were timed and what we realized is that if the second half of a game started and you were ahead, a player could just sit down with the disc and win the game so we added a stall count to make sure this didn’t happen.

Q: What do you think about referees?

A: I believe that at the top level, the sport can benefit from referees. Mostly from the acceptance factor of the general public. But also to make accurate calls because of good perspectives. However, that doesn’t mean that all levels of competition require them. The sport can certainly be played on a highly competitive basis without referees if you adhere to the basic understanding that no player will intentionally break any rules of the game. [np—Intention should have no bearing on rules violations in sports; where else in officiated sports is intention relevant in a situation where a player commits an infraction? (other than an umpire throwing a pitcher out for intentionally hitting a batter?)]

Q: People think that Spirit of the Game is about Self-Officiating, but it’s much more than this, isn’t it?

A: Absolutely, it’s the other way around actually. Referees or self officiating is an outcropping or byproduct of the philosophy of spirit of the game. The spirit of the game went into the creation of the rules top to bottom. [ed. Again, this is key to understanding the rules and SOTG, they are inseparable and yet ‘why the rules are the way they are’ has been utterly forgotten]

Q: In the preface of the rules, it says “….it is assumed that no player will intentionally violate the rules, therefore there will be no harsh penalties for inadvertent infractions….”. In other words if you invert this sentence to say “there will be no harsh penalties for inadvertent infractions because players won’t be cheating”, what you’re really saying here in this sentence is that the only reason for harsh penalties in sports in general is to prevent cheating. Do you agree that the only reason in sports to have penalties is to prevent cheating?

A: I don’t think this is true.

Try to remember that we constructed this game around the premise of having fun. We started out playing as a bunch of pals getting together to have a good time. Penalizing each other for rules violations just did not fit. The game intrinsically was based on the honor system so there was no need for penalties. [ed. Golf is based on the honor system, has been around for over 300 years, and has penalties not because of cheating, but to preserve the integrity of the game; irrespective of the intentions of the person violating the rules]

Q: The preface then goes on to say “……a method for resuming play in a manner that simulates what would have happened had there been no infraction”. I could see how this would function given a footballesque mentality about the game, but by now you’ve seen some of the videos of contemporary Ultimate and the only way you can simulate what would have happened had there been no infraction would be to give the offended team the score. It’s physically impossible to reset all the intricate angles, vectors, momentum, advantages, compromises the offense set up. In 1972, you didn’t have the foresight to predict the levels of sophisticated offenses that would develop, but this notion of resuming play as if an infraction didn’t happen was somewhat misguided. In hindsight wouldn’t you say that maybe this maybe needs to be rethought?

A: When that clause in the rules was written, there were few fouls. Fouls were accidental. No one intentionally fouled to create an advantage. A concept like the “good foul” in basketball to stop a fast break, had no place in Ultimate and took away from the fun. This approach seems to have worked for a long time, so I would not say that it was misguided. As I said, I have not seen the state-of-the-art , so I can’t really comment on current day play. [ed Irv clearly didn’t understand this question. Even 40 years ago, whether a foul was intentional or not, the idea of simulating what would have happened was tenuous at best]

Q: Ultimate has become a cult, are you aware of this?

A: Yes, I know it has.

Q: Any thoughts on the USAU?

A: I think what they are doing is great. I had always envisioned having a rules body separate from the UPA.

Q: But the USAU is just the UPA renamed, did you know this?

A: No I didn’t. The UPA was meant to be exactly that, a Players Association (like the NFL Players Association), an organization that was there to represent and protect the players. The UPA was never supposed to be the governing body of the sport.

Q: So it’s been 40 years since your social experiment began, what are your feelings/thoughts about it?

A: On one hand I’m happy to see the sport growing and spreading and professional leagues staring but to be honest, I’m pretty disappointed with how the sport hasn’t grown to where I thought it would be by now and where I still think it can go.


So there you have it straight from the Creator. The relevance of this original thinking that went into specific rule decisions cannot be overstated. Just take picks for example. Has anyone reading this article ever seen a player set a real pick (vis Basketball style)? And yet 10’s of thousands of pick calls get made every year because the way the rule is written today has nothing to do with the original Spirit of the Rule. It’s been long forgotten.

What’s interesting is how often Irv mentioned how fun was a determining factor in many, many of his decisions. But fun is a subjective experience. In other words they seem to have gone out of their way to make the objective of the game a subjective experience.

Irv Kalb walked away from the game in 1982 and since then, the Ultimate community has been somewhat of a headless chicken with very few significant rule changes. Ultiworld recently proposed a modest set of rules changes, but like so many other discussions on the rules that have come and gone over the past 30 years, don’t expect reform anytime soon. That’s not to say reform can’t or won’t happen, it just merely means that in order for true change to happen, we first need to identify what the underlying problem is that needs to be solved. Otherwise we’re just incrementally treating the symptoms and not the disease and we’re neglecting to address the real issues at hand. Unfortunately, the overwhelming challenge is change coming from within a community that has been conditioned to think within the very framework that needs an overhaul. Not likely to happen within my lifetime.

A platypus is a egg-laying mammal with a duck bill, it can’t decide if it’s a reptile, a mammal or a bird. Ultimate, because of Irv Kalb’s touch football-centric thinking, is half ‘play based’ (like Football’s 4 down system) and half possession based (like basketball). It’s the platypus of sports, which ends up giving the offense a tremendous advantage. What would basketball look like if you could run out of bounds, pivot out of bounds, take as many steps as you need, not get penalized for taking too many steps and the defenders were not allowed to knock the ball out of your hands (and “all ball” blocks were considered a foul on the defender!!).

Possibly the biggest and most challenging of these issues, is for Ultimate Nation at large to come to grips with the reality that they’ve unwittingly adopted a Spirit of the Rules that they are completely unaware of and don’t necessarily agree with. Professional leagues have begun and USAU is working on getting Ultimate into the Olympics and yet there isn’t a single person in any of these organizations even aware of the thinking that went into making the rules, 95% of which are still intact.

See Also Part II

See Also Part III

See Also Part IV

See Also Part V

See Also Part VI

Frank Huguenard holds a degree in science from Purdue University and has spent decades in product development in Silicon Valley prior to embarking on a career in documentary film production, specializing in films bridging the gap between Science & Spirituality. He draws on his research in the fields of combination of psychology, physics, wisdom traditions, sociology and history. You can see his films at www.beyondmefilms.com.

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