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Why athletes brave pooh-poohing to play the 'ultimate' sport

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Several players mention the sheer fun of the game. Others find it as highly competitive as college team sports. The sport's unwritten code of honor also has an appeal: There are no referees. Even at the national championships, players call their own fouls. Team captains confer when there is a disputed call.

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Alan Cave, a mechanical engineer and Rude Boys player, liked the game so much he applied for jobs in the Boston area so that he could play the game.

Boston has become something of a mecca for Ultimate players. It has 10 club teams - more than any other city - and sits in the middle of the roughest and largest of the five US regions set up by the Ultimate Players Association (UPA).

The association has grown rapidly in its three years of existence and now boasts some 1,500 members in 327 teams across the United States. Women's teams are also growing rapidly.

For all its growth, the sport has retained its maverick, fun-loving image. Players donate time to run the association. Teams pay their own way to tournaments and rarely compete for anything more valuable than trophies. Even the rule book contains a clause about preserving the ''spirit of the game.''

But in recent years the competition has grown stiffer. And players wonder aloud whether the competition will reach such a high level that referees will be required.

That is not the only concern. This year, for the first time ever, the UPA is allowing a major company - Seagram Distillers Company - to sponsor two of the five regional championships.

''The leaders of this sport - and I am one of them - are very cautions about this move,'' says Stephen Mooney, a studio photographer and captain of the Rude Boys team. In the past, many UPA tournaments were backed by money from Wham-O, the company that successfully marketed the Frisbee trademark.

Seagram's will give badly needed public relations support for the UPA, whose budget is ''basically nothing'' and whose only source of money is a $7 annual membership fee, says Paul Brenner, Northeast regional coordinator for UPA. On the other hand, many of the players don't like the idea of being backed by a liquor company, despite its promise not to serve liquor at the tournaments.

There is plenty of time before Ultimate players will have to worry about the dangers of professionalization, says Cave of the Rude Boys. ''Thinking of salaries is a long way off. I wouldn't mind if we'd get some [corporate] help.''

But if the sport ever does make the big-time, there will almost certainly be big changes, sports historians say.

''When you get to the professional level, it's not a question of fun, it is one of money,'' says Jack Berryman, editor of the Journal of Sport History. ''That's the price you pay for high-level competition.''

Professionalization has also hit colleges, where recruiting violations, under-the-table payments, and other abuses have come to the public's attention in recent years, he adds.

''The bottom line - one we often forget in many sports - is that it's fun,'' he continues. But with the increasing professionalization of many sports in America, ''some of the fun comes out, because now there's more at stake. . . .''