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

When a team of Bostonians brought home a world championship this summer, the city yawned. There were no photographers, no brass bands, no autograph seekers. The only people at the airport, recalls one player, were a few friends and customs agents.

It is the price of being a superstar in the little-known sport of Ultimate Frisbee.

The world-champion Rude Boys have grown used to paying the dues of obscurity. They patiently answer strangers' questions about whether the sport uses dogs. (It does not.) They endure those who pooh-pooh the serious training required. And, one player laments, they often give up their social lives to play the game.

There is something engrossing about this sport.

Grown men hurtle downfield at full tilt. They dive, they jump, to catch a spinning plastic disk before it hits the ground (see photos, Pages 32 and 33). In quieter moments, the players yearn for recognition - which is not too surprising, even for a team led by a studio photographer and staffed by a biochemist, two naval architects, a cabinetmaker, and 12 other young men, mostly in their mid-20s.

This year, Ultimate players have taken the first step toward the limelight by accepting a large corporate sponsor. But it was an agonizing decision. If the sport becomes as popular as football and basketball, players ask, does it risk losing something of its spirit and its fun?

Others may rightly ask how it could possibly become popular.

It would be difficult, says sports historian Ronald Smith, but Ultimate could take hold if it lost its oddball image and became recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the Olympics. Historically, says the Penn State professor, the key to a sport's success has been the importance of its sponsors.

Football caught on, Professor Smith points out, mainly because an early form of the game was played by Harvard. Basketball took off because it was backed by the YMCA and the public school system. Ultimate has ''the right mixture of things to make it a (popular) sport,'' Smith says. ''It's a lot more fun to play than football, for most people.''

The game of Ultimate had to happen, as one Boston Magazine writer put it recently.

As it turned out, the basics of the game were born in a Maplewood, N.J., parking lot in 1967. Students at Columbia High School created a game in which players could pass the disk but couldn't run with it. Points were scored when a team could catch the disk across a goal line.

By the time Ed Dissosway started playing the game at Cornell University in the mid-'70s, Ultimate's rules had been refined, but not its image. He had left the rigors and disappointments of the college's soccer team to join the Ultimate squad. ''And here I was playing in this unrecognized, unorganized sandlot game, '' he recalls.

He even quit playing for a year. But something about the sport brought him back. Now a software technician and Rude Boys player, Mr. Dissosway plays with a fervor typical of Ultimate players. ''Sometimes it takes over,'' he admits.

During the fall, the Rude Boys practice six hours a week. Whole weekends are taken up playing other teams. What is it that drives players to juggle this heavy sports involvement with full-time jobs?

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.

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. . . .''

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