You might not realize it, but one of the fastest growing sports in the country involves a Frisbee. It's called "Ultimate Frisbee," and it's already popular on college campuses nationwide. The sport is breaking out nationally, with two professional leagues, and locally, with Detroit's own pro team, Detroit Mechanix. Internationally, Ultimate Frisbee has even won a bid for inclusion in the Olympics. (Full disclosure: This writer has been involved in league play for several years.)
Requiring little more than a flying disc and a group of motivated people, it's no wonder why the sport is taking off the way it is. It combines the pure athleticism of almost all sports with a few unique features, such as a self-governing set of rules known as "Spirit of the Game," which can be found at every level of play, from the grassroots levels of pickup and summer leagues all the way to the pros.
"The integrity of Ultimate depends on each player's responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game, and this responsibility should remain paramount," states the website of USA Ultimate, the sport's domestic governing body. That "spirit" is the philosophy that holds the sport together and keeps it competitive and fun. The concept is that because there are no referees, players themselves are responsible for following and enforcing the rules. Mutual respect between players should never be sacrificed for more competitive play, and vice versa. Basically, this means having good sportsmanship all the time. Or in other words, treat others the way you would want to be treated. These qualities are often left in the dust in most competitive sports where winning is at the forefront of everyone's mind.
Spirit of the Game is really what makes Ultimate unique, and combined with its simple structure, this sport is playable virtually anywhere by anyone, including the historic Fort Wayne in Southwest Detroit.
The Detroit Ultimate Frisbee League, or DUFL, was founded by volunteers in 2013 as a summer league, and has since expanded to include a fall league as well. The group meets once a week in the evenings at Fort Wayne for a pregame clinic for newcomers, followed by a league game.
"We decided we didn't want to drive to Ann Arbor to play Ultimate, and we're also in community development, which means we're in the business of boosting Detroit," says founding secretary Samira Guyot. DUFL's volunteers and players alike have been working to create stronger ties between the greater Ultimate community and the local Detroit community. "It's always something we're working to improve," founding president Elizabeth Luther says.
"It's hard, you're going to run a lot ... but we always stress being beginner-friendly. We've found that if we have the right spirit, in the right community, people are happy to play," Guyot says. She describes how the lines between formal and informal leaders start to blur when people of varying skill levels volunteer and are working toward a common goal. "We do a lot of evaluating and responding to feedback so people feel like their voice is being heard," she says.
Inclusivity is a priority for DUFL, which is just one aspect that has helped it grow over the few years it's been around. And from that momentum, local club teams have begun to form, which really speaks to the Ultimate community in Detroit. Legitimate open, women's, and mixed teams are forming at all levels of play, giving people the opportunity to find where they fit at varying levels of competition and commitment.
At the professional level, the Detroit Mechanix are growing to be a competitive program in the American Ultimate Disc League while still keeping the "Spirit of the Game" alive, and also working to spread the spirit throughout the metro Detroit community. Founded in 2010, the Mechanix are one of the oldest organizations in professional Ultimate.
"We really want the Mechanix to be a vehicle for the community to interact with one another. At the end of the day that's what the Mechanix stand for. Not just the Detroit or ultimate communities, but we've also made international connections with players from Austria, Denmark, Colombia, Canada, Japan ... community is where you are even if it's not your home," says owner Brent Steepe. The best part about ultimate, Steepe says, is how it is "not inherently exclusionary. Rich can play with poor, women with men, any race. ... It really brings out the integrity of individuals." The Mechanix plan is really to combine things in a meaningful way.
Steepe emphasizes how Ultimate is a readily accessible sport for kids, and with other athletic and extracurricular opportunities going down and costs going up, added on top of growing health issues among youth, the Mechanix jump at every opportunity to engage with different communities. Their next home game on June 25 will benefit Operation Smile, an international and volunteer-based medical charity providing free surgery for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with facial deformities.
The Mechanix have two more home games and four away games left in the season. Their home turf is Bishop Foley High School, and all BFHS students get in for free with an ID. See detmechanix.com for the full schedule. For more about DUFL, see detroitultimate.org. Those interested in trying out the game can find groups that meet weekly in Southfield, Troy, Dearborn, and Ferndale by searching for pick-up games in each community on Facebook.
John Akers is a Metro Times intern.