Six Weeks in the Summer of ‘68: The Origin of a Sport
From 1965 to 1968 a group of Amherst College students played a game we now know to be the direct ancestor to ultimate. Social Dorm Frisbee, as then-players (and now septuagenarians) Steve Ward and Gordon Murray tell us, was frolicsome, fun and definitely not like the typical jock activity on campus. The groups who played were smart kids who didn’t fit fraternity culture.
We learn from Ward and Murray why Social Dorm Frisbee is important because it laid out the foundations of a jovial student-led game that was different in nature than team sports at the time. Who knew the appeal of an “anti-sport” would last in parallel with the notion of “sport?” But more importantly, how would it last? By a quirk of history and a well-timed confluence of events in the summer of 1968 Social Dorm Frisbee became ultimate. And at that point it fell into the arms of one of the greatest showmen and promoters of his generation-…
But before we get to the showman we get to the essence of the sport. In the summer of 1968, Social Dorm player and then-21-year-old Jared Kass became an assistant teacher and counselor for the Mount Hermon summer enrichment program in Western Massachusetts. Kass taught Social Dorm Frisbee and, needing a cool name to attract high school kids, called it “ultimate” Frisbee.
It’s important to note what Kass taught and why: Kass, as he tells us, was changed by the times. Even though Mount Hermon was a manicured prep school — Kass had fallen in with the counterculture. He grew out his hair and sought to join campus protests. Beleaguered, demoralized and woken to the failures of America by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr earlier that Spring (and Robert Kennedy that summer), Kass decided to teach a version of team frisbee where conflict resolution was part of the fabric of play and refereeing explicitly discouraged. He taught dharma and the flow of the game and that winning or losing wasn’t as important as having played well. Kass taught Eastern spirituality and, unknowingly, the principles of “Spirit of the Game” that have provided the meditative and structural underpinnings of the sport until this day.
But there’s a curious lapse in the narrative. There are tens of millions of ultimate players around the world, 87 countries recognized by the World Flying Disc Federation and a strong consideration for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles — but Jared Kass isn’t part of any of this. Kass isn’t known as the individual who named the sport and infused its ethos. He isn’t in the sport’s Hall of Fame and there is hardly any mention of Kass anywhere. These honors belong to the showman: Hollywood action mega-producer Joel Silver.
Silver was at that 1968 summer camp. We know this because he tells us. Kass never wrote down the rules to the ultimate game and never played team frisbee after that summer. But Joel Silver did. He brought the game back to his junior year at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. Silver organized two competitive teams at school and started a game that is played to this day. The rest, as they say, is history. Meanwhile Jared Kass joined sit-ins, the back-to-land movement, earned a PhD and became a counselor, therapist, and professor teaching principles of Eastern spirituality in helping adolescents navigate turbulence to balance their mental health. What Kass didn’t do was play or even hear about the sport of ultimate frisbee for 35 years until…
Let’s stop for a second and wonder: what does it mean to have a new and universally recognized team sport? We talk with sports historian Adam Zagoria and Hall of Fame ultimate coach Tiina Booth about ultimate as a new sport. Zagoria compares it to other sports (born, coincidentally, in the same Northeast region of the United States) and notes similarities and differences. Booth, meanwhile, disputes the notions of dharma and Spirit of the Game as somehow being special. All sports have a version of sportsmanship, why is ultimate different? And there’s even some doubt about Kass’s story. How much did his teachings really influence the game that was clearly born after his time? Tiina reminds us that she hopes this isn’t yet another white-man-origin story. What were the cultural implications of the times in 1968 and how do they compare and contrast to today?
The conflicting truths begin to emerge: whatever Kass taught it didn’t survive the convulsive era of 1968 in New England. Students at Northfield Mount Hermon didn’t continue to play ultimate. Social Dorm Frisbee at Amherst disappeared after 1969 when the core of players graduated. Nothing remains and it’s a fact that Joel Silver created the game of ultimate we know today in leafy Maplewood, New Jersey, a place protected from the times and ensconced in upper-middle-class wealth and privilege.
In the end we are left to ponder the influence of the changing times and revolutionary fervor on the nascent sport and wonder where its trajectory lies as we deal with forces of change in society today. Episode One provides insight into a sport still searching for its identity and still blissfully unaware of its own origins.
Which brings us back to Kass. He was “discovered” in 2003 by an amateur historian and filmmaker. Kass expressed profound joy and curiosity at the development of ultimate since he taught it. But how much influence did Kass really exert over the birth of a new sport? Is history a series of lucky coincidences and confluences, are new great things born slowly and collectively, or was there a flash of something special and enduring during the six weeks time in the summer of 1968?
INTERVIEW SUBJECTS (already recorded): Jared Kass, Eric Nelson (phone), Peter Hayward (phone), Steve Ward
ADDITIONAL INTERVIEWS TO SHOOT: Tiina Booth, Nob Rauch or Kate Bergeron, Gordon Murray, Willie Herndon (potentially), Bob Fein, Peter Hayward, Eric Nelson
Columbia High School Presents...Ultimate!
In the fall of 1968 at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey then-junior Joel Silver, fresh from the summer program Kass taught, proposed that the student council take up frisbee as part of the school curriculum. The proposal passed (as a joke) and the game that would one day become a sport was born anew.
A group of nerdy but dedicated CHS kids led by Silver, Jonny Hines and Buzzy Hellring started playing ultimate (they just called it “frisbee”) full time in the summer of 1969 and spread the sport to other kids in the neighborhood. As the ranks of geeks and girls grew the leaders wrote down and trademarked the rules and eventually spread the sport to colleges across the Northeast including Rutgers and Princeton who played the first intercollegiate ultimate game in 1972, 103 years to the day after the first intercollegiate football game between the very same schools. The New York Times covered the game.
Silver told friends that “Monday Night Frisbee” on TV was just around the corner. Wham-O, the disc manufacturer, was intrigued and wanted to include a set of rules for ultimate with its disc sales. Silver demanded a dollar for each copy sold. When Wham-O said no thank you, the question was left hanging in the air: Would ultimate shrink back to be played by the dedicated collegiate few?
INTERVIEWS SOUGHT: Columbia High Players: Jonny Hines, Jan Russak, Ed Summers, Irv Kalb, Geoff West, Heidi Hellring, Robin Newmark, Dan Roddick (Rutgers/ Wham-O), Marques Brownlee, Joel Silver and more
Seeds of Diversity and Spirit of the Game in the 1970s
In this episode we meet the die-hards from the early years who fight to keep the sport alive, including women pioneers excited to join a co-ed team sport that welcomed them before the passage of Title IX. The geographic diversity of the sport increases both within the United States and worldwide as we discover that Wham-O did include the rules to ultimate in new discs sold (without paying Joel Silver).
West Coast leader Tom Kennedy starts a national governing organization (the UPA) that exists to this day and he, Irv Kalb and Dan “Stork” Roddick — incidentally all three are also early pioneers of disc golf and we will briefly tell that story as well — codify the “Spirit of the Game” principles Kass so eloquently taught in 1968. But there’s a new problem: Wham-O doesn’t think ultimate is marketable. They alter the game by changing the rules to include a goal and goalkeeper to produce “Netbee.” Ultimate is in danger of being replaced. Will the sport survive?
INTERVIEWS SOUGHT: Tiina Booth, Irv Kalb, Dan “Stork” Roddick, Michelle Pezzolli, Tom Kennedy, Harvey Edwards, Karl Cook, more
The Tribal Club Years (early 1980s – mid 1990s)
Not only does the core of the sport reject the new rule changes but the sport remains committed to its tribal roots. There’s only one problem: every tribe across the United States, delineated by city and state, seems to have a different style of play and sense of what the fair play rules really mean. Club teams at this time represent their city because that’s where the players live: New York, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Chicago, St Louis, Miami, Boston, etc.
Again the game’s appeal finds a potential new sponsor: the tequila maker Jose Cuervo. Cuervo starts a national series of tournaments, prize money and… changes to the rules that many want to be made permanent. And there’s another problem that’s starting to become apparent: without defined referees a handful of rule-breakers begin to thwart the peace and progress of the sport. Once again ultimate is at a crossroads: sell-out (or sell-in?) to monied interests (in this case, a liquor company who can’t advertise on TV and wants to instead advertise through live sports) and bring in referees to police the game — or reject the new rules and remain in obscurity? Will the rule-breakers of ultimate ruin the game? Or could a liquor company elevate the sport to the mainstream?
INTERVIEWS SOUGHT: Molly Goodwin, Mike Gerics, Skip Kuhn, Jim Gerencser, Mike O’Dowd, Jon Gewirtz, Linwood Lewis, Adam Zagoria, Gloria Lust-Williams, Lori Parham, Cindy Fisher, Jim Parinella, the M.O.B., more
Inside the Callahan Rules (1990s)
To preserve SOTG, stave off referees and make the game viewer and fan-friendly, Charles Kerr and Will Deaver create the Observer system, a new set of time limits for the game, the Callahan Award, the Callahan goal, games to 15 and… referees. Except there was a genius invention to these referees: they were created to police the game and ward off actual referees but in reality they were strictly empowered to first allow players on the field to decide and talk over fouls and violations. If an agreement couldn’t be made, then these observers were allowed to make decisions. In other words, the players were still in control, not the police. It worked and the college players immediately loved the use of empowered observers on the field. But the governing body of the sport, the UPA, is skeptical. They require a 80% majority of the top teams in the country to approve of the rule changes, an extraordinarily high number. Will the rules pass?
INTERVIEWS: Stanford 3x championship Coach and Fury co-founder Jen Donnelly, Kate Bergeron-Gull, Charles Kerr, Will Deaver, Lou Buruss, Cindy Fisher, Mike Gerics/Toad Leber/Tully Beatty, Ken Dobyns
Episode Six: Back To the Beginning: Spirit Rules, Coed Play and Push For Olympics (1999-2005)
Outspoken feminist and co-founder of the world’s largest coed ultimate tournament, Potlatch (now Sunbreak), Joey Gray wins nomination to run the governing body of the sport in 1999. She brings an entirely new focus to ultimate, abandoning pretense of ultimate’s masculine yearnings to start a professional league. She instead re-orients ultimate to it’s ostensible roots in mixed play by introducing a brand-new coed division to the national championships. She also introduces “Spirit scores” which record how teams treat each other on and off the field. Both are pioneering but also controversial — and it seems as if overnight the sport itself focuses on mixed play as the uniquely defined aspect of our sport. The push begins for ultimate to make a surprising go at Olympics inclusion as a mixed gender sport. This doesn’t sit well with some leaders from the gender divisions and Joey Gray’s tenure ends after only a few powerful years. Her changes left an indelible mark on the sport. Will the changes last?
INTERVIEWS SOUGHT: Joey Gray, Steve Dodge, Jim Parinella, Adam Zagoria, Tiina Booth, Dale Wilker, Nob Rauch, Kate Bergeron, Jumpi (Paganello co-founder), more.
DIRECTOR:Ideally a female director from the Pacific NorthWest