1968 Created The 'Ultimate' Anti-Sport Sport Ultimate Frisbee was invented 50 years ago this summer. The sport has its own honor system, known as the "spirit of the game," that can be traced back to the counterculture of 1968.

1968 Created The 'Ultimate' Anti-Sport Sport

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The year 1968 shaped American history in profound ways. It was a time of war, of political and racial upheaval and a time of cultural transformation. Think of the music of The Beatles and Johnny Cash. Today, we're marking another cultural phenom from that year - Ultimate Frisbee. NPR's Joel Rose has the latest story in our series Looking Back at the Events of '68.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Ultimate, as it's known these days, combines elements of soccer, basketball and football. But instead of a ball, of course, it's a flying disc gliding through the air. Each team tries to score by passing the frisbee across a field. They can't run with the disc until they reach the end zone.


ROSE: This is an Ultimate scrimmage in Maplewood, N.J., a leafy suburb of New York City, where the sport was born 50 years ago. Today, millions of people play in college, amateur and professional leagues around the world. Some of the elite level tournaments are even broadcast on TV.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hundred-twenty-eight teams from 36 different countries are here in the Buckeye State for the 11th and largest ever edition of the World Ultimate Club Championships.

ROSE: But in some ways, Ultimate is not like other team sports. It has its own honor system called the spirit of the game. And you can trace that all the way back to the counterculture of 1968, when the players started out officiating the game themselves. And Ultimate was invented by the players with rules that came together gradually over time.

JARED KASS: I didn't know that we were creating a game that was going to be going to have a life of its own.

ROSE: This is Jared Kass. Today, he's a professor of psychology at Lesley University in Boston. Fifty years ago, he was a student at Amherst College, where he fell in love with a game that was similar to Ultimate.

KASS: I was just running and leaping for a pass of the Frisbee. And I jumped up in the air. And I had one of those moments of just sheer synchrony where the disc just made it right into my hand at the perfect moment.

ROSE: It was the summer of 1968. Jared Kass was a teaching assistant at a camp for high school students. And he decided to teach this game to some of the kids in his dorm. Kass remembers the game got intense, with players jostling for the disc. Kass says they were looking to him to be the referee, like in other team sports. But Kass didn't want to be the figure of authority. At the time, he was suspicious of authority figures of all kinds.

KASS: My own sort of internal processing of what was wrong with competitive sports and what was wrong with society sort of coalesced. And I said, no, man, I am not going to be the referee here. You guys have to call the fouls on yourself.

ROSE: The game also made an impression on one of the kids from the summer camp. He took the game back home to New Jersey, where he started playing with his friends and creating a rulebook.

JOEL SILVER: We were definitely not athletes.

ROSE: That kid was Joel Silver. In 1968, he was on the student council at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J.

SILVER: As a joke, I raised my hand in council one day. And I said, I move that we create a committee to investigate introducing Frisbee into the high school curriculum, which, of course, everybody laughed and said what a funny idea.

ROSE: Frisbee did not become part of the curriculum. But the school did become the site of what's now considered the first game of Ultimate between the student council and the school newspaper staff.

HEIDI HELLRING: It was somewhat of an anti-sport, anti-establishment game.

ROSE: This is Heidi Hellring. Her brother Buzzy Hellring worked with Joel Silver on that first official rulebook. Before he died in a car accident, Heidi Hellring says her brother was like the sport's first promoter. By the time she got to college, in the mid 1970s, the players were already more athletic.

HELLRING: I couldn't believe how good they were. They were doing these moves I'd never seen. And they were real athletes. And they were just faster and better.

ROSE: Ultimate has continued to get faster and better. One of the people watching the college championships on TV this year was Joel Silver. He had moved out to Hollywood, where he made his name as a big time producer with movies like "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard." He doesn't play anymore, but he's still a fan.

SILVER: We didn't think it was going to be that official. I hoped it would. But who would have known?

ROSE: The International Olympic Committee officially recognized Ultimate three years ago. And there is talk of adding the sport to the games. Silver says that would really be the ultimate. Joel Rose, NPR News, Maplewood, N.J.

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