October 31, 2017
In this week's edition:
- Humans of Ultimate (1/4)
- Chat with the CEO - Thursday, 5 pm PST, FB Live
- Oh Yes She Did! The Sky is Red Film
Humans of Ultimate (1/4)
Even the most tenured players have their beginnings. I got the chance to talk with Moses Rifkin, who is now well past any of the first awkward stages of starting to play ultimate. Rifkin started playing in the fall of 1992 or ’93 in a relaxed scene of 7th grade pickup with friends. However, Rifkin quickly found that ultimate was different from the other sports he’d played. “I had a really good time,” he said, “and I had never been very good at sports, and that day I felt really good at ultimate." Why did he pursue ultimate in particular? “Initially, well, it’s funny…there were other fun things,” Rifkin explained, “but I just had a good feeling about that thing. I think within a week it was like, whoa, this is really cool.” From there, it quickly became a big part of his social identity in high school, way before he “got good at it, it was just something [he] did with friends.”
Since playing pickup as an awkward 7th grader, Rifkin has played on numerous teams, “on the high school, collegiate, club, and national and international levels.” Not only has he played, but Rifkin has been coaching since he started teaching back in 2001. With a laugh, he noted that it’s been “almost 16 years, now,” and that he’s “played and coached in most settings.”
I was lucky enough to have Moses as my high school coach, so I asked him, why coach? What is it that keeps him coming back year after year to spend even more time with a bunch of teenagers in addition to trying to teach many of them Physics all day? Rifkin’s response was simple, “it’s the relationships, a hundred percent.”
Originally, Rifkin “got into it because I felt like my coaches had been really important to me and I sort of wanted to give back, just like the reason I teach.” He specified that, “I feel like with a few months of teaching, I form some relationships, but after a couple of months of coaching, those relationships are much, much deeper.” I asked how so, because if you’re spending the same amount of time with a player and a student, how is it different? Rifkin didn’t hesitate in his response. “There’s something more emotional and more…more intimate, in a non-sketchy meaning of that word. There’s something more intimate about coaching that’s just amazing.” After a short pause, where I think my slightly confused expression on my face must’ve prompted him further, he continued, “another way to say this is that I think that the kids who I keep in touch with are much more the ones I’ve coached than those I’ve taught.”
After what I hoped had somewhat eased him in, I asked him the question that was my main purpose for the interview. Do you think there is equitable coverage and opportunity in ultimate? A sigh, indicating that maybe I hadn’t eased in enough, before he simply stated, “no,” which made it clear that the sigh was more out of frustration than exasperation. Of course, the teacher in him clarified, “I don’t actually know numbers, but let me work backwards.”
Rifkin explained how in terms of coverage, he’d heard much less in terms of USA Ultimate (USAU) deals for women and mixed leagues, and that he doesn’t know really how it plays out at a collegiate or high school level. In terms of opportunities, however, Rifkin had a much stronger understanding, at least locally. “I see it in high schools here in Seattle, as well as other places too,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to be a boy in our society who is interested in sports than a girl who is interested in sports…and I don’t think ultimate is any different in that sense, I mean, we’re struggling with the same challenges that other sports are – which include the fact that there’s a lack of opportunities for female athletes, or females to identify as athletes.”
As for the future of the sport, another very broadly-framed question, Rifkin reiterated how he “really care[s] about the sport.” He wants to see it keep existing, but that doesn’t mean it needs to get bigger. Rifkin said, “I need it to sustain itself. And for me, it has to remain true to its core values.” Trying to turn the teacher go-to of “dig deeper” back on him, I asked him to elaborate, and he did. “I mean, self-officiation is really important to me and it’s something that gets lost in the pro-leagues, and it’s also important that it remains a player-driven sport.” Rifkin also noted that, “it’s been really exciting because players seem to be requesting that ultimate be a place that recognizes imbalances in society and addresses them when it comes to gender and race, and eventually other things as well.”
Rifkin also mentioned how ultimate has always been a sport of the upper middle class, and he feels it’s important, and it’d be exciting, for 20 years from now, the sport was accessible to people of all socioeconomic classes. Specifically, in his own immediate bubble, the expansion of the sport, on one hand, is slightly at odds with his goals for University Prep’s ultimate program (the high school where he teaches and coaches). More people playing ultimate would mean more competition, which his coach side is nervous about. However, the potential of the sport spreading into South Seattle, where it could begin to work on some of the race and socioeconomic inequalities that exist within it, is an outcome that Rifkin would “always take” over winning States.
Finally, I asked Rifkin on what he wanted as the legacy of ultimate, a simple question in theory, but in practice, much more complicated. After a minute deep in thought, Rifkin responded with the following: “there are two levels, I try not to insist ultimate be as life-changing for people as it was for me.” He said, of course people can and should try it, and if it’s not for them, then they should find something that is. It feels weird to him, he said, because he “sort of got hooked,” but he knows that different people are different and have different needs, and just wants “them to feel like they could be themselves.”
Rifkin, who had been simultaneously all smiles and seriousness for the duration of the interview, seemed most comfortable and confident as he said his next words. “I think there’s a lot of aspects of ultimate – it being self-officiated, for example – that helped me learn to be a moral, honest person, because I played a sport that helped me practice that… and I hope that people who play get that same thing out of it.” As for those who are already really connected to the sport, Rifkin hopes that the legacy is that “[ultimate] is a place where athleticism and humanity can really come together.”
Despite feeling that his thoughts weren’t fully formed in his head, Rifkin summed things up pretty clearly: “it feels like if I had been this attached to another sport, I might’ve felt really proud of myself as a player of that sport, but I think with ultimate, it feels more like, there’s more space for people to expand into. And so, I, like, got to expand until I took the shape that was most natural to me...I hope that the legacy of ultimate is that people feel that they can become who they are through the sport…at least, that was true for me.”
Series overview: Blythe Eckerman, a Walla Walla Whitman Sweet, wrote this series last spring for her high school senior project at University Prep High School in Seattle, WA.
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OH YES SHE DID!
The Sky is Red Film
The Sky is Red is an incredible new documentary project by Lili Gu, Brittany Kaplan, Julia Johnson, and Mia Greenwald. It tells "the untold story of the push for gender, race, and class equity in the growing world of ultimate frisbee from 1968 to the present."
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