Interview, Ultimate Frisbee, US Ultimate

David Leiwant, Ultimate Frisbee cofounder, and his take on the evolution of the game

By @SimonCocking

Really happy to bring you another interview with one of the founders of Ultimate Frisbee. David Leiwant participated in those initial scrimmages in the car park back in 1969. He also then went on to play a vital role in the development of the rules for Utimate between 1969 and 1981.

1973 CHS Varsity Team, image courtesy of

I played American football until my sophomore year of college.  I also ran track until the end of my sophomore year of college.  I played recreational volleyball until about 1992. In the winter of 1969-70, the Frisbee team had a  volleyball team in a recreational league at the high school and I played on it.  I also played recreational basketball until 1976.  I joined the International Frisbee Association in the Spring of 1968.  In 1992, I was having serious back problems and the doctor told me not to do anything that involved twisting my torso.  Goodbye Ultimate and volleyball.

Early days, 150gram discs!

Not only did we play with 150g discs, in the early years we tried playing in the dark with “Moonlighter’ pro discs, which were even lighter.  They were unstable, and didn’t glow brightly enough to be readily seen in the dark.  The 150g discs were the most stable discs we had, so we were comfortable with them.

The heavier discs were much better and much more stable.  People with better throwing skills were rewarded by the heavier discs.  The heavier discs made it easier to throw long, and to also throw into the wind.  The heavier discs did help with evolving tactics, no question, but the more people who played, and for a longer time, also changed the tactics.  By the middle 1970’s, teams were developing more complex zone defenses.  Also, teams were setting up offensive plays and an entire offensive scheme.  The introduction of the throwing count also sent a rocket to the offenses.  A thrower couldn’t just stand for a minute looking for a receiver to throw to.  The offense had to be ready to get the disc off more quickly.

Why 7 players aside?

I didn’t really play in many games with 20 or 30 players to a side.  However, when I played my first game in April 1969, there were about 6 players per team.  There was no rule about only one defender guarding the thrower.  At one point, 3 or 4 defenders surrounded the thrower, then the offensive players moved close, then the rest of the defense joined the mob.  There were about 10 people surrounding the thrower.  The game stopped.  Afterwards, Joel Silver and Jon Hines introduced a new rule; only one defensive player could guard the thrower.

I did play some games on a present day size field with about 10 players per team, and it worked, but the teams were unwieldy, and people would get in each others way.  The high school parking lot that we played on from the fall of 1969 through the time we all graduated was short, and oddly shaped.  No more than 6 or 7 players a team was practical on such
a field.  When we played pick up games on the parking lot, we tried to include everyone who wanted to play, which could be anywhere from 5 players per team to about 9 players per team.  I don’t remember exactly when or why the number 7 was chosen, but it seems to work well.

I tried rugby for about 3 weeks in college.  Ultimate never had a scrum or tackling.  However, when the CHS team played Princeton in the spring of 1972, most of the Princeton players were also rugby players.  They didn’t have much skill with a disc, but they delighted in physical play.  The rules at the time permitted a player to run over another player if the first player was going after the disc.   We were surprised at the physical nature of the game, but some of us started to retaliate in kind, hard.  By the end of the game, we had given as good as we got.

How did the rules evolve?

I was involved in the evolution of the rules from the 1969 until about 1981.  It was a consensus product, initially with the CHS players, with input from other players, and when there were a number of college and club teams, there would be an annual captain’s meeting.  I think all the rule changes have been good.  I’ve never had any complaints.

I stopped playing seriously in my last year of law school, Spring 1981. I had played for Columbia High School from 1969 through 1973, co-started the Yale team in 1973 and played there until 1977, played for a club in 1977-78, and played at the University of California, Berkeley from 1978-1981.  After that, I mostly played on a recreational level. However, in 1990, I played for the US mixed Masters team at Worlds in Oslo.  My back wouldn’t permit me to play very much, but I ended up running substitutes.

It was surprisingly easy to get people to play at Yale.  In fact, the year after I graduated, the school put Ultimate in as an intramural sport.

What was your take on how Ultimate was played outside the US?

I only played against foreign teams in 1990.  I was a spectator at the 1983 Worlds in Goteburg, Sweden, and saw some of the early play against foreign teams.

I saw some Canadian teams play US teams in the early 80’s.  The Canadians had the disc skills, but weren’t as athletic, and had trouble competing. At the first World Championship, 1983 in Sweden, the US men (Rude Boys) played a short exhibition against the Swedish men at halftime of a Swedish division 2 football match.  The US scored on every possession, and the Swedes could not score.  The US had better disc skills, better strategy and tactics, and more athleticism.

After that, I figured it would take two years for a good foreign team to become competitive. In 1990, at the Oslo World Championship, the foreign teams had greatly improved, but they were still barely competitive with the US men.  By then, the difference was the number of Ultimate players in the US and the intense domestic competition.  In the Masters’ Competition, however, the Canadians had caught up to our US team, and we barely beat them in the finals.  I never saw any new and challenging ways to play the game from the foreign teams.

Why self refereeing?

Self refereeing was originally just realistic.  There was no one to referee.  Everybody who knew anything about the game was playing.  However, the 1st Published Rules did state that a referee was permissible.  Indeed, in the first intercollegiate game, Rutgers-Princeton, November 1972, I was a senior in high school and was the referee.  I am attaching the New York Times story of the game.  In the box score, the Times mutilated the spelling of my name.  In December 1972, there was a Rutgers-Princeton rematch at Princeton. I refereed along with my teammate Ed Levy, now a plastic surgeon.

However, as the CHS Class of 1972 (Irv Kalb, Ed Summers, Larry Schindel, Joe Barbanel, etc.)  spread the game to other high schools and to colleges, the CHS players felt that it was important to not have referees.  I and others felt that having referees would encourage players to foul deliberately, hoping the refs would miss the foul.  We wanted a game of honor, where players would occasionally call fouls on themselves, and where there was trust among the players that fouls were honestly called.  It would be up to the players to play the game correctly. The problem became what is the result if an entire team has a bad attitude, makes bad calls, and disputes every call against them.  In one sense, the result would be ostracism, casting that team out of organized competition.  But what if the team is in the US finals!  Bringing in observers was an excellent idea and it seems to be working.

I hope the system of self called fouls and observers is robust enough to survive in high pressure games.  I don’t like referees.  I was a basketball referee and a baseball umpire in my younger days.  Referees don’t see so many fouls and make many mistaken calls, as we definitively know thanks to instant replay.  In the US college basketball championship between Duke and Wisconsin last Monday, the refs blew an extremely important out-of-bounds call late in the game.  They reviewed some instant replays, but did not see the replay in which the ball went off the hand of a Duke player, so they gave the ball to Duke.  This effectively made the difference between Duke winning and losing.  I hope that an Ultimate player in a similar situation would say, “I touched the disc last”.  In fact, I have seen that happen.

Similarly, I was watching an professional baseball game last night where a defensive player made it appear that he had caught the ball on the fly, when it actually short hopped into his glove.  The umpires missed it completely.  I’d rather have Ultimate players call the game honestly, than give the players incentive to cheat.

Growth of ultimate versus losing it roots?

I was overjoyed that there were teams from Africa and Asia as the BUSA.  When I first played Ultimate in 1969, there were perhaps 30 people who had ever played. (I’m attaching a June 1969 newspaper article Joel Silver wrote about Ultimate, before it was called Ultimate). Now there are millions of Ultimate players all over the world.  Wow!

I agree with Dan Roddick that perhaps it would be good for Ultimate to keep its alternative sensibility.  Even now, I hear random people say Ultimate players are marijuana smoking hippies. The stoners need a sport to play, too. No refs, limited coaching, playing just for the love of the game without much if any financial support, and being true to the spirit of the game make Ultimate unique.  That having been said, boy, would I like to see Ultimate in the Summer Olympics before I die.  I can live without it, though.


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