Thursday, October 16, 2008

Digital Warfare

With all this Conference 1 dialog going on and the election of the UPA BOD and the President of the United States, it has become painfully obvious that our little Ultimate paradigm is quite the battleground for digital warfare. I say digital because most of the discussion that goes on (public anyway) occurs in some form of online format, whether it be blogs, websites, messageboards, emails etc. I like to think that if you remove some of the nouns like "Skip", "UPA", "Cultimate", "Wisconsin", "Brodie", the discussion could just as easily be about world diplomacy.

Right now there is a veritable globe of nations out there fighting for a voice in our sport, lets call it "Planet Ultimate". You have established powerhouses like the UPA led by people that are very knowledgeable in the sport and have been there for the bulk of the sports lifetime. Now to me, this draws a similar parallel to Europe. The UPA is also so established that some may even call it antiquated. However, there has recently been this new kid on the block known as Cultimate, which to me could draw parallels to the US, or they could be a terrorist group in the Middle East, it all depends on how much power one believes they have.

First, the birth of Cultimate is an interesting story which I will not disclose here. All I will say is that the breaking off from the UPA and starting a new organization draws significant parallels to the colonial days of the US. Now its been about 4 or 5 years since Skip began his campaign and now Cultimate has some clout. Much like international diplomacy he has reeled in some allies across the globe to assert himself as a potential powerhouse.

However, depending on the response of his new idea, he could either be the next super power or just another fledgling terrorist group. Personally, I am a big fan of Skip. He gave me a voice a long time ago and I am ever so thankful for that. However, I think he would have had more success if he had talked with teams first and then made things public. Maybe stuff gets leaked, maybe RSD gets cluttered with rumors, but if he wanted to be successful, he should have aimed for as unbiased a decision as possible. Now instead of an unbiased set of teams choosing one path or another, you have an entire population of ultimate players raising their voices and pushing and pulling for influence.

To make matters worse, Skip baulked a press release yesterday and I really didn't like seeing this. I think this plan is a really good idea, but so far Skip's execution leaves something to be desired. This is an incredibly sensitive time and when all eyes are on you, you need to shine, not buckle. Now, instead of having people wonder in amazement, their skepticism is running rampant. With this latest development, concerns regarding eligibility, refs, and 5 Ultimate jerseys (which I hear are featuring school logos, not team logos) are only getting stronger. I hope you can turn a Hodag tattoo into a badger.

But what's done is done. I wrote the bulk of this article last night before the press release debacle and I really don't want to start all over, especially considering the fact that it has been removed. I suppose I understand the utility of patience and timing when it comes to journalism, but then again, I don't have the integrity of The Huddle, so what do I know?

As for Conference 1 itself, the bulk of the pressure now seems to be on Wisconsin. They are a nation on "Planet Ultimate" that has the means to sway opinion. Maybe in real life diplomacy that means WOMD, but in our example it is simply that they are the best team in the country. Because our sport is not as organized as the NFL or NBA, the better teams have more leverage. Considering that Florida is already in, Wisconsin agreeing to become a part of Conference 1 could induce a major domino affect. I am willing to bet that Carleton will go along with what Wisconsin does on the basis that they share connections through Sub-Zero and they want to protect their rivalry. That would be 3 out of 4 semifinal teams and seeing that Colorado has looked up at Florida and Wisconsin recently, I would imagine they would follow suit. With all 4 semis teams in I think quarters teams and below will follow suit. As an aside, Skip should be in Wisco this weekend for No Wisconsequences and I imagine he will be doing some serious hand waving to get the Hodags on board. Whether or not they buy into it is another issue, but some developments can/should be in the works next week.

Another curveball is Georgia's rejection of the proposal. This doesn't surprise me too much, especially considering that Florida is on the other side of the fence. From what I can gather, these two teams really don't see eye to eye with regards to this sport. Their team mentalities could not be more different and I am willing to bet that Georgia is rejecting this proposal for the exact reasons Florida accepted it. With that being said, I am not certain what sort of affect this development will have. Like I stated before, Wisconsin is under the most pressure and this whole situation is one giant game of poker. Georgia and Florida revealed their strategies early and while I think every team is responsible for making their own choice, no one is hurt by being a bit patient, especially considering the fact that sources tell me that no time line has been proposed by Cultimate for committing to Conference 1.

However, all of this could sway in the direction of the UPA as well. Florida's commitment to Conference 1 was a nice move to establish some momentum but as Brodie concedes, "You cannot declare yourself the champion without going through the previous champion". Their commitment to Conference 1 could be short lived if the Hodags decide not to saddle up and without the champs, I can't imagine Conference 1 getting off the ground, especially with as much "all or nothing" talk that has been going around.

What's funny is that this battle ground has made its way to my little desk in New Haven, CT. My Alma Matter is one of the 25 selected teams and as such the current captain has reached out to ask for alumni input. Much like the team meetings happening all across America, people have their varying view points and ours is no different. However, rather than propagate my own agenda, and I'm sorry to say that I have one, I have simply tried to provide the captains with information from which to base their decision on. In my opinion, the best plan of attack is not to decide what is the right answer, but simply the best answer, ie the best way to handle the situation. Lots of people are tossing out a lot of "what if we boycott this" or "why wasn't this team selected" or "we could pick teams based on this", and those are just distractions from the matter at hand. Arguing for or against is a waste of time because both opinions are right and wrong. The best idea is to handle this situation delicately and carefully.

Personally, on "Planet Ultimate", I have a vested interest in Conference 1. If the sport heads down this avenue, I might be able to further my journalism career and that is exciting for me. Much like the current Presidential election, I have a sole determining factor to base my decision on and despite the fact that there are other things to consider, this brings the most clout. I suppose I should clarify what I mean here. With the Presidential election, I need to vote democrat. I need to vote democrat because my job depends on NIH funding. If the democrats are in office, tax dollars will go to research, bottom line. If the republicans are in office, they will go to some sort of war effort, bottom line. This doesn't mean I don't care about National Security or Veterans or whatever else the Republicans have on their agenda, it just means I care the most about my individual employment, sue me. I voted for Kerry, I will vote for Obama but I would have voted for Hilary or Biden if they had been nominated.

If this weren't already clear, my journalism career is the only thing I have invested right now in college ultimate. I am not a player, I am 3,000 miles away from UCSD. My current local college team is way outside these discussions and despite the fact that I care about their progress, they have made several choices contrary to my own opinion, so I can't really speak for them.

However, I still remain conflicted. I feel for teams like Arizona and Dartmouth. Erik Gafni wrote a very heart felt synopsis on RSD regarding his opinion and I know Erik and the rest of Sunburn. They were such a great team to write about and party with in Boulder and I would never want anything but the best for them. Likewise with Dartmouth. I know some of their current players like Sam Haynor as well as their alums like Kevin Garrity, Socks, and Greg Heltzer. I also know a lot of other Northeast teams that will lose out on this situation and while I believe in their cause, it is not where my interest lies.

However, what I can say, and this is how I will support them, is that their connection within their own region is their saving grace. That is the only leverage these teams have and programs like Dartmouth, Arizona, UBC, UNT, and Claremont will have to cash in on whatever relationship they have with the more recognized entities in their region. This concept, however, is not uniform across the country. This is where relations between Georgia and Florida are different than Dartmouth and Harvard. Maybe it's geographical, maybe its rooted in competition, but this is where the strain will be.

With that being said, everything is riding on these 25 teams to make a decision. For the most part, I've heard a lot of "all or nothing" discussion which seems to go in favor of the UPA. Because Skip made his announcement when he did, there is a lot of external pressure on these teams and the only way to alleviate it is to have open lines of communication between organizations, which to me posses the biggest challenge. Interactions between teams is going to be really difficult and forming a "player's union" so to speak, is going to be hard. Right now you have Florida and Georgia, two teams that used to be in the same section, acting in opposition to one another, so the prospect of having Colorado, Ohio State, and Oregon on the same page seems to be a tough pull. In addition, posts like this on RSD do not inspire a lot of confidence.

I really wish I could peak my head into that fish bowl and somehow observe the interaction that these teams are having. What are people like Jim Foster (Wisconsin), Ryan Thompson (Stanford), and Will Neff (Michigan) saying to each other? These are all the leaders of the teams involved or are the people with something to bring to the discussion table and I really think this will be a test of their maturity in this sport. The online discussions have elucidated what is at stake and much like the bailout, it will be on these representatives to make a choice. In talking with the captain of UCSD, it looks like things are still localized within email which is expected given the fact that this bomb was dropped this week. However, an unbiased discussion forum will need to be developed in order for the collective action to occur. Good luck with that.

What is even more interesting is the non-players scattered throughout these programs. UPA President Mike Payne is/was the coach of Stanford and I can't imagine him letting Stanford sign on for this. However, Stanford does not carry the clout they once did and to make matters worse, they have a recent cooperation with Skip with respect to Stanford Invite, a brilliant strategical move on Skip's part. Texas is also in this discussion as Skip is a TUFF alum. They love this guy in Austin and I would not be surprised if Texas responded positively to this opportunity. Their program's weakness has always been regional competition and while they might be leaving UNT behind, this could be a chance for them to get over a competitive hump. In reading things like this, it looks like that is the case.

In addition, take Western Washington. If there was ever a team that has benefited from powerful friends, it is them. Ben Wiggins is/was the coach and Reid Koss (WW Alum) is one of Skip's TDs. Despite the fact that they have never even been close to Nationals, they are a Conference 1 team. What about UW? They were at Nationals in 2005, they have just as much a claim to this spot as a team like UCSD. And why Minnesota and not Arizona? Each have taken turns making noise, and the later is the one not in Conference 1 but has made Nationals. The inconsistency with team selection is a big problem.

Lastly, the Hodag alumni. This is an event that has put former 'dags into a position they must be drooling over. If ever there was a group of former players that still has influence on their current team it is Wisconsin. So many alums were there in Boulder and Columbus and now they are in the driver's seat. They are the ones bringing the information to the table in the Hodag huddle and this decision is more or less the Florida Recount of the ultimate world. The winner of that vote will surely sway nationwide opinion.

In my opinion, all of these competing egos favor the UPA because signing on for Conference 1 will require a ton of collective action. It is much harder to collectively act, than to collectively not act and this is why I believe Skip is at a disadvantage. However, if the communication between these select few is stronger than that of intraregional programs, things could favor Skip. At the end of the day, all of these teams want better competition and while they may have loyalties to teams below them, each one of them wants to improve their program and it all comes down to what they believe and how they convey it. If programs like Minnesota and Texas have stronger bonds with each other, in the sense that they want to step up their program, than with their respective regional opponents, then we may see some serious collective action in favor of Conference 1.

With that being said, I think most teams will fall in line with Wisconsin. UCSD is a small player at this table and they will not lose in following suit with the Hodags and I think teams like Kansas, Oregon, Illinois, Pitt, etc.. are in the same boat. I also believe that the UPA really needs to ante up. They made a formal statement on RSD, but now is the time where their presence needs to be felt across the country. A lot of people have questioned their control over college ultimate since organizations like Cultimate have sprung up in contrast to some of their missions such as womens ultimate. In addition, I think it is pretty obvious that entities like Cultimate, Ultivillage, and 5 Ultimate have taken over the ultimate scene recently and all are acting outside the realm of the UPA umbrella which is a bit scary. The fact that such influence is outside the most powerful body in the sport is a black eye at best for the UPA and this is the call to arms that the UPA has been dodging for awhile.

Much like the communication between these college programs, it will be interesting to see what the UPA comes up with. At the very least, I sincerely hope that whatever doors are opened by this whirlwind remain open. There is nothing to lose by having elite teams talking with one another. In addition, it may be nice to have loyalties tested both at home and abroad to figure out where teams stand on this issue across the country. Perhaps if there was a little more money and uniform veteran presence in all of these programs it would be a little easier, but they will have to take what they can get.

As for my own influence in this situation, I am not going to say what these 25 teams should do or not do. I do not want to be held responsible, partially or otherwise, for whatever direction this sequence of events goes, all I want is to provide information. I am a very logical person but logic solely relies on data. If there is more data on the table, a better logical conclusion is easier to draw. Logic may seem like a black or white concept but if data is missing, a logical solution could still be wrong. If teams utilize a narrow library of data and arrive at a sound solution, the end result could still be bogus. Right now information needs to be delivered and hopefully those that have it can put their egos aside, myself included. If teams, both C1 and non-C1 teams, have as much information as possible both with regard to their own program and amongst each other, the conclusion to this event will be defensible. Teams may get hurt, but justifications will be present.

One thing I also wanted to mention with regard to Skip and money is that he is not evil or rich. He simply chose a career based on ultimate and while money is involved, so is distilling ultimate into a sport that will command the respect it deserves. People like myself and most ultimate players do not have a paycheck that depends on ultimate. However, guys like Rob and Skip do, and while we may think they are hording cash, that isn't the case. Skip and Rob are just trying to make a living. They need to pay for health insurance and rent just like the rest of us, only they have chosen ultimate to be their source of revenue, and believe me, there isn't much of it.

And as for Cyle, his history is really a question mark and speculation with regard to his relationship with Skip has been a source of speculation for sometime and now it is culminating. Skip chose Cyle as a business partner for reasons I do not know and it is not my place to know. However, he knew Cyle's past, as does everyone else, and there was going to be a day when that was going to raise eyebrows. Today is that day. I'm not saying Cyle is going to screw things over and I'm not saying he isn't. I know Cyle both professionally and personally and in addition to the fact that he is a very motivated and capable person, he has always been very nice to me, but I also can see where other folk are coming from. In working with Skip and Cyle with mssui I believe that I know where Skip is strong and where he is weak and judging from my actual relationship with Cyle, I think he can help Skip get this off the ground. But the trust issue is still a valid concern.

However, others do not share my knowledge base. They see the embezzlement issue and that is totally legitimate. If I were Cyle I would not have made my Florida monetary issue as public as he did. Once again, like announcing Conference 1 early, Cyle's inclusion is a decision that Skip is going to have to stand by. He is going to have to trust the people he has surrounded himself with, role the dice and see what happens. In addition, not only will he have to live with his choices, but also the actions that are taken in response to those choices by others in the ultimate community. So far, when it comes to tournament design and planing he has shown himself to be a brilliant revolutionary in this sport. However, this announcement, like Cyle's selection as a business partner, is incredibly risky.

As for if the proposal itself and if it will actually work, I think underestimating Skip is a mistake. A lot has been thrown around regarding eligibility, refs, etc.. and I have always felt that rejecting an idea because it seems really hard is weak. This is Skip's baby and he will work as hard as anyone to put it together. To say that he can't iron out eligibility issues because the UPA struggles with it is not exactly a solid argument. However, things like mssui and NCUS sort of came and went without living up to their hype, so I still wonder, but hey, that's what Cyle is for. It is not like Skip is all alone. He has the backing of 5 Ultimate as well as an army of TDs and associates that all have their varying skill sets. I would give Skip the benefit of the doubt. In all honesty, the only real risk teams are making when signing on with Conference 1 is if the UPA refuses to allow them to compete in the series if it busts. That is leverage the UPA has and before any team makes a decision, they need to know what reprocussions will be taken by the UPA, if any.

In the end, I think we are all going to have to wait for some developments and I think there are 4 major questions that need to be answered before any progress can be made:

1) What does Wisconsin decide to do? They are the champs and not only are they the champs but they are easily the most successful team of the last 10 years. That kind of respect is now being put to the test and the whole world is waiting for the example to be set.  As an aside, if Hector's interpretation is right, CUT's support is a huge pickup for Skip becuase unlike Harvard and Brown, Wisconsin's most relevant neighbor is in favor of the idea.

2) What does the UPA decide to do? Can/will the BOD election results provide increased action by the UPA or will the bureaucracy result in more inaction? Gwen Ambler seems to be the main focus of positive BOD discussion (and with good reason, she is bad ass) and I can't imagine her liking this idea. Can/will she be apart of the spear head operation to address Cultimate? Also, what if teams sign up for Conference 1 and it busts? Will they face punishment by the UPA?

3) What sort of follow up response does Skip/Cultimate have? A real press release? A joint effort by the UPA? Can/will they address questions that have been asked? I think people are very interested in this one but for all intents and purposes, the information could be isolated to the 25 C1 teams, so we might not know right away.

4) Is cooperation possible? This is probably the least exciting question but the most important one. Regardless of my personal connection to the situation, I can't imagine all these C1 teams collectively acting and only with cooperative action between Cultimate and the UPA can Skip progress the sport in a way he wants. This gesture alone is quite a move on his part and he needs to be prepared to deal with the UPA if/when it doesn't go down the way he wants.

Anyway, this whole digital warfare thing is pretty amazing. For me it is like a drug and I sometimes need to remove myself from it it to prevent it from taking over my life. Much like real diplomacy, alliances are made and broken all the time. There have been times when I have been on the side of the UPA and times when I have not. I have had direct discussions with Mike Payne but I have also pissed off people like Will Deaver.

In addition, my standing in the online community has also been in flux. In February, Hector seemed to be a fan of mine and now he seems to hate everything I do. It doesn't really bother me, I personally think he is just a big bully. Likewise with Ben Wiggins. We have had our ups and downs and while we were good earlier in the year, things turned ugly at Worlds and while I have the utmost respect for his playing ability and success with Sockeye, I tend to butt heads with him personally. I think the main issue there is not that one of us is right or wrong, but that we are very similar people. From what I can gather we are both attention whores, and while we both want the same thing we have chosen different routes to get it. If I remain highly involved in this sport, it is only a matter of time before we cross paths again and I really hope we can both exhibit the maturity that our constituents expect.

With this to consider, the online community is a veritible battleground. Today's allies could be tomorrow's enemies and vice versa. Boston used to hate my guts but now things seem to be a bit better, at least I hope they are. However, other people have jumped ship because I have either misquoted them, held an adverse opinion towards something tied to them, or just misspoke about this issue or that. My bad. I don't mean to piss anybody off, but I've been doing this long enough to know that someone is always going to have a reason to hate me so if you do, I'm sorry, I stopped caring a while back.

In the end, we all just need to take a few deep breaths and respond to things as they come. Trying to sort everything out on RSD is a waste of time. Right now there are dozens of threads discussing the topic in a variety of ways. We as a population of ultimate players need to first wait and see what the champs decide to do and go from there. They, as well as the rest of the college teams out there, need to communicate with those teams around them to see where everyone stands. If they sign on for Conference 1 maybe teams follow suit, maybe they won't but that is step 1 and step 12,045 is Devens, MA. When/if that day comes, I will enjoy a nice little commute to the Nationals extravaganza instead of a plane flight to the middle of nowhere. Thanks Skip. However, this could just as easily be a flare up that is forgotten as quickly as it is brought up. Relax folks, well everyone except Wisconsin, get to work.

just my thoughts

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