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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Cult of C.U.T: Frat or Fiction?

<rs back, Stevie P. declared that Carleton was to Ultimate Frisbee what Johns Hopkins was to lacrosse. Apt enough on the surface, but the analogy falters with further scrutiny.

At Hopkins, Homewood Field is packed with fans whenever the Blue Jays play. At Duke, to take the metaphor a step further, students – “Cameron Crazies” – camp out in near-freezing temperatures to get basketball tickets. And in Alabama, “Roll Tide” echoes from one end of the Heart of Dixie to the other.

At Carleton, by contrast, plenty of students think that Ultimate is a game played on the Bald Spot in sunny weather by barefoot slackers. Those who have heard about the Carleton Ultimate Team (C.U.T.), in all likelihood, know it as a particularly steadfast drinking collective. It’s hard to imagine any lay person, let alone wide swaths of campus, talking about how the team did in the latest tournament or where they stand in post-season play.

And yet Carleton students love their plastic discs just as much as Hopkins kids love their lax twigs.  Other schools woo potential students with glossy magazines filled with aggressively cheery student testimonials.

Admissions here gives prospies the hard sell by mailing out Frisbees. So, if you’ll excuse the SLAC-speak for a moment, what we are presented with is a remarkable paradox. Ultimate as a sport is central to Carleton’s identity, yet we relegate its best practitioners to the fringes of campus culture. Why?

To understand the CUT, and thus understand its positioning in the campus social strata, it’s necessary to understand its history.

Players past and present who consented to interviews said that they derived motivation from the CUT “brand” – in other words, from tradition.

The team was founded in 1977, five years after the first game of Ultimate was played and two years before the establishment of USA Ultimate, the sport’s NCAA equivalent. CUT has appeared in the semifinals fifteen times since 1990 (that’s 65% of the time). Indeed, it holds the record for the longest streak of qualifying to nationals in the history of the sport.

The team has made finals six times and triumphed on three of those occasions.
The tradition of CUT, then, is one of extraordinary success by any standard. CUT’s achievements are even more remarkable considering the raw material from which the team is culled – that is, from a 2000-student liberal arts college not noted for athletic prowess.

However, it’s for precisely that reason that the tradition demands ferocious protection. Great players can’t be plucked individually and assembled piecemeal into a unit, as is the custom at larger universities. Championship winners have to be hewn from the rough, carved out with blood, sweat, tears, and, above all, a single-minded focus. This gives CUT the incredible work ethic which observers both inside and outside the team remark upon.

Yet it’s a peculiar, almost Spartan, kind of work ethic. If the team’s most bilious detractors pay tribute to its hard work, its most ebullient advocates acknowledge its fiercely competitive nature. An image emerges of a team where “cockiness and machisimo” predominate and where verbal sparring can break out during practice. At a school where “collaboration” is a buzzword and “Do what you love!” is the operative mantra for much of student activity, this comes across as a bit jarring. 

Those attitudes no doubt contribute as well to the team’s its off-the-field notoriety. The players themselves acknowledge that team events play an enormous role in their social lives. Among the laity, CUT has a reputation for what be nicely termed pushing its limits. The criticisms aimed at it aren’t the puritanical opprobria of teetotalers, but more subtle hints that, for Carleton at least, the team’s partying is a bit tasteless, a bit gauche.

Approve or not of CUT culture, it makes sense: the team behaves like a fraternity in the Dartmouth sense because it is a fraternity in the classical sense – that is, a brotherhood. CUT players choose to largely isolate themselves from a good deal of the Carleton community because they feel that preserving the team’s success requires it. The team-cest isn’t left behind on the practice field, or even on hazy memories of weekend nights. Players live in the same houses, do homework together, and eat meals together.

As one player said, “I am at ease socializing with the CUT because I know that everyone’s priority is the health and success of the team.”

And yet this bubble within the wider Carleton bubble is not for everyone.

“I gained closer friends that were non-frisbee players, and so I felt more and more like I was sacrificing time while playing frisbee that I could have been spending with my other friends,” said one player who left the team in the middle of his time at Carleton. “The frisbee guys, mostly within their own teams, would hang out together a lot.”

The team, ironically, doesn’t seem very “Carleton.”  The quintessential Carl values trying new things, having new experiences, and meeting new people.  We simultaneously value inclusivity.  The CUT largely keeps to itself and to its routine.

And yet the team has something to teach us all.  The average day here is a study in contrasts.  Readings frequently contradict each other.  Classes focus on the exceptions to scientific laws, not those that follow the rules.  Students rush from , from the noiseless solitude of second Libe to the overwhelming cacophony of the LDC.  The opportunity to sample all that we can here is exceptional and highly educational.  However, sampling is all it is.  We take in a lot, but are we actually working towards anything?

Consider, by contrast, the CUT, which spends its days honing a few physical movements for a few moments in tournaments that occur a few times a year. Their sheer will to do one single thing better than they did the moment before reveals mental strength that we all ought to respect.

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