Seeking a Level Playing Field


(Samuel and Julio.  Samuel and I were teammates, Julio was the opposition.  Selfie credit: Julio)

Nicaragua Diary, Day 39

I’m going to say some simple, perhaps obvious things about one of my favorite topics. Perhaps you have not thought of them in this way.  

Today [Saturday] we had a “hat tournament,” an ultimate tournament in which people sign up and then are divided into teams that are roughly equal (that’s the idea, anyway).  This is different than a team tournament, in which pre-established teams sign up together to play other teams.

We played at Kaiser University in San Marcos.  They have a beautiful campus and maybe the nicest fields I’ve played on in Nicaragua thus far.  They really are level!  It is a very upscale college in Nicaragua. They were a wonderful host.  

I love playing ultimate in Nicaragua because 1)I love playing ultimate and 2)playing here almost always means playing with a mixture of Nicaraguans and gringos.  I like that cross-cultural experience for myself, for my daughters who play, and for our Nicaraguan friends.  In the last pick-up game we played a week ago, my daughter and I were each the token gringo or gringa on our teams.

Many of the Nicaraguans who played in the tournament today live in poverty.  A few who played are closer to middle class and maybe a couple are better off.  The most athletic player on our team played in tennis shoes all day and still outjumped and outran the competition who were playing in cleats.  That wasn’t a strategic decision; he can’t afford to go buy cleats.*

I have a drawer full of quick-dry sports shirts.  In fact, I have two drawers full, because the nicer ones I wear for my daily life, while the stained and aged ones I wear for sports (have I mentioned this is the tropics)?  For our Sunday games, I often bring 4-5 white ones and 4-5 dark ones, so that when we play light shirts against dark shirts, the Nicaraguans who don’t have a spare light or dark can borrow them.

A wonderful thing about sports in general, and about ultimate in particular, is that it takes no account of socio-economic standing.  If you can run, throw, catch, and play defense, you are an ultimate player.  If you can do those things well, people want you on their team.  Everyone can improve at those things by practicing.  Not everyone is naturally or temperamentally inclined to play ultimate, but for those who are, it’s a great leveler.

Today we had quite a mixture of players on our team.  I know some of them come from abusive homes.  I know some of them don’t always get enough to eat.  I can’t solve those problems in a Saturday afternoon.  But I can play hard with them and high five them; I can affirm them and share life with them–one of my favorite parts of life.

Trying to build relationships with other people always has its challenges; trying to build friendships with those who live in poverty can be even more complex.  This needs to be its own post, but the constant awareness of inequity, the vast difference between having some margin financially and surviving day to day brings another set of hurdles to authentic, mutual understanding and trust.   Sports don’t magically erase those, but sports do allow a space in which they can be set aside while we connect.  Running to exhaustion while chasing a disc together bonds us.  

I love that my daughters play and keep getting better.  I love that we got to be on the same team today.  I love that they get to be part of this intercultural experience.

I also play fútbol (soccer) with Nicaraguans sometimes, but I’m not very good.  That means I don’t have the same currency to spend as I do playing ultimate.  If I tell a Nicaraguan teammate in soccer, “Hey, great play, you’re amazing,” he or she is thinking, “Uh, yeah, thanks, Gringo, you suck” or “isn’t that cute?  The old gringo thinks I’m good” (except in Spanish).

But I’m good at ultimate.  For the level we play here, I receive a certain level of respect because that’s how sports work.  This means I can spend that currency of respect given to me to puff myself up or to empower and affirm others.  I’m an enthusiastic teammate.  A teammate of mine in the U.S. once declared, “You’re the adrenal gland of the team!”

A fellow gringo player here once speculated on how many high fives I’ve given out in my life– on every point I play, I almost always give every person on my team a five after we score. Usually I give a few when we get scored on.   Often I’ll give them to opposing players as we’re passing to prepare to start the next point.

These are the obvious things I’m saying: First, sports works in a developing world cross-cultural setting because they offer everyone with athletic ability (or even just cussed determination) a chance to participate.  Today’s was a tournament particularly geared toward new Nicaraguan players put on by an organization called Breaking Borders.  The entry fee was 60 cordobas ($2).

Ultimate is particularly cheap because you can play the whole game with no special equipment other than a round piece of plastic which you can get for $5 to $8.  Cleats help but you can play without them.

Second, ultimate offers me the opportunity to build others up, to encourage and affirm and teach them.  Is it a big deal if someone is good at ultimate?  I’ll answer the question with a question:  is it a big deal if people feel loved and accepted and empowered?  Ultimate may be the only place in some of my teammates’ lives where that happens.  I’m 48, I’m slowing down, I’m not cool, and my Spanish still sucks.  But I can try to be the face of Jesus to a few young people because I can throw a disc well.

I like winning and sometimes I get a little distracted from what’s really important in being on the ultimate field.  I do play hard because in sports I believe this is respecting yourself and your opponent.  But today was a good reminder of what else ultimate can offer: a chance to be on equal footing in a country, in  a world, where people are valued for what they have and not who they are.  



*Playing ultimate, which requires sprinting, cutting, stopping, and jumping on grass, works better in cleats. 

2 thoughts on “Seeking a Level Playing Field

  1. Chris Wells

    So for the longest time I envisioned you and your players throwing “hats” in this hat tournament and thought, how unique of a culture to produce a competition with what they have at hand. HA! Laughing at myself now!
    I do so enjoy your style of creativeness and will have to review my style of interpretation!

    • Oh, that is marvelous! Thanks so much for sharing that!

      We do have a funny rule that each team has a silly plastic party hat and for one point each game they can choose one person to wear the hat. If that person catches a score WITH THE HAT ON, it counts for two (every other point in ultimate counts for one). I don’t know if this is unique to Nicaragua, but I’d never seen that rule before coming here.

      I also love what this tells us about how we each bring our lens to reading. And thanks for the encouragement, Chris.

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