Is disc golf stuck in the Middle Ages?

marx-on-disc

Karl Marx, one of the founders of sociology, would be baffled by disc golf (had he not died in 1883). Why, he would wonder, does it cost virtually nothing to play disc golf in the United States, the standard-bearer of modern capitalism?

For capitalism to function, per Marx, the market for goods and services must constantly expand, which inevitably leads to all aspects of life being transformed into stuff that people can buy and sell. Disc golf should, by now, be completely commodified, commercialized, and dominated by one or two monopoly firms. Imagine a world where Walmart is the sole producer and seller of all things disc golf, and that’s Marx’s theory of capitalism.

walmart-disc-catcher

But Walmart doesn’t own everything (yet), and other aspects of the sport just don’t fit the capitalist model. If not by the prevailing economic system of the United States, how then should we theorize the future of disc golf?

My answer: French feudalism.

Yep, that’s a weird answer, I know. But I believe that disc golf in the U.S. shares at least three characteristics with medieval France after the fall of the Roman Empire. First, like France in the Middle Ages, there’s no central authority in the world of disc golf. The sport lacks a powerful governing body or economic conglomerate that can dictate how the sport should be organized, where and when it should be played, and how it should be developed.

feudal-conflict

Instead, the sport is being shaped by several autonomous actors – the feudal lords of disc golf – who often conflict over territory, resources, leadership, rules, and scheduling. A notable example of a feudal clash emerged just last month when the Disc Golf Pro Tour unsanctioned its tour finale, accused the Professional Disc Golf Association of foul play, and set the stage for further fragmentation and unrest in our disc golf kingdom.

Although the rift between the PDGA and DGPT is an important case, it represents only one of many conflicts that arise continuously at all levels of the sport. From slight disagreements between local clubs, tournament directors and small businesses to major conflicts between disc golf communities and the municipalities that control their courses, feudal conflicts are a constant threat to the stability of disc golf as a community and a sport.

The second feudal aspect of disc golf is personal relations. Loyalty, nepotism and “fealty bonds” were the key organizing force of feudal societies. In the same way, much of the political and economic life of disc golf, especially at the grassroots level, is held together by friendships, loyalty, personal promises and nepotism. In other words, the governing of disc golf clubs and organizations tends to be causal and personal, and the rights and responsibilities of members are rarely written down or formalized.

fealty

Friendship is the best part of disc golf, in my view, but friendship alone does not always lead to efficient decision-making and organizational longevity. In contrast, groups and organizations built on democratic principles and written agreements tend to enjoy greater stability and growth. A disc golf group built on friendship may endure the test of time. But if the friendship goes, so goes the group.

Finally, disc golf suffers from territorial insecurity, a persistent problem in ninth century France. Roughly 90 percent of disc golf courses have been built on public land. Each year, thousands of disc golfers generously volunteer their time, tools and money to build and maintain public courses. Many of us come to feel emotionally attached and even entitled to our home course.

But alas, we are mere peasants working the land for the feudal lords of local government. In most areas of the country, disc golfers represent a very small portion of the voting population, which makes them vulnerable to invasions by other groups, such as commercial real-estate firms, environmental groups and neighborhood alliances that have radically different plans for our disc golf courses.

work

There have been several cases where the construction of a proposed public course was blocked, and even some cases where a course was cancelled, taken out of the ground, and the local disc golf peasantry was sent packing. The feudal relationship between disc golfers and public land may be creating a sense of insecurity for many disc golf communities, which makes it difficult to plan and generate enthusiasm for the sport.

The three feudal elements of disc golf – feudal conflicts, personal relations and territorial insecurity – are likely hampering disc golf’s growth. Aside from a great deal of wishful thinking, there is no scientific evidence that the sport is growing. In fact, I hypothesize that the total number of active disc golfers in the U.S. has declined slightly in recent years and will stagnate in the future, unless a new, well-organized, collaborative effort is taken to reverse disc golf’s feudal tendencies.

What might such an effort look like? How will disc golf escape the Middle Ages? Can it escape? I’m not sure it can, but what do you think? Please take a minute to comment below.

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Photo/art sources:

Marx, socialistproject.org; basket, innovadiscs.com; conflict, mrgrayhistory.wikispaces.com; fealty, wikipedia.org; peasants, lostkingdom.net; headshots, msu.edu, cmich.edu.

2 thoughts on “Is disc golf stuck in the Middle Ages?

  1. Since first posting this piece, I’ve received a few interesting comments via email from my sociology professors and mentors at Michigan State University and elsewhere.

    Alan Rudy, professor of sociology at Central Michigan University, protested my treatment of Marx and my adoption of the feudal perspective on disc golf. His critique is based on both personal experiences with disc sports, as well as an unrivaled understanding of Marx. Like jazz improvisation, his lectures at Michigan State University were at once musical and brilliant, and his writing follows suit.

    Here’s Dr. Rudy response:

    “I’ve thought a good bit about this kind of thing, over the years, because I started playing Ultimate before the Ultimate Players Association was fully formed, when tournaments were overwhelmingly put together by committed, unpaid, volunteers/players, and play on the field was wholly self-regulated (no officials of any sort).

    Along those lines, and as I did back a decade or more ago, I am going to protest the misreading of Marx necessary to read feudalism into advanced industrial capitalism. Here are four elements of my “protest” 😉

    1. It is only with the hegemonic and deeply gendered separation of domicile-for-consumption/reproduction and work for wages/production that the realm called “society” can be said to come into existence and, with it, the idea of leisure time (much less, a while later, commodity-mediated sports and much, much less professional sports – as has somewhat emerged in ultimate). My sense is that the intensely class-mediated character of participation in disc sports reinforces this perspective.

    2. Of course, along with the unintended emergence of “society” and “leisure time”, the co-evolution of private property and wage labor also generated a new kind of terrain called “public space” (the negative space without which private property could not emerge) – much/most of it operated by the state. In all my years playing ultimate and disc sports more generally, I have never played on anything other than public space/parks or a close analog of it – like the open space on a private university… another post-feudal invention predicated on the emergence of capitalist society.

    3. In this arena, the modes of production debate – and the contested attempts to theorize colonialism going back to the late 1800s – has long focused on issues of formal vs real subordination to capital. In our neoliberal world, public spaces, and their associated leisure activities, are very clearly formally subordinated to capital. This is the case, as Jim O’Connor theorized in his work on the second contradiction of capitalism, at least in part because an element of the rise of capitalism is the material and ideological production of non-commodified/“natural”/cost-less landscapes, people and infrastructures “freely available” as inputs to commodity production and/or arenas for profit seeking… Ultimate and golf disc manufacturers have primarily depended on people – especially upper income younger people (bringing up Dick Hebdige’s studies of the commodification of resistant youth subcultures) – using their increasingly product–differentiated commodities on state-managed public spaces. Players, of course, then engaged in civic action to help develop non-commodified public spaces managed by the capitalist state into fields and courses – advancing the leisure activity while simultaneously increasing sales. Competition, even under these conditions, then presents the opportunity for clothing manufacturers, alcohol producers, etc. to be sponsors of competitions with all the attendant moments of living under/with capitalism.

    4. Last, commodity markets evolve unevenly and many into niche markets dependent on the use of public spaces, public infrastructures, and public employees. My sense, in many ways, then, is that disc golf is an awful lot like many traditional Olympic sports – from wrestling to pole vaulting, rowing to archery – inextricable from its embeddedness in modern scientific capitalist democracy.”

    ~~~

    Lawrence Busch, University Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University, agreed with Rudy on some issues, but refuted his dismissal of the feudal perspective, suggesting that capitalism should be understood as an incomplete, ongoing process where discordant social elements like feudalism can emerge and persist. I never had the pleasure of taking a course with Busch, but my late mentor, Vladimir Shlapentokh, once referred to his mind as “exquisite.” Like Shlapentokh, Busch’s intellectual curiosity and pursuit of knowledge for its own sake are virtuously and enthusiastically unending, as demonstrated in his recent book, Knowledge for Sale.

    Dr. Busch writes:

    “I must confess to never having given much thought to disk golf. (I didn’t even know it existed until I went to Fountain Hills, AZ and saw the golfers take over a chunk of park to play!). However, in the spirit of Volodia, a few comments beyond those of Alan:

    1. Leisure existed in feudal times, but it was something restricted to the nobility. Ordinary folks did not have leisure either in the sense of understanding something as leisure or in the more material sense of doing what the rich folks did. In fact, often those activities were restricted to the nobility; anyone else caught doing it was thrown into prison (at best).

    2. I fully agree with Alan that public space only becomes meaningful in a world where space is privatized. Moreover, public space is part and parcel of the infrastructures that are necessary for the private to exist at all. The irony of neoliberalism is its denial of the need for infrastructure, and especially those form of infrastructure that cannot be marketized (i.e., most of them).

    3. Despite Alan’s rather (all too?) neat Marxist explanation of disk golf, I think that there is space for feudalism. Put differently, capitalism is a project and like all projects is never complete. Hence, doubtless there are places where feudalism can and does exist.

    Volodia would probably have disagreed with all of us!!”

    ~~~

    Toby Ten Eyck, artist and sociology professor, evokes labeling theory in his response, arguing that the nature of society depends not on what it actually is, but on how we interpret it. Always relaxed and prepared, Ten Eyck was one of my favorite teachers. I probably learned from him, among other models, to study what I find most interesting, even if it means traveling off the beaten path.

    Dr. Ten Eyck’s response follows:

    “Labels determine reality.

    Jousting — feudal activity in which an underclass (smiths) created products (lances) for others to have fun

    Disc golf — capitalist activity in which an underclass (proletariat workers) create products (discs) for others to have fun (I am unaware of many ultimate or disc golf games happening with pieces of cardboard or other discarded materials in inner cities, though you do find stickball, soccer-esque, basketball and other games that emulate “Olympic” sports in these areas).

    Old wine in new bottles? Obviously there will be differences in terms of distribution and what we call various aspects of the social and natural environment, but have the distinctions

    I would never want to speak for Vladimir, but I think he would be happy that we are having this conversation and say we have all somehow been duped by those in charge (in charge of what, who knows…fear?!?).”

    ~~~

    Bernard Finifter, an emeritus sociology professor at MSU, suggests that playing disc golf may allow players to discover what it means to be human and experience the core identity human nature, the “species-being.” I took an excellent course with Finifter on social psychology. He is, to put it simply, a walking, talking encyclopedia on the discipline.

    Dr. Finifter writes:

    “Like most of my colleagues, I have lived all these decades virtually innocent of disc golf, so to repent of my negligence, I have resorted to a Google search. Surprisingly, the world of disc golf is thriving even after sporadic lulls. This Wiki provides a complete history of the sport. It would probably be heralded by Marx for offering players an open opportunity for exercising their “species being” free from the fetters of exploitative Capitalism, while at the same time stimulating entrepreneurial growth.”

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