By Josh Woods ~
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville published an important book about disc golf.
Okay, maybe Tocqueville wasn’t focused on disc golf exactly, but his ideas can be applied to it. In Democracy in America, he wrote about the delicate balance that must be found between the impulse of governments to centralize power, and the desire of individuals and local groups to pursue their unique interests.
Tocqueville argued that problems arise when one of these tendencies dominates the other. Too much power on top limits individual freedoms and harms the rights of groups to self-govern. In the worst-case scenario, a Leviathan emerges that governs in a way that departs from the wishes of those who put it in power.
When, for instance, the PDGA dealt an 18-month suspension to Bradley Williams, following an altercation with Matt Dollar during the 2016 Ledgestone Open, some questioned the severity of the punishment and called for greater transparency in the PDGA’s disciplinary process. While the fairness of the PDGA’s actions remains the subject of debate, the case itself illustrates the natural tension between centralized authority and individual rights.
Though no doubt concerned about the concentration of power, Tocqueville also worried about its opposite. He admired local governance and celebrated American individualism, but argued that a retreat from traditional hierarchies could atomize society and harm its ability to reach compromises and carry out basic functions.
For any country or organization, the trick, per Tocqueville, is to find a middle ground between too much centralized power and too much fragmentation. The question is, where does disc golf stand on this continuum? And how does the level of centralization affect growth?
The feudal period of U.S. disc golf
Aside from a few cases where the PDGA has flexed its muscles, a strong central authority is virtually non-existent in the realm of U.S. disc golf. The sport lacks a powerful governing body or economic conglomerate that dictates course development standards or determines how disc golf events should be organized, where and when they should be played, and how the sport should be grown.
Consider, for instance, the case of scheduling events. Who is in charge of this essential task?
In the U.S., as Parked revealed in a previous study, only about half of disc golf tournaments are sanctioned by the PDGA, and the overwhelming majority of weekly league events are unsanctioned. In other words, much of the territory of competitive disc golf is ruled by local lords and independent clubs.
In fact, even the organization of most PDGA events lacks central authority. While the scheduling of upper-tier PDGA tournaments are controlled from above, fifty different state coordinators—all unpaid volunteers elected by popular vote—have the responsibility and authority to schedule lower-tier events in the U.S.
On one hand, Tocqueville would applaud the PDGA for the ingenious way it has divided power between the national association and state representatives. Placing scheduling power, along with other responsibilities, in the hands of state coordinators encourages participation in disc golf organization at all levels, and reinforces the principle that local issues should be resolved by local people.
On the other hand, as the number of people involved in any endeavor grows, so too does the chance for miscommunication, coordination problems and conflict. In a recent interview with Parked, PDGA State Coordinator for West Virginia James McDonald put it this way: “With more personalities, entities and clubs come more ideas, wishes and points of emphasis. State or national disc golf organizations are not impossible, but they are no doubt difficult to run. Getting everyone on the same page in large groups can be tough.”
In the U.S., there are many different individuals and groups calling the shots, including the PDGA, the Disc Golf Pro Tour, an array of state and regional associations, public park officials and local governments, private companies, wealthy individual organizers, and a horde of local clubs. As argued in a previous article, disc golf organization in the U.S. may have more in common with French feudalism in the Middle Ages than with Tocqueville’s optimistic vision of Western democracy.
The top-down model of Finnish disc golf
The organizational challenges in the U.S. become more obvious when examining disc golf in smaller countries. For instance, in Finland, the world leader in disc golf growth, there is more centralized funding for disc golf, more standardization in disc golf course development, and more centralization of key decision-making than in the U.S.
Brian Hoeniger, PDGA International Director, attributes much of the Finnish success to the country’s highly professional disc golf leadership. In an email conversation in November 2017, he wrote: “In terms of disc golf, this is exemplified not only in the personage of Jussi Meresmaa, the world’s most skilled and entrepreneurial disc golf promoter, but also in terms of the national disc golf association, which is led by a volunteer group of consummate professionals and businesspeople, together with a small number of paid, mostly administrative staff.”
Hoeniger also credits the “top-down” organizational model in Finland. Most of the key actors in the Finnish disc golf scene fly the same flag. Finnish disc golfers join clubs and the clubs are members of the Finnish Disc Golf Association (FDGA). This kind of centralization may ease some of the sticking points that plague administrative efforts in the U.S.
“The FDGA alone chooses which events are to be PDGA sanctioned,” Hoeniger wrote. “PDGA member fees are collected together with national player fees by the FDGA and submitted in bulk to PDGA, and a current PDGA membership is required to play in all PDGA sanctioned events in Finland.”
The FDGA is focused, in turn, on aiding the clubs. It has developed a ten-year plan based on data from a membership survey, and the first action item is to provide greater support to the clubs. As one example, the FDGA created a disc golf instructor training program, which has the goal of “giving back to the sport and spreading expertise to the national FDGA member clubs.”
Hoeniger said that most Finnish disc golfers support the top-down model. “Because the example of leadership/organization set by the Finnish DGA is so good, and because it mirrors the local club-based model of other sports, culturally the players in turn buy into the system whole heartedly.”
When asked about the level of conflict between Finnish disc golf clubs, Kari Toivonen, a noted disc golf blogger in Finland, said, “I have no knowledge of any conflicts between disc golf clubs. There is still plenty of room for clubs and there is not too much competition over members.”
Although more research is needed, it appears that the FDGA, with help from Jussi Meresmaa, has “united the clans.” It may be too early to dub the FDGA the “friendly Leviathan of organized disc golf,” but its ability to include many clubs under the same umbrella seems incredible when compared to the U.S. case.
Efforts to unite the many stakeholders of U.S. disc golf and work toward consensus on important issues, such as tournament scheduling, disc golf course standards, public relations campaigns, and interactions with public officials, local governments and national media, may be the key to disc golf growth in America.
In the next installment of Parked’s comparison of Finland and the U.S., we will look at how centralization not only leads to fewer conflicts between clubs, but also fosters greater standardization of the sport. Standardization, in turn, may encourage growth on the competitive side of disc golf land.
 Tocqueville, Alexis de, and Arthur Goldhammer (2004). Democracy in America. New York: Library of America.
Thanks to James McDonald, editor at Full Metal Basket and consulting editor at Parked, for giving the cover art of Hobbes’s Leviathan a disc golf upgrade.
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