The Callahan Award is the biggest named award in Ultimate. While it doesn’t exactly make you an Ultimate legend, it certainly carries a lot of cachet and having it attached to the end of your name is akin to “Academy Award Winner” in Hollywood. People notice it and they weight it, an indicator that your playing ability is or was cream of the crop. As people are virtually unable to do, however, each person views that title from their own perspective. Therein lies the rub: what exactly does it mean to be a Callahan winner? Let’s see what the Callahan people (shouts to Charles Kerr for putting in so much work over the years) themselves have to say:
The Callahan Award has been established to recognize the most valuable players in men’s and women’s college ultimate. Each year the Callahan trophy is presented to the man and woman who combine superior athleticism with outstanding sportsmanship, leadership and dedication to the sport of ultimate.
In the eyes of his or her peers, the Callahan winner is the personification of the ideal ultimate player. (source)
There are four written and stated components to the award: superior athleticism, outstanding sportmanship, leadership, and dedication to the sport of Ultimate. Each of the past few years, the debate arises as to how much each of these components should be valued by voters. It hit a fever pitch in 2008 & 2010, when the polarizing Florida team sent two nominees, Kurt Gibson & Brodie Smith, who reigned as college Ultimate’s most dominant players on the field and personas off the field. For better or worse, neither won the award, with Joe Kershner from Arizona and Eli Friedman of Oregon taking home the prize. The argument, oversimplified and paraphrased, was that Kurt & Brodie’s intense overqualification for “superior athleticism” and their dedication (at least, we can see now they’ve been pretty dedicated) did not outweigh perceived deficiencies of leadership (the Regionals choke for Brodie) and sportsmanship (Kurt’s yelling and Brodie’s Brodie-ing). Translation: People thought Kurt was unspirited and Kershner was very much spirited, while also meeting the other qualifications; rinse and repeat.
A common, and true, refrain is that the Callahan is not an MVP award; it is simply not awarded to the player judged most valuable to their team. Most of the major American sports leagues recognized they could A) be more specific in their awards if there were more of them and B) monetize the awards via sponsorships, and have multiple awards. The NFL is so confused, that they have a bunch of different MVP awards as voted on by different people. The NHL has an award for the MVP (they actually have two, with one voted on by the players), an award for the statistically best performing player, an award for the most prolific scorer, an award for “the player who exhibited outstanding sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” (The Lady Byng) and one for “the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” The NHL has all their bases covered!
What we have is one award, four components, and lots of definitions. Not unlike an argument over “best perspective”, nobody is really right, even though everyone thinks they are. So what’s a voter to do*!? *Go vote though, once you figure this stuff out.
Beyond the issue of us finding a definition, I have other problems with the current format. Ultiworld posted an editorial piece endorsing Pittsburgh’s Tyler Degirolamo for this year’s Callahan Award for the Open Division. A number of opponents questioned the lack of comment on anything outside of performance. Charlie Eisenhood, who wrote the post and is the site’s editor, was able to create a solid basis to support his statements about TD’s on field ability. When questioned about his sportsmanship, dedication, and leadership? Not so easy.
Even now, we aren’t at a point where most voters can justifiable say they’ve seen a candidate play; I’d say roughly 40% of voters can even spell DeGirolamo. I haven’t seen all the candidates play in person. Of the short list from each side, I’ve at least watched game footage or in person for every candidate. More footage is available each season, allowing us to make a more informed decision…on a single component. This brings me to my real question: how am I expected to make a judgment on the other three? I sort of consider myself part of the Ultimate media. I’ve invested time and effort into research and finding more information about teams and players all year. If I can’t reliably make a call on those other three components, how can a sophomore at SUNY-New Paltz be asked to do so?
We have a player voted award, which means the people with the most limited but most intense perspective in the game have the voting power in their hand. Working within the constructs of a team and a season may hinder the scope of their view of the season, but it also gives players an intimate knowledge of those things they do know: the leadership of their own Captain, the sportsmanship of their regional nemesis, the dedication of their club teammate. There was hope to have the Skyd Five Callahan Nominee process highlight and follow the top players, but I don’t really feel like I know any more about them this year than any other.
As hard as these questions are to actually answer, it is no wonder people would rather switch off their brains and vote for best highlight video (outlier: George Stubbs’s pretty crappy video).
If you’re looking for solutions, mine would perhaps be to split the two. Let’s vote for the most valuable player for the Gibson-Simpson Award (that’s a combo of Kurt Gibson and Jason Simpson, two of the most noted Callahan snubs) and for the Callahan Award for the person who best exemplifies the Spirit of the Game combined with a high level of play. To me, that’s a good solution. However, I can see others who would scoff at the notion (I’m picturing disagreement from the noble Gwen Ambler, and the resulting blushing I would do at such a scolding) of even awarding a player’s ability while ignoring their other impacts on the sport. Why would we award such a thing, and risk making the face of Ultimate someone disconnected from SOTG altogether? Alas, I’m just a blogger, and don’t have all the answers.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. We’ve managed for nearly 18 years without screwing it up too bad, right? In the end, it mostly works out, doesn’t it? Is finishing second really so bad? I dunno. Ultimate is attracting more attention and it might mean the award becomes more and more meaningful.
This post got very meandering and rambling. I originally just wanted to complain that I was annoyed I was being asked, as a voter, to do so freaking much. Mostly stuff I couldn’t do, like figure out if so and so was spirited. “Oh man, he spiked it in that one game! EXHIBIT A! *Marks it in the spreadsheet*” or “One of my friends told me she pointed out to someone she skied that she had dirt in her hair, very spirited!” Am I crazy here? I just want to know, not only who is the Callahan winner, but just whose Callahan winner they are.