Ask Not Who’s Callahan, But Whose Callahan

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.

The Callahan trophy, with 2009 winner Will Neff

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.

These days, it even gets you interviewed by the pretty female sideline reporter

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.

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9 thoughts on “Ask Not Who’s Callahan, But Whose Callahan

  1. Pingback: Light, Dark, and Cleats: 5/14 | Ultiworld

  2. I believe that Brodie was a callahan candidate in 2010, not 2009. Eli Friedman of Oregon was elected over Brodie, not Will Neff.

  3. Keith, are you actually suggesting separating the two awards? Because it sounds like your imaginary Gwen Ambler convinces you otherwise…

    One thing that’s been bothering me a bit is the increasing “media” influence on the Callahan. Seems like the media doesn’t need to “endorse” a player. It’s not up to you or me – we’re not in the “arena” playing against these guys, going toe-to-toe with them and seeing how they react to conflict, success, and failure first hand.

    Sky’d and Ultiworld can do their “all-american” stuff, but the only people I really want to hear from about the Callahan are the candidates teammates and opponents. And I’m happy to sift through the standard callahan fluff to find the nuggets that really speak to who a players is.

    And who they are should matter in addition to what they do. These are our standard bearers and, as Hector wrote, we don’t have to choose “skill” or “sportsmanship/leadership.” Every year there are candidates who exemplify both. Let that be what we honor and strive for as individuals and a sport.

    • I’m not really sure if imaginary Gwen (or real Gwen, who responded on twitter) convinced me or if I really was convinced one or the other to begin with. I told her that I was presenting options in the hopes of stimulating discussion.

      I see your point that the media is an external force influencing the Callahan. At the same time, they are one of the only lenses people view most of the candidates. Without Skyd and Ultiworld, or RSD before it, would most people even know who was being considered at the top of the Callahan list, othern than the one or two candidates they know?

      If the ONLY people are qualified are the players who have played with or against the candidates, doesn’t that severely limit the voting populace’s options? Most players would be comparing a fraction of the list. Sure, the elite teams that go to Easterns, Women’s Centex, and Stanford Invite can say they know each other pretty well, so only the elite traveling teams votes actually matter?

      Your point is fair about not separating spirit from ability. In what amounts does each matter, though? And my biggest point here was, how exactly does one judge who is a good sportsman? Who is a good leader? Again, is that just your teammates and your club teammates?

      Detractors would call the Callahan simply a popularity contest, and you limit voters so much, isn’t that what it becomes?

      • I’m not saying that only players that compete with or against a candidate should be able to vote – only that those are the voices that should be listened to when deciding to vote.

        As far as how “much spirit/leadership/how much talent.” I think it depends. Determining who most embodies the ideal Ultimate standard both incredible and sporstmanlike play can’t be set by some objective standard. These players are our standard. But, I think (based on how voting has gone historically) the minimums are that the player can dominate in his/her role and takeover games. Plays for a team at a National level. Is viewed as a fair competitor who demonstrates respect for his/her opponents and their calls.

        Generally, the “campaigns” have done a great job of making clear who the candidate is in sportsmanship and leadership (I say “campaigns” loosely because in that I include other people that speak up on the candidate’s behalf – including opponents).

        Are there any Callahan winners that you don’t think weren’t worthy recipients indicating there is a reason to change the format of the award?

      • I don’t agree that the campaigns are a fair representation of who a player is. Anyone can get on and compliment their Captain. We see it all the time. I’m sure their mom thinks they are a nice kid, too. Even the candidates who were seen so lacking in spirit that they were precluded despite their ability had positive posts about them from their teammates. I think picking who wins the most prestigious individual award in Ultimate based on three paragraphs from their best friends is a bit silly, and does make it a popularity contest where we are more and more influenced to vote for our best candidate in region than anything else.

        I can’t say I think we have picked anyone undeserving of the Callahan, but I also can’t say I think we have always picked the most deserving candidate. Perhaps even more to the point of the post, I can’t say that I can really even say! One of my main points is that I don’t feel qualified to judge candidates on three out of the four components of the award.

  4. Keith,

    I wrote a long comment designed to spark an in depth conversation. Then I deemed it stupid and instead think I should just write “nice article.” Some interesting flow of thought here. It was almost enough to convince me to actually look at all of the candidates. But being out of college this award has nothing to do with me so I’ll just sit back and wait to see who is picked. Then you an I can do our best Statler and Waldorf impression. Take care.

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