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Is Disc Golf Stuck In The Middle Ages?

dg-middle-ages-featuredKarl 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.

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.

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 casual and personal, and the rights and responsibilities of members are rarely written down or formalized.

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.

There have been several cases where the construction of a proposed public course was blocked or cancelled, and others where tracks have been 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 in the Ultiworld forums, or on our social media outlets.

Gratitude for his ideas on feudalism goes to Vladimir Shlapentokh, friend and mentor.

  1. Josh Woods
    Josh Woods

    Josh Woods is an associate professor of sociology at West Virginia University who writes about disc golf for Parked: The Sociology of Disc Golf. Contact him at joshwoodsj1@gmail.com or on Twitter.

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