‘Powerless’ Observers

indexsdrgBefore I even start, I should perhaps point out that this is just an idea I’m bouncing around. I’ll doubtless argue for it pretty forcefully – that’s just how I am – but I really am interested in what everyone else thinks about it. Let me know.

What are the problems an Observer solves? Can we solve the vast majority of these while still giving players control of all the calls?

(For a bit of context, read ‘What makes us unique?‘ if you haven’t already…)

Some of the problems have been discussed at length recently after some less-than-ideal exposure at U23s and the World Games (see Kyle Weisbrod’s well-written article, or any of many other calls for Observers in WFDF competition).

Problems include:

  • Long stoppages and discussions
  • Lack of rules knowledge or differing interpretations
  • Language barriers
  • Lack of communication to spectators
  • Difficulty maintaining impartiality in match-deciding situations
  • Teams who cheat

Some of these problems are only issues for spectators or for those who wish to grow the spectator base, and you may choose not to worry about these. But others are problems for players too, which is why so many people are pushing harder than ever for USAU-style Observers in WFDF tournaments.

But what would happen if we had observers, but did not allow them to overrule the players? Almost all of these problems could be solved, and the remaining issue – cheating – is the one that cannot be solved without (in many people’s eyes) undermining the fundamental basis of SotG and the uniqueness of Ultimate.

Imagine an observer (facilitator? advisor?) who:

  • Could cap discussions after a time limit, and send the disc back if needed
  • Knew all the rules well
  • Spoke both relevant languages
  • Communicated the call to spectators
  • Offered an impartial ruling on what happened
  • But could NOT force the players to accept his or her ruling

Such an official could also chat to the teams before play to find out an agreed level of physicality, and could advise teams if they were one-sided in their application of the rules, or if they began to call differently late in the game. They could confirm, in the calm before the game starts, the teams’ attitude to other flashpoints like small travels.

This sort of system still leaves room for the players to have the final say. They can decide that, actually, they really did feel contact on their catching hand just as they tried to grab the disc, even though it wasn’t seen.

Try reading Matt Hodgson’s interesting piece on televising Ultimate, discussing how stoppages are not inherently boring (and occur in most other sports). Then think how amazing it would be to have a mic’d-up observer discussing a call with players who had the opportunity to ignore him – but in fact consistently did the right thing. The instant replays, and later the press coverage, of incidents where a player was certain enough to stick with a call (going against the impartial advice) would be some of the most interesting things in the whole of sports broadcasting, in my opinion. Again, this is an opportunity for Ultimate to be unique.

The retention of player control should calm the fears of most of those who strongly resist observers. It also leaves room for cheating, but then that’s the whole point.

It’s quite possible that self-officiation really is impossible; that people will flat-out cheat even when an impartial observer tells them they’re wrong. But wouldn’t it be nice to know? And wouldn’t it be utterly wonderful if we found that self-officiation really could work at the highest level?

The problems at recent international tournaments look to me as though they are all caused by differing cultures, languages, and interpretations, and by people’s inability to step back and view the play impartially (or more accurately, by people’s tendency to persuade themselves that their view is impartial when it is not). I don’t believe any of these players would deliberately cheat in the face of an impartial opinion to the contrary, under the scrutiny of the international community and with widespread video coverage of the incidents.

I might be wrong, of course.

But why not create a system that gives an impartial opinion and find out if people really are going to cheat? If they do, then perhaps we need more powerful observers, and maybe referees. But it seems to me that this in-between step – powerless observers* – is worth exploring first.

Kyle’s Ultiworld article also suggests some form of in-between set-up for WFDF – with active line calls etc. – while they adjust towards the USAU system that many in North America see as ideal. But I think a more palatable halfway-house for much of the international community might be to have observers who cannot overrule.

If you’re a supporter of USAU-style observers, then this might seem like a good way for WFDF to get a little closer to that system. It certainly can’t make playing under WFDF rules worse for those North American teams who are accustomed to Observers – no-one can cheat more under this proposal than under the current self-officiation system.

On the other hand, if you’re a die-hard power-to-the-players advocate, then you might notice that this system has no slippery slope** – we’re not taking final responsibility for any of the calls away from the players, so there’s no added pressure to take more calls away over time.

Perhaps both sides in the debate can see the value in this proposal. (Or perhaps both sides will be equally dismissive! Only way I’ll find out is by publishing this I guess…)

I actually feel that there would be almost no difference in outcomes (in the short term at least) with empowered or powerless observers – if observers are properly trained and properly respected, the vast majority of their calls will be accepted by the players. (Perhaps they can even make active line-calls, to keep the game flowing, with stoppages only occurring when the players dispute that call.) But the psychological differences, and the differences in the way the game is presented to the wider world, are huge.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if, in thirty years’ time, with the sport watched by millions on TV, we could still tell beginners that the greatest players in the sport were trusted to make their own calls? It might not happen, but it’s worth shooting for.

*[Of course, they’re not really powerless – they can enforce time-limits, and perhaps they could send players from the field for outrageous behaviour (e.g. punching the opponent) that does not constitute cheating-for-advantage. But the final say on all calls would rest with the players.]
[**A quick note – entirely off-topic, so stop reading if you don’t care – on slippery slope arguments. The slippery-slope fallacy specifically refers to making assumptions about A leading to B with no reasons given why it should happen. Those who give arguments for observers leading to referees which are based on human nature, or on economics, or who provide examples from other sports, haven’t necessarily committed a fallacy. They might not be right, of course, as there may be other factors at work or they may be making irrelevant points. You do need to argue with them, though, rather than automatically dismiss it as fallacy…]
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22 Responses to ‘Powerless’ Observers

  1. William says:

    One potential flaw in this proposal is that if you do not agree with the impartial observer then frustration is directed only at you. Right now we can say, “well, we’re both biased so I can understand why I am calling foul and you are contesting”. With observers or referees we can say, “that third party is so unfair”. Now we’re inviting people to overrule impartial entities and you better believe when that happens the game is going to get riled up. Maybe this is a good thing in putting the magnifying glass on that kind of behaviour and forcing people to consider even more carefully before not accepting an observer’s view or perhaps it will cause even more chippy play and aggravation at your opponent. Food for thought! Good article.


    • Eamonn says:

      How about the case where teammates overrule each other. I have told teammates that I I believe they should not contest a foul (or something equivalent) only to be ignored. I would imagine this to be very frustrating for an opponent. With this change discussions would have the potential to become heated but not more so than the existing system in my opinion.


    • @William, I do worry about that a little also. I guess there’s really no way to predict it, and we’d have to trial some new system and see. We can train the observers in conflict resolution and methods to keep the players calm and communicating, which should help. But honestly, I just don’t know. What I do see is that there were times at World Games where it looked to be worth trying something a little different – but I would never wish to hand over final control to a third party. This idea is the best I have so far!


  2. Pete says:

    Great read Benji. I know I’m not exactly adding to the debate here, but a quick question.

    “Such an official could also chat to the teams before play to find out an agreed level of physicality”.

    I think this is a great idea, but how would you communicate an acceptable level of physicality? “I would like my physicalty 7 out of 10 please?” This is probably a separate discussion about physicality, but I am just interested in your line of thinking.


    • Honestly? I dunno. 😉

      But any conversation between teams, to set an agreed level, is better than no conversation – even if it’s a bit vague. Certainly you could say ‘I don’t want any bumping on the mark, but I’m prepared to accept a fair amount of contact by a defender blocking a cut’ or something like that. But anyway, even if that sort of thing doesn’t really help, then definitely having a third party help to keep the level of physicality consistent (or keep the calls consistent as the game gets close) would be a help for some teams/players.


  3. Jeff says:

    Sounds like what WFDF Lines Assistants do. At U23s, they were used for all the finals (look for the two sideline guys/gals wearing orange), plus early week evening showcase games, doing a lot of what you’re advocating here. They took care of most of your concerns, except for the language barrier. I think I remember seeing/hearing them used at World Games, but I’m not sure how much of a role they were able to play or how experienced they were (U23s had a local pool of observers and AUDL refs they drew from). Unfortunately, there simply weren’t enough resources available to use them in all of the games at U23s, including the more contentious ones you’re hearing about.

    I think the Lines Assistants idea is still in its infancy, but it might be a good first step towards some sort of system similar to what you’re advocating for (which looks like it’s going to be needed).


    • Thanks Jeff. I had a look at the WFDF Line Assistant Manual today – from there it’s in some ways only a shortish step to what I’m suggesting.

      I guess the determining factor is where you see the sharp defining line of self-officiation – is it players making all calls, or is it players making all final decisions?

      If it’s the latter, then it’s not a big step to allow ‘assistants’ to give opinions, or to make active line-calls that players could query or overrule. If it’s the former, than that’s a very different proposition! Of course there’s also the third definition of self-officiation, as used in the current observer system – players make almost all the calls, except when they disagree and the Observer is confident they have a good view. That’s a much more pragmatic and less theoretical definition I guess – but I’m a very logic-obsessed person myself and I struggle with it.


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  5. Anonymous says:

    would you suggest more active observers who automatically offer their opinion on certain types of calls and/or at a set time frame (15/30 seconds?) or only when asked by one of the players to assist?


    • I don’t know. I wouldn’t ever want an official to call a foul that the players hadn’t (but then no-one really wants that, even under USAU – unless people want full refs). But I can see the arguments for a quick opinion of *no foul* in keeping the game flowing.

      My preference would always be to allow a short discussion, and then the observer could give an idea of how sure he was – ‘100% no foul’, or ‘It looked to me as though…’ or whatever. But I guess that’s detail and I’m happy to be persuaded either way – the key point for me is simply that the players retain responsibility for final decisions.


  6. Charlie says:

    Very solid article. I was previously under the impression that you were staunchly against any third party involvement, but I guess I was wrong! I think this would be a big first step, and may end up being the only step necessary in fixing many of the problems we see in the game. As someone mentioned before, many players take back calls or change their calls when players on their own team tell them it was not a good call. I think your observers would be able to to provide this neutral perspective on nearly every call. And if the player making the call in question believes he had a better view of the play than the observer, then he simply sticks to his call, end of story. I really think a lot of calls would be changed and/or settled quickly in this system.


    • Thanks Charlie. I’m staunchly against third-party *decisions*, but it does seem as though some international matches require a little more intervention than we’ve previously had. I’d much prefer it if they didn’t, but it’s not looking great at times. The idea behind this system is that nothing major really changes – players still make the final calls – so there’s less of a psychological jump between normal play and high-level matches. You’d still make all the decisions, you’d just have a bit of assistance with an impartial perspective. To me, this wouldn’t undermine the basic idea that cheating has to be possible if we’re going to call it ‘spirit’.


      • Eamonn says:

        I was thinking about how to clarify this distinction. I thought for the purposes of this and similar discussions we could use the following nouns to mean different things:

        Observer – Contributes to discussions, offers opinions, clarifies the rules, facilitates easy communication between players.
        Official – Makes calls, can stop play, (conceivably) provides video playback to the players
        Referee – Judges the outcome of calls, has the final say in discussions.

        There are, of course many stages of grey here but I think that this accounts for the major differences.


  7. Thanks for another interesting contribution Benji.

    Something we all lack in discussions like these is cold hard data, which could better inform what changes are needed, if any. It would be really interesting to analyse a big WFDF-rules tournament (e.g. xEUCF in September) and look variables like at how many calls are made in each game, what percentage are contested/uncontested, what percentage were retracted. If it transpires that contested calls are not very frequent, it would not necessarily affect the status of ultimate as a self-officiated sport to have observers involved in only a small number of disputes each game. It strikes me as a very extreme view that observers’ presence in North American ultimate has undermined its claim to being self-officiated.

    More generally though, some calls are very tight and it can be difficult even for an impartial observer (or observers) to determine the correct call in those situations. The recent WFDF Rules discussion board analysis of the end of the Windmill Windup open final is a case in point. A counter-factual replacing Ben Wiggins with an impartial but ‘powerless’ observer to give an opinion, would certainly be interesting to see in practice, and in most contested situations I can imagine the observer’s verdict would be accepted. Perhaps for the Windmill final though, the observer wouldn’t be over 90% sure, and would refrain from offering a verdict.

    Thinking about it, my preferred system would see top-level ultimate using a combination of ‘powerless’ observers and video technology. Many big games are filmed with instant replay technology nowadays, so this shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility to introduce for the biggest tournaments. For cases where the ‘powerless’ observer’s verdict is not accepted, having a “TMO” (Television Match Observer) to have final say, seems like the fairest way to ensure the right call is made. It could be done as with tennis challenges/NFL coach challenges, and limited to two or three per game, and if the team loses the challenge they lose a time-out.


  8. Brummie says:

    Such “facilitators” were present at World Games, and you can see how successful they were in the 3rd place game… no disrespect intended to the WFDF staff / volunteers who IMO did a great job, but they were powerless to prevent cheating.


    • Hi Brummie – that’s only true up to a point. They weren’t there to give opinions on foul calls, and they certainly couldn’t cap discussions. Actually, in that game, a WFDF official did step on to the pitch when it was most heated, and the Colombians subsequently declined the call. That official didn’t tell anyone what to do, of course, but it does rather look as though a calm third-party was able to defuse the situation.

      I’d WANT officials to be powerless to prevent cheating, but I’m not sure that cheating is what we were seeing – I think it was unintentional bias, seeing foul calls only one way in the pressure of the moment. Entirely forgiveable, with 15,000 people cheering for or against you. I’d like to see what would happen in matches just like that one if someone was there to give an impartial opinion; then we’ll have a better idea of whether people are really cheating or are just understandably excitable.


  9. pdfprime says:

    Look up Instructional Observers. Those might fit what you are looking for.

    Click to access 2012%20Observer%20Manual.pdf

    We have used them, along with a request for active line calls, at several HS events with good results. many US High Schools coaches tend to not want observers anywhere near the field, as self-officiation and player control are the basis for the draw of the sport..


    • Instructional observers are quite similar, but they’re not empowered to offer a third-party opinion. Whilst a lot of those smaller things seem to vex people – long discussions, communicating the play to spectators etc. – the thing I’m personally most interested in is whether people are actually cheating or are just biassed and emotional in the heat of the moment. Giving them a neutral third-party opinion is crucial to finding out if self-officiating is struggling because of cheats or because of unconscious bias.


  10. Robbie Finch says:

    I agree that discussions in high level ultimate often need to be shortened but I’m not sure I agree with having a third party who can actively cap them. It’s rare, but we’ve all been in situations where a discussion has genuinely needed a few minutes to resolve. I think as a player/referee you’d feel cheated if you thought you had something valuable to say that could have changed the other guy’s mind and you were cut off by an observer. I’d be concerned that if players feel cheated it may undermine their spirit in other aspects of the game.

    Perhaps there’s a way to have the observers warn players that their discussions are taking a long time without actually being able to stop them. They could do this in the hope that the players will choose to do the right thing, which 99% of the time is to wrap it up, contest and send the disc back asap.

    It might not actually be too much of a stretch having observers who can give opinions on calls, if we only allow them to give opinions when the players ask them to. This might feel similar to when disputing players ask the sideline for their opinion on a line call – the players will normally agree with the sideline’s judgement but I think it’s important that if you really don’t agree, if you were looking closely at your feet and you know they’re wrong, you can still overrule them and make your own call. Equally I think it’s a huge difference knowing that you can overrule an observer if you feel strongly enough that you were right. Or, knowing that if you want to cheat you still can!


  11. Tom Abrams says:

    I played my first tournament with observers this weekend and on the whole, to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed the experience. Having not played with them before, my strongest reason against observers is that you are replacing inherent bias in decisions (from the players) with a decision taken with less information (by the observer). e.g. with a foul on the mark, an observer is often tasked with making a ruling that he/she has a (much) worse perspective on than the players. As an aside, ideologically I am for a system that has the most accurate decisions and least cheating in action.

    Observer advantages:
    Active line, up/down and offside calls – for most/all of these calls the observers made quick and accurate judgements. This is often an area of contention in games where players with bad perspective are trying to judge the call as it affects them (e.g. in out calls when running at the sideline). They also enforce both teams to be properly onside at the pull. This was frustrating at first (as we were just not used to it!) but in the end results in a better looking and fairer game. The observers also actively managed time between points, which kept the game moving at the correct tempo (much higher than a normal game!)

    The other major advantage is that the observers help to maintain control of the game by reducing emotion attached to calls. One of the biggest difficulties with self-officiation can come in high stakes games which can be set off by a dodgy call / play. Both teams feel as though they are being “cheated” by their opponent. This raises tension and can often lead to a vicious circle of more and more heated calls (and play). By introducing observers (with decision making power), much of this tension is removed from the opponent to the observer. If you choose to refer a decision to the observer, you may be disappointed that their opinion is different to yours but you do not feel cheated by your opponent. This makes that it is easier to maintain a fair attitude to your opponent when making a call rather than approaching every call as if you expect to be cheated.

    One change – I would like to see is that observers work with the players more to reach a conclusion. Currently in USAU it is a single person opt in system. i.e. if either player requests, then the call goes to an observer ruling. I dislike this as it gives teams an option to play essentially as if they have referees (make calls and refer them all to the observer if your opponent does not “no contest” immediately). This reduces the collaboration between teams to come to the correct outcome, and puts observers in the position where they are expected to rule on events where the players have superior information. I would prefer a situation, similar to what Benji is suggesting, but where if both players agreed, there was the option to go to the observer ruling (if they didn’t, then it would be a contest and the disc would go back). I would also like to see observers only make rulings in cases where they are fairly certain. It felt like a number of the rulings were made against “weak” foul calls (which was at least consistent but not necessarily correct). Where the observer was not sure I would rather see the call “contested” and returned to the previous thrower, than an arbitrary decision made by a neutral. This did actually occur in one of our games where the observers had a poor perspective on the play and sent the disc back but it seemed to be the exception rather than the norm.


  12. This is interesting. I like the idea of the powerless official because of increase in information.

    I personally love having on-field discussions, partially because I’m getting old and could always use the break, but partially because I like to hear other opinions on what happened. What we as individual players know, based on sight and feeling (Hearing? Smell? Taste? Taste. Now that’s ultimate.), is limited. I like to know what my opponent saw, heard and tasted (maybe?). An additional observer to help by providing their information would only help to illuminate us.

    I like the idea. But I’m kinda off.


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