Before 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).
- 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.