How does Ultimate’s Spirit of the Game differ from the spirit of golf or the spirit of cricket? Both these sports have a strong tradition of sportsmanship and fair play; golfers call penalties on themselves, and cricketers decide not to benefit from an opponent’s confusion.
But can you play these sports without spirit? Well, yes. The game wouldn’t cease to work. There’d still be a game, and there’d still be a winner, and it probably wouldn’t even make much of a difference most of the time.
In Ultimate (without observers), that’s not the case. If either or both teams turned up, hell-bent on winning at all costs and with no regard for the rules, then the game would simply cease to function. That’s what spirit of the game is about. It specifically means that you have the option to cheat as much as you like, with no penalty and no-one to overrule you, yet you don’t.
This is where we fundamentally differ from other sports. Spirit is not something nice that makes the game more pleasant and gentlemanly; it is utterly fundamental to being able to play at all.
When observers have the power to settle disputes, this difference is lost. We may now behave properly because we’re nice people, or because we’ve grown up in that culture, but it is no longer necessary to be spirited in order for the game to work. I can deny even the most blatant and repeated fouls, and the observer’s decision will allow the game to continue.
This is one of the core points in the debate about observers – lots of intelligent, thoughtful people think it doesn’t matter how necessary spirit is because our culture is so strong, and lots of intelligent, thoughtful people cannot imagine why our community will still be spirited 20 years from now if we don’t need to be.
I’m not really wanting to enter an argument today about whether such unpleasant teams are more or less likely to exist in one system or the other; it’s very possible that we really do need referees, or at least observers with the power to control and eject players. What I’m saying is that we lose our uniqueness when we have to take that step.
Take a look at rule 27 from the laws of cricket:
“Neither umpire shall give a batsman out, even though he may be out under the Laws, unless appealed to by a fielder.”
Sounds a lot like an observer, right? The umpire makes some active line-calls (e.g. whether the delivery is too wide to hit, or whether the bowler overstepped the line), but he can’t actually give the batsman out unless asked his opinion. And under the rules of cricket, if he’s less than certain then the batsman gets the benefit of the doubt – just as the offence retains possession in observed Ultimate.
We’re not the only sport where players can make their own decisions. We’re not the only sport with a culture of fair play. But we are the only sport I know of where, at the very highest international level, the players retain full responsibility.
We’re unique only because cheats can prosper in Ultimate. With observers, the difference between Ultimate and other sports is only a matter of degree, rather than of fundamental philosophy.
Lots of us might not like relying on spirit, for various perfectly sound reasons. Lots of us might think it’s unworkable in the longer term, with Olympic medals and meaningful cash prizes up for grabs. But it is undoubtedly a unique selling point of Ultimate as a sport.
That’s not to say that things are perfect the way they are. Please read the companion piece to this post for a suggestion about how to maintain our uniqueness and solve some of our problems…