What makes us unique?

iStock_000011778638XSmallHow 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…

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10 Responses to What makes us unique?

  1. Pingback: ‘Powerless’ Observers | Understanding Ultimate

  2. Harry says:

    Interesting points Benji, although I disagree with your headline question “what makes us unique?”
    It’s a nice headline, but the article is wrong. Ultimate is unique because it is played with a disc rather than a ball, and the flight path of discs opens up more opportunities for variation in play (and more spectacular layout bids).

    “Spirit of the game” is unique to ultimate only as part of a high level competition. If you’ve ever played football in the park with friends, you probably didn’t have a referee, and the game probably worked. (note: if someone wanted to ruin it, they could, they just need to pick up the ball.)
    Furthermore, the recent tournaments have shown us that “spirit of the game” is not enough for high level competition. When it really matters, when you’ve trained for a year (or more!), paid thousands of pounds, and medals are on the line, it doesn’t work. It’s not enough. It doesn’t keep the game moving.

    This was taken from the comments section here: http://ultiworld.com/2013/08/08/an-open-letter-to-wfdf-its-time-for-observers/
    “The double game point [against Chinese Taipei] lasted 32 minutes. It wasn’t tiring because there was a discussion of about 30 seconds to a minute very frequently.” Jonno Saunders (GB u23 mixed)
    That doesn’t sound like much fun to play or watch. It sounds less like Ultimate than the “pro” ultimate with refs.

    Examples like that are getting MORE common. As events are taken more seriously, as more time is put into preparing for a tournament, as more people in general play the sport, and critically as games get closer, it’ll only happen more often.
    Changing the top though doesn’t need to change the bottom. I can still play tennis with a friend at my local court, even though it doesn’t have hawk eye. I can play football without the 6 referees that UEFA uses, or cricket without an umpire. Ultimate works well as a sport and it’ll continue to work as a self-officiated sport just fine, no matter what changes are made at the very top of the game.

    And despite any changes with the way officiation works at the top of the sport, Ultimate will still be unique.


  3. Hi Harry,
    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I’m not sure I agree though – there are hundreds of sports out there with similar levels of ‘uniqueness’ to ultimate in terms of how they’re played. If you go to the IOC and say, ‘Look, ours is the only sport where we fire water-pistols from gliders at unwed teenage mothers!’ then you’ll no doubt get an interesting response. Yes, frisbees are cool if you throw frisbees, but despite what we’d all like to think, they’re not enough to really capture the imagination of the wider public or the major international bodies.

    Self-officiation is. I’m not sure how the IOC is feeling now after some of the issues at World Games, but in the past they’ve been incredibly positive about self-officiation, and it was the major thing that was getting their attention.

    Clearly some things are failing in *some* international games, and we need to think about that (see my other post today). But whether we agree or disagree about other ways in which ultimate is unique, high-level self-officiation is certainly a headline-grabbing bonus, however you look at it.

    And yes, I do believe that changing the top changes the bottom. Your tennis example – I can indeed play tennis against you and we’ll play fairly, but if we had a match against strangers, against another university maybe, would we need Umpires? Yes, we would, because we don’t have that social trust that we would have when playing each other. By analogy, every Ultimate tournament would need observers. [I’m not suggesting that that would happen straight away, or possibly ever – just that your tennis analogy doesn’t cut the mustard for me. When was the last time you played football or cricket – against a team of strangers – without a referee or umpire?]

    Also – I’ll be expecting some of these ‘spectacular layout bids’ at Nationals… I’m going to throw all sorts of rubbish at you now!
    See you there,


    • Harry says:

      Yes, I see your point there. A WORKING system of self officiation at the highest level makes us different to almost all other sports, and I can see that appealing to people like the IOC. That’s great but it has to work – and right now, at international level, it isn’t.

      I think the very first question when discussing changes to the rules of ultimate would be: Who are we trying to make Ultimate appeal too most?
      Is it the players?
      Is it the fans?
      Is it the IOC?
      Is it someone else?

      For each group there will be things that can be changed about the sport that make it more appealing to some groups, and simultaneously less appealing to one or more of the other groups.
      Personally, I’d like to think that if the game works for the players, it’ll be appealing to fans – and therefore appealing to international bodies like the IOC who want to market it. If it isn’t fun to play, it’ll be worse to watch and no-one will be interested in putting money in to help develop the sport further. In my opinion, the proportion of games from u23 worlds and the world games that were unwatchable and looked close to unplayable was way too high.

      That’s not to say a fully self-officiating system can’t work. In my (limited) experience of Ultimate in the UK, self-officiating DOES work. Games in A tour are generally more physical than games in C tour, but in each division, the players are by and large consistent and the games don’t turn into rules debates.
      But you’d expect (or at least hope) that that would be the case. The UK ultimate community is small, everyone speaks the same language, and you play broadly the same teams and players three or four times a year.
      Take it to an international level however, where you play the same players once every 4 years, each team speaks a different language, and has a different interpretation on what level of physicality is acceptable, and how to apply the rules and suddenly you have a system that breaks down. It would be a mistake to assume this year was just a one off, and that it’ll just get better on its own – as games get closer and more is on the line, it will get worse.

      I haven’t thought too much about alternatives to the system (hence I replied to this article, not the other one), however there is one area I would comment on: Every player is a referee. But what qualification do they have? There’s now a (fairly straightforward) WFDF rules quiz, but that simply doesn’t compare to the 6-8 week course culminating in a 90 minute written exam and 6 “probationary matches” that I went through to become a football referee.
      Going back to tennis, BUCS matches do NOT have umpires and Wikipedia also tells me “In most professional play and some amateur competition, there is an officiating head judge or chair umpire”. Suggesting even at a professional level, they rely on self officiation – so I’ll stick with my analogy. 🙂

      (P.S. when have you ever NOT thrown rubbish at me? That’s why ultimate is unique. Even an old man like you can throw the length of a pitch, and even someone like me can do stuff that looks spectacular)


  4. Peter says:

    I have been playing ultimate since 1979. Unfortunately, I have to disagree with you: SOTG is not unique to ultimate. SOTG is, simply put, playing fairly. Whether it’s chess, pickup basketball against strangers, or a tennis match with a friend, you either play fairly or you don’t — there is no video, no fans, no glory beyond the stories at days end. Now, in the absence of a third party, it is easier to not play fair, and therein lies the rub. And, I agree with you that the Ultimate community’s focus on SOTG has done an admirable job of advocating for fair play & a sense of personal responsibility. I don’t think we have to sacrifice that by adopting game officials. A third party official, whether a ref or an observer or a line assistant, is present to foster fair play & spirit, not to undermine it. I have played with observers multiple times over the past 10 years. I’ve watched games with refs (& have friends who played with refs). It was still ultimate. To suggest that you can play ultimate only way, seems to me an elitist & close-minded argument.

    P.S. Watch the final point of the Windmill finals, but not for the controversial call near game’s end. Watch the pull from the German team & how far offsides players are. Watch the intentional bumps on the mark from both sides. This game & point was on video, had lots of fans, has been discussed ad nauseam — no one even mentions the small ways in which teams disregard the rules anymore. With observers present — they would not be offsides on the pull (yardage penalty), repeated marking violations can result in a TMF, and a controversial call gets a third party opinion, ONLY if one of the involved players sends it to the observers.

    P.P.S I make this last point not to pick on these two teams — this looked to be a spirited game full of great players, playing in the finals of a big time tournament, albeit with nothing but pride on the line.


    • Hi Peter,
      I guess we’ll likely never agree on this one. For me, the defining feature of SotG is that you can cheat but don’t; if you’re content with SotG being merely fair play then of course you’re entirely right in everything you say.

      But for me, the level of fair play and mutual respect in Ultimate is streets ahead of any other team sport I’ve played, and I believe this is largely because the game doesn’t work if you are prepared to cheat. That level of fair play may survive the advent of refs or observers, but I don’t see any compelling reason why it should in the longer term.


  5. Peter says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Have you ever played with observers? Were you aware that an observer can only make a decision on a foul call if one of the players involved in the call sends it to them? (i.e., they can always decide to not agree & send it back for a do-over) I strongly believe observers are especially useful for: timekeeping, limiting the length of discussions, and positioning themselves for accurate line calls. These are all huge benefits to the flow of the game.


    • I think all those benefits are important too – see my other post for a suggested solution to all those things…

      I haven’t played under observers, though I’d like to try it.

      I realise that it’s possible for the players to settle it themselves even with observers present, but then it’s not quite self-refereed (by my own narrow definition). If BOTH players had to agree to get the observer’s opinion then fair enough, but while only 1 player has to request assistance there is no necessity for players to play with spirit. The game won’t fall apart if you just keep cheating – rather, your opponent will keep asking the observer, who will overrule you. I fully agree that that’s never going to be a bad thing in the short term – playing under observers is probably great – but I understand the nervousness among many people that spirit will decline when it isn’t fundamentally necessary to playing the game. And also, taking final responsibility from the players will definitely make us less unique.

      You might argue that that ‘unique’ thing is just semantics, and really we’re still self-refereed with observers – I understand your point of view, but I’m too anal to agree. Either the players make all the decisions, or they don’t.


  6. Pingback: The Grapevine – 15/08 | Show Game

  7. Pingback: On Referees, TRGs, and WUCCs | Understanding Ultimate

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