In most sports, there’s a very clear distinction between cheating and match-fixing. Deliberate foul play to prevent a certain score may anger the opposition fans, but the home fans will use words like ‘pragmatic’ or ‘professional’. A player who dives to win a penalty in a big game is unlikely to feel guilty about it 30 years later.
But match-fixing – illegally influencing an official – is a big taboo. Punishments for interfering with the referee’s impartiality are often severe. People go to prison. And sportspeople – even those who would happily cheat on the pitch – would take little joy from winning a trophy through biassed officiating.
And losing that way? 30 years after Nottingham Forest were outrageously dumped out of a major European semi-final, some players are nowhere near getting over it.
Of course, match-fixing still happens, because of the money involved. But footballers don’t fix matches because they want to feel the pride of winning a trophy. And in Ultimate, the trophy is all there is – there isn’t a sufficient monetary incentive to cheat. If you aren’t going to be proud of winning, then there’s little point turning up.
There’s a skill in cheating an impartial referee, such that players can sometimes be proud of winning ugly. But there’s no pride in winning with a loaded dice. You might, I suppose, take some pride in how clever your match-fixing scheme was, and you’ll doubtless enjoy any financial rewards, but you can’t take pride in winning the match. In Ultimate, with no skill required to cheat, and no financial incentive, fixing a match for personal satisfaction would be just about pointless.
All of us expect the game to be settled by our skills, on a level playing field. Those skills might include some less attractive traits, but the point is that both sides have the same opportunities, and play under the same conditions.
High-level teams will often allow a certain amount of bumping or foul play, and that’s generally OK (well, I don’t love it personally, but you know what I mean) as long as both sides are on the same page. There’s some agreement on what is acceptable and what is not, and the game is essentially ‘fair’ even if not always to the letter of the rules.
But what if you’re the kind of player who is prepared to push the boundaries, yet not prepared to have the opponent do the same? If you constantly foul on the mark (and contest when it’s called) but also constantly call it when on offence, isn’t that more like match-fixing than cheating?
YOU are the referee, and you’re applying the rules differently to one team than the other. That’s pretty much the definition of a rigged game. Can you really feel any pride in what you’ve achieved?
The same sort of thing applies to instances of deliberate foul play, above and beyond whatever ‘gentleman’s agreement’ you might have with the opponent. Instead of just a player committing a ‘professional foul’, imagine the referee in another sport deliberately tripping someone in the act of scoring! And yet, in your dual role as player and referee, you’re prepared to take out the guy who’s about to release a huck? Have a word with yourself…
Treating both teams the same is an inherent part of being a referee. If you believe in your responsibilities as a referee as well as a player – and don’t get me wrong, I know some people don’t – then there’s no good excuse for doing anything outside the mutually agreed norms of the game.
If you make bad calls or bad plays because you can’t control your emotions in the heat of the moment, that’s a pity. But far worse, if you deliberately cheat from a position of responsibility – and then feel proud about winning – you probably need to think a little harder about what sport is, and what winning really means.