Did that title get your attention? I thought it might. Cash prizes are great, and we often can’t avoid checking out what it would take to win one.
But I strongly oppose cash prizes in Ultimate. I think they’re misguided, dangerous, short-sighted… and anathema to the spirit of the game. I understand the temptation, and I can’t blame anyone for wanting to play in a tournament with a cash prize attached, but we should try to consider what will happen in the longer term.
Ultimate works on the principle that we value our reputation. There is no punishment for cheating, and the only thing that we lose by cheating is respect – either self-respect or the respect of the community. But the only thing we gain by winning is respect – from the community or from ourselves – and so what would be the point of cheating to win?
We could all of us, if we wanted, win any game just by calling made-up fouls on every opposition point (though in practice that strategy might result in a fistfight rather than a win) and there’s nothing anyone could do to overrule us*. But our prize for winning – the respect of the community – has become worthless.
But cash prizes? Now that’s a whole new scenario. Cash is intrinsically valuable. It doesn’t matter where it came from or how you earned it; it doesn’t matter whether others believe you deserve it or not. It has inherent value. Lots of people are prepared to make themselves unpopular for cash.
And I’m not just talking about a team making a rational, conscious decision to cheat their way to a cash prize. It needn’t be so clear cut as that; the mere existence of that cash prize brings economics into the equation, even subconsciously, and undermines the social contract on which the game is based.
If an opponent calls you a cheat, and you’re able to wave a couple of hundred dollars under their nose in response, you probably find it very easy to rationalise your poor behaviour and maintain your self-image – not a cheat, but a smart, streetwise guy who made some cash at the expense of those moralistic chumps.
Similarly, if an opponent cheats you with no cash on the line, it’s hard enough to remind yourself that winning without respect is meaningless. But if his cheating steals money from you, isn’t it even harder? Wouldn’t you always join in, and stoop to his level, to prevent him cheating you of the prize? I think I would.
When the prizes get big enough, in a few year’s time, self-refereeing will be impossible. There may be some sham version of it where players are able to make some calls against themselves, as in cricket (or as in the pro leagues), but there must be rules in place to control that guy who’s three months behind on his mortgage payments and needs the cash. The basic concept that cheating can go unpunished, that we need only ‘play a let’ and get on with the game, cannot survive.
Perhaps observers will be enough to control things, but with serious cash on the line I guarantee that I personally would be pushing every boundary, contesting every call, diving when not fouled, and making the observer a referee in all but name. Self-refereeing cannot survive life-changing sums of money, in my opinion.
I’m not against prizes in Ultimate – but I believe strongly that wherever possible those prizes should be rooted firmly in the Ultimate community, and be dependent on maintaining reputation in order to have any worth.
For example, you might win $2,000 worth of Ultimate kit – but that only has value if you can take some pride in wearing it. If everyone knows you cheated to win it, it’s less attractive.
Similarly, a tournament might offer to pay your team’s air fare to come again next year – which could be a seriously valuable prize, but is only worth something if you’ll enjoy playing next year, if you enjoy being part of the Ultimate community.
Tournaments that offer cash prizes are in some small way making a statement about how the game should be played; that referees, or at least observers, are inevitable. That might be right of course – perhaps full self-refereeing cannot survive even without cash prizes as the sport grows.
If you believe in observers or referees, then of course there’s no real issue, and I’m not trying to tell you what to believe in that regard. But at some point someone will run a tournament under WFDF rules with a meaningful cash prize – and by choosing to play in such a tournament, you are inevitably taking sides in the officiation debate. If you don’t want to see external officiation then it will be worth thinking about your choices.
I have no issue with players being paid to play – I think that’s great. I’d love lots of people to make a living playing Ultimate. (I’d love it even more if some guys were sponsored by large companies on the basis of their excellent spirit – and the way it reflected on the brand – as well as their skill.)
But being paid to win? Not without referees.