The furore over a very dangerous bid by a Jacksonville player is very interesting. For one thing, it rather neatly emphasises (if such emphasis were ever needed) that referees do not stop appalling behaviour. We already knew that, of course…
I’d waited long enough. I f****** hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you c***. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.
That’s not to compare the Jacksonville hit with the one above – just to emphasise that referees, empowered to give out immediate on-the-spot punishments, still do not prevent the worst excesses of fired-up players.
All referees do is punish bad behaviour, which fulfils our innate desire to see justice done to those who harm us. Which makes us feel good in the short term, but there’s no way that referees will suddenly prevent these things happening. They may move things around (e.g. in soccer, deliberate fouls outside the penalty area rather than a risky tackle inside) or they may change the character of the incidents (e.g. a focus on ‘you must get the ball first’ leads to a bunch of ball-then-player deliberate collisions) – but referees and punishments do NOT stop foul play. They can’t; there are too many ways to cheat, and too many times where the punishment is worth it.
That’s not to say that self-officiation stops cheating either. [It does a much better job than many people think, in particular because it is able to put some pressure on ALL kinds of cheating, including things that a third-party referee could never reliably see. But for sure, it doesn’t prevent cheating.]
What this Jacksonville incident does provide is a strong riposte to those who say that referees will prevent severe transgressions of the rules. No system of officiation can do that.
Jacksonville has received multiple ejections previously – at one point (according to twitter) they had a player ejected in three consecutive games. Roy Keane had been sent off three times previously by the same referee! Punishment DOES NOT WORK in anything like the way people expect it to. It has some effects, which are hard to predict, and it will change some behaviour, but it certainly won’t eradicate cheating, or aggression, or bad sportsmanship – it will merely make them look different.
And in this case, it isn’t even doing that – it’s a flat-out dangerous bid of exactly the kind that the threat of ejection is supposed to prevent.¹
If you believe referees are needed to speed up the game, then I respectfully disagree about whether that is necessary. But if you believe they will clean up the worst excesses of a few idiots, then you are just plain wrong. It will not work.
Some people have no self-control, whatever the system of officiation. The answer is not to create a system that inherently removes responsibility from the players – that system will in my opinion lead to more, not fewer, people who cross the line. Telling people that self-control is not important, that someone else will make the decisions for you, is asking for trouble.² But whether I’ve convinced you of that or not, it’s at least very clear from the Jacksonville clip that referees and punishments won’t eradicate these incidents.
The best hope we have is a system which does not punish cheats, which gives them no disincentives at all, but which makes cheating no fun; which makes cheats unable to justify their cheating. There’s no one to fool, no loopholes to exploit, no skill or glory in being the bad guy. There’s just a person or team, trusted not to cheat, who is cheating. There is a person, given full responsibility for their actions, and with no one else to blame, doing something unequivocally bad.
It happens sometimes. It will continue to happen. But don’t kid yourself that it is anything like what we will see when we give these people what they want – a system to fight against, and a well-defined punishment that they can weigh up as ‘worth it’ or ‘not worth it’ without feeling any guilt. Once the pro leagues are full of people who didn’t grow up in self-officiated ultimate, it won’t be anything like the same sport.