On Jacksonville and Serious Foul Play

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.


¹ And it isn’t even drawing an apology from the organisation involved. If an apology does end up coming out, or if Jacksonville do now change their behaviour, then it will be due to good old-fashioned peer pressure and community outrage – enforcement agents from the world of self-officiation.
² An argument you hear sometimes – ‘Won’t it be great when I can just focus on playing the game and not my additional responsibility to ref myself?’
I have to ask – what do you think will happen to your self-control when you’re not obliged to maintain it? When the definition of poor play is not your intention to make or avoid contact but how it looks to a third party? That responsibility you find so distracting is fundamentally a restraint on your worst behaviour. Taking responsibility away from people is a sure way to get them to behave worse – ask any teacher or coach or parent.
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4 Responses to On Jacksonville and Serious Foul Play

  1. njyo says:

    So far, so good. I agree with everything written above.

    In my opinion the dilemma comes once we move out of the amateur sport (Olympics) I’d like to hear your thoughts on that:

    Becoming Olympic raises the (financial) gain in the sport. Winning games suddenly will become more lucrative and as such it does the opposite of disincentivising cheating.
    I see no way how our self-refereed culture can survive such an increased potential gain. At least not in the long term.

    Personally, I therefore have concluded that I rather maintain the status quo and skip Ultimate being Olympic than abandoning a cornerstone of the sport. What do you think, Benji?



    • Honestly I don’t know. I would like to think that if we got there in the right way – sustainable growth, maintaining our culture throughout, trusting the NGBs not to pick players who weren’t going to represent the sport well, hopefully picking up sponsorship that was based on our values (companies looking to be associated with fair play) – then we stand a chance. I think all of the countries who have a realistic chance of winning a gold medal also have a long-established NGB who would want to win in the right way.

      I think the player who takes back a call that could have won them gold, who stands in front of the press and says ‘I did the right thing’, will get more fame, more sponsorship, more everything than the player who cheats to win a gold.

      But for sure there are risks. If the sport suddenly balloons such that we don’t have enough coaches to instil our values in new players, and everyone grows up seeing a refereed sport, then it will be much much harder.

      Liked by 1 person

      • njyo says:

        Yeah, I share your hope that this will go well if we instill the right values. I guess I’m just a bit too much of a curmudgeon based on seeing many of these discussions going the wrong way (to refs and taking responsibility from players). Anyway, I agree and hope we can work into the direction to uphold what makes this sport special. 🙂


  2. Jaimie X says:

    The other part of this is the fact that the organisation (in this case the Cannons) overrides any personal responsibility the player has by being in control of the statements regarding this incident. No chance for the player to say a) sorry or b) on reflection I made a mistake. And if you think differently, look up what happened to Muffin when he suggested in public that the new discs might not be very good.


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