What We Stand To Lose – and How We Must Respond


Self-officiated ultimate is the cleanest invasion sport in the world.

I’ve never had my shirt pulled in 20 years, playing at all levels. At WUGC this year, I saw a bit of bumping, a bit of wrapping on the mark, but in the whole tournament I probably witnessed less downfield contact than at a single corner kick in football (soccer if you must).

Take a look at this video:

After all the social media outrage about Jacksonville, it’s tempting to focus on the two dangerous-looking plays. But that’s not the point. The point is to watch the endzone isolation cut at 0:13. And watch it again.

That defender is not playing ultimate. He’s playing a generic refereed sport. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself that you’ve seen that sort of grabbing and fouling a few times in self-officiated ultimate (in which case you have my pity) but it’s unequivocally the case that self-officiation does a far, far better job of policing this sort of thing than any refereed sport in the world.

Those bad bids we see in the video occur sometimes under all forms of officiation. I don’t expect to convince everyone that referees will inherently lead to more dangerous plays (though I do believe it, and I think Ben Van Heuvelen is both 100% right and a brilliant advocate). But if I can’t convince you that this sort of petty fouling will become the norm with a referee in charge, then something has gone badly wrong.

EVERY invasion sport has illegal contact downfield, and it is normal, and it is accepted, and it is lauded as ‘professional’, and it is coached. Water polo teams have wrestling competitions at practice so they have the moves needed to pull at the opponent underwater (or to not be pulled under themselves). Soccer players are applauded for their ‘strength’ when they barge someone out of the way. Skilful, fast, athletic young players are discarded because they don’t have the physical size to survive in the pro leagues of supposedly non-contact sports.

All this is inevitable. The playing experience will become just like every other invasion sport – nudging, grabbing, sledging, and petty fouls of all kinds. There is no moral brake on a team deciding to go all in on whatever they can get away with. The existence of a ruleset with a referee and punishments takes the responsibility for fair play away from the players, and gives them licence to play up to ‘what gets caught’, not ‘what is allowed’ – without feeling like cheats. And when they don’t feel like cheats, they don’t feel shame¹, and they don’t change their behaviour.

And when the opponent has no recourse to demand a change – only the referee can call a foul – the only option is to join in. To cheat back at them. As soon as one team becomes good at cheating without being seen by the officials, it is utterly inevitable that a race to the bottom will ensue.

If you like that style of play, and enjoy the ‘battle’ more than the test of skill, then I can’t really argue against you, even though I deplore your preferences. But if you don’t want the game to evolve like that, but think you can have referees to speed up the game, or to ‘prevent’ those occasional bad calls on game point (which is debatable anyway), and yet maintain a clean game in the parts of the field the referees are not directly watching, then you are living in a dream world.

It is in my opinion guaranteed that ‘pro’ ultimate will evolve (is evolving?) to have more and more downfield contact, however good the refs are. By taking away the fouled player’s ability to call that foul and stop play himself, and by handing responsibility for what constitutes cheating to a referee and not the cheater, we encourage some people to push the boundaries. And push them they will. Not everyone, not immediately, but there is no way this sport maintains its current style of play. You can already see it in this clip.


So what do we do about it? Probably not a lot, directly – it would be great in my opinion if the pro players all unionised and pushed the leagues into another officiating model, but I’m not holding my breath.

What we must do is prevent the same thing happening in un-refereed ultimate.

We have the ability to call those petty fouls, and call them we must, whenever they happen. Perhaps sometimes it’s to the disadvantage of the fouled player to make the call – well, make it anyway. It doesn’t matter if the game stops every 20 seconds and you end up needing a spirit time-out (or a long chat with the observer) to reinforce the idea that it’s a non-contact sport. It doesn’t matter if your flow is broken by having to call those fouls².

In 99.9% of cases, your current game is not worth more than the future of your sport. Maybe, at Nationals, you might selfishly feel that winning this game is more important than taking a minor stand about the level of petty fouls you will accept. But everywhere else, your small voice for the future of the sport is more important than winning this one game, and certainly more important than a potential tiny disadvantage from stopping your flow with the score at 0-0 to make sure the opponent understands you want a clean game.

The rules don’t always ensure that it’s in your short term interest to make the call. Make it anyway, in the long term interest of the game. At the very least tell the opponent, when you get a chance, that they must stop doing it³ – but then if it continues you must call it, and make clear that you will continue to call it, and that in the limit you will walk off the pitch if the opponent won’t play clean enough.

The direction of the sport is determined by what we let happen.

There is a powerful force pulling us towards the levels of contact seen in other invasion sports – those highly visible refereed games, which may be all that the guy you play against has ever seen before, will bring a whole new ethos to many new players. What happens at the most visible levels filters down, in all sports. But we differ, because we have the power to refuse to play dirty. No referee can make us get on with it if we feel lines are being crossed.

It will take mental strength to cope when they call you all sorts of names for playing to the rules. It will take mental strength to take the higher path when you know you might hurt your own competitive chances by standing up for what is right. Do it anyway. If you’re not mentally brave now, in 10 years time you might need physical bravery just to step on to an ultimate pitch.

The future of the sport is in your hands.

(Yes, that’s a pretentious and portentous final line – but it’s also more true in ultimate than in any refereed sport. Don’t forget it.)

¹ If you’ve never seen this video of The Rylands tournament – an old UK experiment in officiated ultimate – then take note. Richard ‘Gash’ Harris is one of the most spirited players I’ve met, and under this ruleset he’s cheerfully demanding his team use more of the fouls that are available to them, and that they push off on their cuts . . . The officiation system simply DOES change the way most people feel about cheating. There is no room for doubt on this point. We can tweak the system and the punishments to get some level of control of behaviour (compared to what we see here!) but we can’t change the fact that people are now looking for what they can get away with, not looking to play fair.
² You could argue that we should have harsher penalties, such that it IS worth me stopping play when I get fouled. But it won’t work – it makes it an economic decision not a moral one, and will actually INCREASE cheating. I talked about this at length before, here.
³ If there’s one thing that gets me closer to punching my opponent than anything else, it’s the response, “Well, call it then.” As if the rules are designed to punish, and I should just take my minor advantage to offset their cheating and we’ll all move on! No – the onus is unequivocally on the cheater not to cheat in the first place, and if I choose not to call it (when calling might be to my slight disadvantage) but rather ask him as we run downfield to moderate his behaviour in future, then that’s what he must do.  It’s a major failing in his understanding of the rules if he can’t see that the underlying principle is to NOT have the punishment match the crime.
But still, if he does have that misunderstanding, it’s my duty in the end to start calling it, stopping the game; to talk to his captain; to call a spirit timeout; and eventually to walk off the field. I must NOT join in and offset his cheating by cheating just as much in response – that is a selfish response that will make me feel better about this game but will hurt our sport. If you want a clean game, demand a clean game.
Advertisements
This entry was posted in General comment and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What We Stand To Lose – and How We Must Respond

  1. Bob says:

    It’s funny you should bring up shirt pulls. Was playing a few years back at Poultry Days (a “fun” tournament). I made a legal, though unusual, play to box someone out (without contact), which the other team immediately objected to as “dirty.” Their hotheaded reaction was “go ahead and try that shit on me I’ll take you down.” The next time I cut upline I was immediately arm-barred and then shirt grabbed. I’m sure these people go home and grab a beer with their buddies and talk about how spirited they are and how they got one back for that “jerk” who thought he could “pull that shit” on them. Hooray self-officiating.

    Like

    • That’s a real shame. It sounds, though, like a failure of communication that would have been better solved by a spirit time-out than by a referee – feuds happen in reffed games all the time, just as they do in any system, and this particular instance sounds like it was caused fundamentally by a lack of willingness on their part to discuss what the rule was. Stopping the game and talking it through would have been the best way to defuse that, and would have made it harder for them to continue in the same vein while feeling they were being ‘spirited’.

      On the other hand – if you’re that sure that they’re in the wrong, and you’re playing at Poultry Days, why not walk your team off the field? This isn’t life or death. Imagine the story going all around the venue, the TD getting asked about what happened, and them having to justify to their friends what they were or weren’t doing. Sure, you miss out on a game (that you’re not enjoying anyway, presumably) but you create a talking point which leads to a better sport for all of us.

      Call the fouls, ask them to stop, then try asking them to talk about it, then try to have a chat with their captain, and in the limit simply stop playing the game. If you tell them that you won’t play on until they’ve discussed it properly, then either they chat properly or they win by forfeit – and the whole tournament is talking about what happened.

      And in the limit – as much as your story isn’t great to hear – so what? You had a bad experience at one game – an experience which would be absolutely par for the course in ANY other invasion sport. Having an official there to fix that one game will lead to shirt pulling, arm blocking and all the rest of it at EVERY GAME EVER. How is that better?

      Like

  2. dusty.rhodes says:

    1. Thoughtful article, thank you for that. I like this blog!
    2. I 100% Agree that the players are in control of what happens (next).
    3. I cannot believe you’ve never had your shirt pulled in ultimate. That’s literally incredible.

    “We have the ability to call those petty fouls, and call them we must, whenever they happen. Perhaps sometimes it’s to the disadvantage of the fouled player to make the call – well, make it anyway. It doesn’t matter if the game stops every 20 seconds and you end up needing a spirit time-out (or a long chat with the observer) to reinforce the idea that it’s a non-contact sport. It doesn’t matter if your flow is broken by having to call those fouls².”

    It is actually a disadvantage to THE GAME to call those fouls. THE GAME is what we’re there to play and THE GAME is what is hurt when we imagine that every foul should be called. The rules (USAU) have no harsh punishments. Stopping the game every 20 seconds is a harsh punishment. It is engaging in brinkmanship with your opponent. It is “You fouled me, so I’m not going to play with you any longer.” It isn’t about the flow, and it isn’t about losing or winning the game, it is about making the game possible. If your opponent is a cheat, there is no need to let them ruin THE GAME. Stopping every 20 seconds is the worst.

    Every foul does not need to be called. In this scenario, what is the desired outcome? To waste as much time as possible during the allotted round/game time? To be sure that your team is comprised of the most irritating officials? To walk away and not-play rather than stay and play?

    “In 99.9% of cases, your current game is not worth more than the future of your sport. Maybe, at Nationals, you might selfishly feel that winning this game is more important than taking a minor stand about the level of petty fouls you will accept. But everywhere else, your small voice for the future of the sport is more important than winning this one game, and certainly more important than a potential tiny disadvantage from stopping your flow with the score at 0-0 to make sure the opponent understands you want a clean game.”

    It is NOT about winning the game versus the future of the sport. It is about playing the game and the sport rather than not-playing the game/sport. It is more important to walk through the fire of your opponent blatantly abusing the system than it is to call them on it every single time and ruin it for all involved. Losing a game to a cheater happens in sports as in life. Playing against cheaters happens in sport as in life. Stopping the game to bitch about every single time you were wronged is something ultimate seems to take pride in.

    How do we make the sport happen? How do we protect all participants?

    These are the questions an official asks. We, in self-officiated ultimate, tend to imagine that what is good for the player is good for the official is good for the game is good for the future of the sport. No. Just… No. The self-importance of ultimate players who are fouled to demand that that every single wrong requires a stoppage of play, a calling out of the fouler, and a reset of the game has always been sickening.

    Sometimes you just gotta play through it in life and in sports.

    If we were better officials, we would demand this of ourselves as players.

    “If you want a clean game, demand a clean game.”

    How about “If you want a clean game, play a clean game.” Or “If you want a clean game, have an meeting of officials before the game starts.”

    “If there’s one thing that gets me closer to punching my opponent than anything else, it’s the response, ‘Well, call it then.'”

    100000000% Agree with this. I do not want to make any calls. I want to get the game under control w/o making any calls ever. However, this is a perfect example of the way that ultimate players do not grasp the fundamental nature of how to play the role of an official. Officials in all sports give warnings to players without necessarily calling everything. Watch soccer and basketball for prime examples of this in nearly every single game. The problem in ultimate is often that one player-official is attempting to address another player-official in a standard Official to Player interaction, but the second Player-Official responds as a churlish player rather than as a calm official.

    That is, the player-official who responds “Well call it then” is abdicating their role as an official. For some reason, at that moment, they are not addressing a fellow official. A ref or an observer or a game advisor would never respond to another official that way! It is contrary to the purposes of the job! Later on in the game, of course, if the player-official who has previously abdicated the “official” role is fouled, they will step right back in and put the official hat back on.

    We’ve got a player-official system in which 95% of the time the player-officials train, they train as players. They spend 5% (give or take depending on individual, of course) of the time training as officials. How the heck do we expect this to work?? When was the last time you had an official’s meeting before a game? When was the last time you and your opponent met before the game to talk about potential trouble spots as officials? Potential trouble players? To talk about what type of game you want to call? To talk about how you’re all going to back each other up on tough calls and come to a common agreement? To discuss what sort of calls we all want to let go and what sort of calls need to be reined in early?

    The problem isn’t that self-officiation doesn’t work, the problem is that we’ve never really committed to the training and dedication required to be player-officials. We all want to play the game. How many of us would ever choose to be an official (ref, observer, game advisor) for a game? How many of us study the rule book? How many of us sprint into the best position to make calls?

    I am not anti-self-officiation. But nothing about “make every call” is a positive direction for self-officiation. Have you ever seen a game of any sport where the officials decide to make every call? They are among the worst games to watch or play in. Ultimate is no exception to this.

    All that said, if your opponent is a habitual linestepper… you are well within your rights to refuse to play the game with them as they are already in breach of the contract which creates the game. I do, however, find it a mighty small and thin-skinned response.

    Finally:

    “That defender is not playing ultimate. He’s playing a generic refereed sport. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself that you’ve seen that sort of grabbing and fouling a few times in self-officiated ultimate (in which case you have my pity) but it’s unequivocally the case that self-officiation does a far, far better job of policing this sort of thing than any refereed sport in the world.”

    It is not self-officiation that polices “this sort of thing”. It is the culture of ultimate. Those who believe the culture of ultimate (NOT-cheating as a default setting) cannot survive a shift from self-officiation to third-party officiation miss the whole point. Don’t restrict your not-cheating to ultimate. Expand it to the rest of your life. If the only thing that makes you not-cheat is the ability of more people to call you on it, you’re a mere opportunist.

    The biggest test of not-cheating as an ethos is to not-cheat when literally no one is watching. If fail that test the moment we step away from a self-officiated sport, what is the point? Up in the same category is to not flip out and take your frisbee and go home when other people do not ascribe to your version of the world. That’s cowardice. Stand tall, be you, weatehr the storm. Fight the good fight rather than run.

    We’re not talking about life and death here, we’re talking about ultimate. Stand tall for your standards rather than run for the hills when some folks who do not understand (or do not care to) come into your purview.

    “in 10 years time you might need physical bravery just to step on to an ultimate pitch.”

    If you lack physical bravery, you should not step onto the field for any sport. You ever sign a USAU waiver? Did you read the parts (plural) where it mentions death?

    Here ya go (from http://www.usaultimate.org/assets/1/Page/2016_Waiver_2.19.16.pdf ):

    “2. I acknowledge & fully understand that each participant will be engaging in activities that involve risk of serious injury including traumatic brain injury, permanent disability & death, & severe social & economic losses which may result not only from their own actions, inactions or negligence but the action, inaction or negligence of others, the rules of play, or the condition of the premises or of any equipment used. Further, I accept personal responsibility for the damages following such injury including traumatic brain injury, permanent disability or death.”

    We would all be wise to meditate on our demise before we step on the field of play. It takes either physical bravery or ignorance to play ultimate.

    Apologies if this is poorly edited or rough around the edges. It would be shorter if I had the time. I mean to stir conversation and discussion, not to insult but without an editor… I do not always achieve those goals.

    Like

    • Don’t worry Dusty, I’m well aware of your ability to be accidentally insulting in hasty comments – and I certainly suffer from it myself. 🙂 This is about as polite as I’ve ever seen you!

      I’m not sure I can respond to that whole essay, but there is a fundamental point where we hugely disagree (I always enjoy what you write, and I almost always disagree!).

      “It is actually a disadvantage to THE GAME to call those fouls. THE GAME is what we’re there to play and THE GAME is what is hurt when we imagine that every foul should be called. The rules (USAU) have no harsh punishments. Stopping the game every 20 seconds is a harsh punishment. It is engaging in brinkmanship with your opponent. It is “You fouled me, so I’m not going to play with you any longer.” It isn’t about the flow, and it isn’t about losing or winning the game, it is about making the game possible. If your opponent is a cheat, there is no need to let them ruin THE GAME. Stopping every 20 seconds is the worst.”

      I see a very clear distinction between ‘THIS game’ and ‘THE game’. This game is obviously not helped by me calling all these fouls, and we’d be better off just playing through it. THE game – every other game this opponent plays, every other game I play in the future in the sport I dedicated most of my free time and even my career to – is made worse if we don’t look to stop cheating when it happens. Playing through cheating encourages that opponent to continue cheating. For me, that’s just unarguable.

      It might be that in practice the reason I won’t accept a cheating opponent is because it riles me and I’m unable to rise above it – but when I sit back afterwards and think about whether I really believe I should call those fouls, I come to the same conclusion. When we let people get away with things, they become the norm. Perhaps they’re already the norm in parts of the US – certainly all those people who can’t believe I’ve not been pulled back in all these years playing the game appear to be playing in a culture I’m largely unfamiliar with – but given that I very much enjoy playing a clean game I’m certainly going to keep calling those fouls in the VERY few games where the opponent is pushing the boundaries.

      Obviously if you’re playing in a culture where almost every game is full of petty fouls, it’s less easy to make that argument. You’ll have no fun because every game becomes a call-fest. At that point, perhaps fair enough – it’s too late for your calls to make any difference and you won’t get to play much ultimate – but it would have been fixed if more people had taken a stand earlier.

      There is every need to let the opponent ruin THIS game with their cheating, specifically so that they don’t ruin THE game.

      —————————————————————–
      “It is NOT about winning the game versus the future of the sport. It is about playing the game and the sport rather than not-playing the game/sport.”

      For me, it is about playing THIS game (or not playing it, as the case may be) versus perhaps never being able to play it again. My enjoyment of the game is inextricably linked to the style of play – it’s not just fun because we’re chasing a piece of floating plastic; it’s fun because we’re all doing so relatively cleanly, in a way that I simply never find in other invasion sports, and certainly not at the highest level.

      It’s playing a stop-start game today so that I’m more likely to be able to play properly tomorrow, versus playing through cheating so that I can continue to play through cheating tomorrow. Easy choice for me.

      Like

  3. Mike Palmer says:

    I was at EUC last year. No observers of Game Advisors. Very few bad spirited or long calls. The Finnish mixed team acknowledged a close to the grass catch that they could have contested to give the universe point goal that knocked them out of the tourniment.

    Do you think having observers has taken responsibility for the game away from the players and contributed to the pushing the rules culture in the US and Canada?

    Like

    • Hi Mike!

      Honestly? I do think that, though I hesitate to say it as it’s not something I can back up with data, and it’s likely to lead the discussion in another direction. I do think there has been a small element of that happening – but nothing compared to what we’ll see as kids grow up watching the AUDL.

      Like

Join the discussion...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s