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.)