Charlie Eisenhood over at Ultiworld has posted just recently about his proposed solution to dangerous play, which is basically better enforcement and stricter punishments – the traditional response seen in all other sports.
I’ve argued in the past many times that that won’t work as well as he expects, as evidenced by the continued existence of appalling behaviour in all those other sports. Closer to home, we see the recent Jacksonville furore, where a team that had already received a raft of previous ejections continued to play dangerously.
Taking responsibility away from players, and setting a baseline for ejections which implies ‘anything less than this is OK’, will lead to more, not less, dangerous play in my opinion. But even if you don’t agree with that, you have to accept that punishment is not some panacea that will completely prevent these incidents. Anyway, I’ve already written about that stuff a lot.
So let’s go a bit deeper into the reasons for all these dangerous plays. I think it’s pretty evident that over-physical play is a significantly bigger problem in North America than in most of the rest of the world. Of course, I may feel that way just because that’s where all the footage comes from, so it seems worse; but it also seems very much the majority opinion of those I speak to who have played in both North America and the rest of the world.
There are in fact two very relevant differences in USAU rules compared to WFDF which I believe affect this problem.
- Contact after the outcome of the play is decided is not a receiving foul under USAU, as long as it’s not dangerous. In WFDF, contact that is related to getting the block – even if it happens after knocking the disc away, and isn’t dangerous – can be a foul, and can result in the play being negated.¹
- ‘Dangerous play’ calls require contact in USAU, whereas under WFDF I can pull out completely when I see someone about to truck me.²
In WFDF, if you can’t get the block without initiating contact, even relatively minor contact, then you can’t get the block. This sets a very low threshold. In order to make a really dangerous bid, I would have to be way, way beyond what the rules would consider an allowable play.
Under USAU (and, I suspect, the pro leagues even more so) I’m allowed to contact someone after getting the disc, as long as it’s not dangerous. This means that the difference between an allowable play and a shocking bid is potentially tiny – I don’t have to miss my allowable play by a very wide margin to absolutely truck someone. I was going to contact them even if my bid had gone exactly as planned – and when I contact them a bit harder, suddenly someone is in hospital.
This difference will clearly affect the mindset of the players. It’s a split second decision to bid or to not bid, and no one thinks it through consciously – but if at the back of your mind you know this is a non-contact sport and you have no right to initiate contact, even if you get the disc first, that will affect your behaviour. Over years of playing, your standards will be set such that you very, very rarely come close to a dangerous bid.
But if some contact is allowable as long as you get the disc first, then that’s a different game.
When Charlie states that “…calling ultimate “non-contact” has long been a misnomer (like it is in basketball)…” he’s saying something which makes no sense at all under WFDF rules (though I’d probably dispute it even under USAU).
Under WFDF, you simply cannot initiate contact – end of story. It doesn’t matter if you got the disc first or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s dangerous or not. Contact must be both accidental and fully incidental³ – not just that it didn’t affect the play because the play was already resolved, but that I can’t make a play at all if meaningful contact will result from that, even after the play is made.
Some of you will be thinking what a ‘soft’ set of rules this is – too much protection for the player who has position, such that we won’t ever get to really compete physically with our opponent. If you like an aggressive, contact-y game, then of course it will seem that way.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that it is also an immensely strong lever to reduce dangerous play. The size of the gap between ‘allowable’ and ‘disgraceful’ is a key factor in how often the one turns into the other.
So the question is – when you say you’re against the kinds of dangerous plays we’ve been seeing, do you really mean it? Would you lobby your governing body to change the rules in a way which actually would reduce the frequency of these incidents? Are you prepared to get rid of some currently-legal-under-USAU physicality in order to reduce the number of really dangerous plays?
You can guess my answer, as I’ve always been a proponent of ultimate as a game of skill not of bravery; you might think differently. But do at least consider the trade-off that is being made when USAU allows contact after the play, and decide if you think it’s worth it.
And, if you’re playing elsewhere in the world, take note of this difference and don’t assume that what you might see in highlight reels applies everywhere.