Dangerous Bids – USAU vs WFDF Rules

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.

  1. 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
  2. ‘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.

¹ An example to make the difference clear. A defender bids such that they can’t avoid an opponent, gets a clean D, and then knocks the opponent off balance such that they can’t set a force. Under USAU, it’s potentially a foul but it doesn’t affect possession; there may be  a stoppage to let the fouled player recover position, but the block stands. In WFDF, that is a receiving foul and the turnover doesn’t stand.
From the WFDF interpretations (17.5):
“Non incidental contact that occurs directly after the attempt at the disc (i.e. a
defender catches the disc and then collides with an offence player) is considered to
have occurred during the attempt at the disc.”
From the USAU rules (XVI C 3 annotations):
“Contact that occurs after the outcome of the play is determined cannot affect the play. For example, if a defender catches a disc before bumping into the receiver and knocking him over, that contact did not affect the play and the turnover will stand.”

² What’s more, the WFDF interpretations make clear that one good reason for believing an opponent will not avoid contact is a previous history of that player not avoiding contact. So if you make enough shocking bids, it will eventually entitle your opponent to pull out and call dangerous play whenever you remotely look like you’re about to take off dangerously –  now that’s a way to reduce the number of actual collisions.

³ Or, for completeness, caused simultaneously by two players, neither of whom has position, moving to the same space at the same time.
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6 Responses to Dangerous Bids – USAU vs WFDF Rules

  1. Harry says:

    The amount of contact allowed (or not) has been something I’ve had to consider a lot recently. I recent high level mixed game ended up with someone knocking me to the ground to get a bid, and the opposition being surprised I felt I could call a foul. The quote “You have to come to expect contact like this at high level” was used.

    It is always very disappointing/disheartening when a bid is called back due to contact. Particularly if the level is very low. Ultimate is different from full non-contact sports (when a bunch of us tried Korfball, for instance, they were shocked at the level we called non-contact). What level we as a sport choose is no easy matter.

    I found it very interesting watching GB mixed recently that a player like Beaven takes/gives a lot of contact, and is very exciting to watch too. However, it was a level of contact beyond what I would be comfortable with. It’s a discussion that needs to be had, especially considering that every open/men’s team I play for seems to be trying to teach me to use more contact in the game. I actually think, from a defence/positioning context (especially from stationary) it’s not that dangerous. Only with momentum does contact actually cause injuries. However, drawing that line may not be possible.


  2. Séamus says:

    Thanks for that. it’s enlightening! I didn’t realise the rules sets were so explicitly different on this point.

    Maybe it explains some occasional rule confusion in this area…(in games under WFDF rules at least).

    Considering that so much of the highest level play available on video is from North America, do you think differences in physicality can be mistakenly attributed solely to differences in playing level? (Rather than this rules difference?)


  3. The rules committee intend to make the difference clearer in the next edition I believe. We are looking to align as closely as possible with USAU where there is no philosophical difference – there’s no point having completely different wording just for the sake of it – but where there is a definite philosophical difference, as here, it should be made clear.

    On the other bit – I don’t know.


  4. mkt42 says:

    Excellent post. This is exactly what Spirit of the Game is about; self-officiation including self-control instead of dangerous plays.


  5. Thanks for putting this out in the open again. Your previous article was also dead on: https://understandingultimate.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/sotg-morality-and-economics/


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