On Referees, TRGs, and WUCCs

You’re probably thinking by now that I’ve said all I can possibly say about the nuances of the various officiating systems. I do tend to go on about it a bit¹.

But here we go again…

Is there any meaningful difference between a referee handing out punishments during a game, and a group of officials meeting afterwards to discuss retroactive sanctions?

Obviously, there’s one good argument in favour of in-game punishment – you take the perpetrator out of the game, or you slant the game in favour of the opponent as a punishment for whatever poor behaviour you are dealing with. If you’re interested in punishment and deterrence, then that all makes sense.

In ultimate, though, the rules are generally NOT looking to punish, but rather to make people take responsibility for their own actions. Today’s article is about how that impacts our preferences between immediate or delayed intervention.



In my opinion, WUCCs this summer will be a major test for the Game Adviser² program. Compared to the national teams at most WFDF events, these club teams have had longer to become accustomed to a toxic team-mate or develop an overall toxic culture, and also potentially feel less pressure to behave well than if they were truly representing their country. So it seems at least possible that behavioural issues could be more serious at WUCCs than previous recent international events, and this is the first time that proper Game Advisers have been used at the largest international club event³.

With that in mind, it’s perhaps worth reminding those who think Game Advisers are too weak that they have quite extensive powers, if they were to need them. But at the same time, it’s worth reminding those (particularly in parts of Europe) who think GAs are too powerful that in fact all of those powers and more have been invested in the Tournament Rules Group for a very, very long time.

GAs actually have the power to eject players from the game (or even the tournament) for really serious breaches. There’s a surprisingly long list of behaviours that could result in severe and immediate sanctions.

But of course, GAs really don’t want to use these powers, and will only do so if there’s absolutely no other option – to date, I only know of one ejection, and that was for off-field stuff. What GAs don’t want to do is to set a precedent where behaviour A is unpunished but behaviour B results in an ejection, as that will encourage a certain kind of player to play up to the now-established limits. Only truly egregious behaviour, perhaps something that would be illegal outside of a sporting contest, is going to force their hand.

GAs would like in almost all circumstances to leave the game in the hands of the players, and in particular to leave the responsibility for controlling yourself and your team-mates in your own hands. You can’t abdicate responsibility for that hot-head on your team, as you might if it was a referee’s duty to control him. You can’t pretend to yourself that it’s not your fault when your team-mate is behaving badly – your team, and only your team, has the responsibility for stopping it.

But sometimes behaviour does cross a line, either in its severity or due to its repeated nature, which is perhaps where the Tournament Rules Group might come in.

Many people have played for years without knowing what the TRG is or what sweeping powers it has. It exists at all major championships, and normally comprises the Tournament Director, WFDF’s Technical Tournament Director, the WFDF Events Manager, the head Game Adviser, and the event’s SotG Director. The group meets daily to discuss any issues relating to the event.

The TRG will be informed – via GAs, other officials, or complaints from opponents – of any incidents in games. They will then consider any action that might need to be taken. They have the power to do pretty much anything – they can certainly eject players or teams, or demand matches be replayed or results reversed.

And the big difference between the TRG and the on-pitch GAs is that the TRG have handed down just that sort of punishment on more than one occasion (though once again the majority of their work lies in having a quiet word with teams to improve their behaviour in the future).


Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m OK with the TRG dealing with ejections and other sanctions but I’m much more wary of GAs doing the same.

First, it’s a matter of due process – the TRG can hear arguments from both sides, and can take into account other games or other information. A player can defend themselves, and the TRG can take the time to come to a fair decision.

But the main reason is about the impact on the game itself. WFDF would prefer, at all times, to leave the players in control. If a game is going wrong – too physical, poor calls, cultural differences in the norms of fair play – WFDF expect the players to talk to each other, and to their own teams, to resolve these issues.

They’re not keen to take that responsibility away from the players, because they believe that having that ownership is the single largest contributor to the culture and the atmosphere of ultimate, and it needs to remain intact at the very highest levels in order to be reinforced at the participation level.

The fundamental reason that SotG differs from sportsmanship in other sports is that the game doesn’t work without it: ultimate under WFDF rules is always an agreement between two teams to play a game under mutually acceptable conditions. No one else is going to set the tone or clamp down on breaches of the rules. So if you want to actually finish this game, you’re going to need to work together and talk through the issues. Call a spirit time-out – a hugely successful recent addition to the rules – and find a way to move forward.

So there’s a big difference between a Game Adviser interfering in a game – and thereby taking responsibility for the players’ actions away from themselves and their teams – versus the TRG assessing some form of penalty later on. If a GA were to act as the arbiter of acceptable behaviour, then teams would quickly learn to rely on that intervention rather than work together to resolve issues – whereas even if the TRG did overturn the result of a game, after the fact, for really egregious problems, it wouldn’t affect the necessity for the teams to work to resolve the problems at the time.

Of course, if someone is truly losing control of their behaviour, everyone would like them to be removed from the game. But it’s vastly better for their captain or coach to do it, because that keeps the responsibility on the participants, rather than having an external official take charge of the game. It’s a hugely important part of ultimate that the players are answerable to themselves and cannot offload responsibility for their actions, or the actions of a team-mate.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t even have or need a Tournament Rules Group. But in real life, there will always be some rare situations that require official intervention, and so the TRG (which has been around for a long, long time in international ultimate) provides that fall-back option.

Lots of people look at the existence of a TRG and wonder how you could logically justify that ability to punish or control players, after the fact, while at the same time not wanting to encourage real-time interventions by a ‘referee’. But hopefully I’ve persuaded at least some people that there is a difference, and that on those occasions where intervention becomes necessary, doing it after the fact is less detrimental to SotG than interfering in the live game play.

¹ Like these, just for starters…
SotG, Morality and Economics
What We Stand To Lose – and How We Must Respond
What makes us unique?
‘Powerless’ Observers
² Or “Advisor”, with an ‘o’, as WFDF would have it, but for some reason neither I nor my spellchecker like that very much. 🙂
³ In Lecco in 2014, there were ‘Game Advisers’, but they were only able to help with line calls and other such things. They had no ability to offer opinions on fouls etc. To be honest, I thought at the time that using that name was going to cause confusion further on… This summer will be the first WUCC event with Game Advisers actually doing the full job prescribed for them by the WFDF Task Force that created them.


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11 Responses to On Referees, TRGs, and WUCCs

  1. Nob Rauch says:

    Insightful article, Benji, about an important procedure that not many players fully understand. I think you clearly outlined how the system actually works and importantly why the system exists. As you say, the hope of WFDF is to never (or at least rarely) have the GAs or the TRG need to use the extraordinary powers they potentially have at their disposal and to leave the calls with the players on the field. I believe that over the last decade there are only a three cases where a TRG or Conduct Committee has had to sanction players or teams and in each case it was for off-the-field behavior. I am confident that all of the athletes competing at WUCC will accept their responsibility to play with spirit and that this on-field track record will remain unblemished.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Olivier says:

    Hello Benji,

    You wrote in your blog an article in August 2013 where you introduced the notion
    and the word “Advisor” in Ultimate, with an “o” and not an “e”, ;-).
    ” Imagine an observer (facilitator? advisor?) who:”

    In your article here above, you wrote about the growing power (possible player ejections) of the WFDF Game Advisors for the WUCC 2018.

    It seems that Game Advisors are not “powerless” observers anymore…, but are observers with less power than the USAU Observers.
    It seems that their power is growing…, step by step.
    When one opens the door to the slippery slope…, one cannot be surprised by the grow of the GA’s power.


    • Sorry Olivier, the email asking me to approve this comment was in spam for some reason…

      There is no growing power. GAs have always had that power (a coach was in fact ejected in London during U23s, 2015).


      • Olivier says:

        Hello Benji,

        No problem.

        I have to disagree, Game Advisors, with an “o”, ;-), didn’t always have that power.
        The power for GA’s to “enforce sanctions regarding the WFDF Conduct Policy” (see the Rules Appendix) was added in the WFDF Rules Book version 01/01/2015.
        So, in 2014 in Lecco the power of the GA’s was not the same about the possibility to “enforce sanctions”.
        And the same about other prerogatives, like to come on the field without the agreement of the players, etc.
        All the differences between the GA’s in Lecco and the GA’s after Lecco are written in all the Final Recommendations of the “WFDF Task-Force to review the SOTG and Self-Officiation”.
        That decision to increase the power of the GA’s, is the application of some of those “Recommendations”. http://www.wfdf.org/files/WFDF_SOTG_Task_Force_Final_Recommendations_FINAL_Report.pdf
        You are a GA, and also an important member of the WFDF Rules Committee, you should know that.

        So, yes there was already a growing power for the GA’s.
        And there was also a growing power of the “Officials” before the GA’s, between the “WFDF Line Assistants” (used at the World Games 2009 and 2013) and the “WFDF Game Advisors”.
        But you will maybe tell me that their names are not the same…

        The next time the WFDF wants to increase the power of the GA’s, they just need to change their names, and so they can call them “Facilitator”, or something like “Observer”… ?


        • I was annoyed at the time that WFDF called them GAs in Lecco. I believe the task force had decided, before Lecco, to give them the powers they now have, and so calling them GAs in Lecco when they were basically Line Assistants was certain to cause confusion. (You’d have to check with someone on that task force, but my understanding was that the basic ideas were all in place but just weren’t ready to be used in Lecco.)

          To be clear – there has never been a situation where WFDF has looked at the GA system and decided it needs more power. The GAs in Lecco were always intended as a temporary measure (all that was possible at the time without getting all the various approvals). But the nature of a GA has not changed since they were properly implemented. We can argue semantics if you want, but to date there has been no slippery slope, only a stop-gap measure in Lecco and a full roll-out later on.


          • You argue semantics by gaming with words…

            Line Assistants, Game Advisors and Observers (and even Referees) are “Officials” with a specific name linked to what are their exact powers.

            The slippery slope is happening within the WFDF Officiation system, since the appearance of the Line Assistants for the World Games in Taïwan in 2009.

            Here is the only link about Line Assistants powers that I found on Internet: https://www.afda.com/p/trial-of-line-assistants-at-amuc-2009
            The WFDF Line Assistants Manual is impossible to find… (you wrote in 2013 that you read it, do you have a link ?)

            Then in 2014 at WUCC in Lecco, Game Advisors were “tested”, with more power than the Line Assistants, but less power than the current GA’s…

            I write “tested” because it was not a test ! 2 days before the start of the supposedly test, the WFDF Congress approved all the Recommendations that were made by the “Task-Force to Review the SOTG and Self-Officiation”, including the Recommendations about the growth of the GA’s powers after the “test” of WUCC 2014…
            Isn’t it a strange way to work democratically ?

            It seems that Patrick Van der Valk didn’t understand all the Recommendations from the WFDF Task-Force of which he was a member…
            The same probably for a lot of WFDF Members/National Federations.

            It seems that it is not an easy gymnastic for all to gaming with words…
            Even Nob, WFDF President, mixed up with the different “Officials”…
            Here are extracts from a N-Y Times article were Nob was interviewed, just before the start of the WUGC 2016 in London, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/sports/ultimate-frisbee-debates-a-role-for-referees.html :

            (…)For many years, the players decided if they had been fouled. But as the sport became more competitive, players were accused of taking advantage of the system. Extended disputes threatened to spoil the game for spectators and television audiences, so a debate about adding OFFICIALS began.

            Many big tournaments, including the world championships, have found a middle ground: They use an OFFICIAL known as an OBSERVER OR ADVISER, who acts more like a mediator than a judge or executioner.

            The OBSERVERS are not empowered to make calls on their own, as a referee would. Rather, they can mediate if two teams cannot come to an agreement.

            “Maybe two players are going up to catch a disc, and the offensive player feels they were fouled, while the defender feels they kept their proper distance,” said Nob Rauch, the president of the World Flying Disc Federation, which runs the world championships.
            “THE OBSERVER makes sure the players advance to a quick conclusion. It’s a way to keep the game on track.”
            The finals will be shown June 25 on the CBS Sports Network. Organizers hope the OBSERVERS will actually be part of the appeal. OBSERVERS will wear microphones, and the back and forth between players and the OBSERVERS’ intercessions could be part of the show.

            So, to come back with the slippery slope.
            It is you who wrote this during the WUCC in Lecco, on comments in an Ultiworld article about the failure of WFDF and GA’s, https://ultiworld.com/2014/08/07/enough-already-wfdf-needs-observers/ :
            (…) “Let’s see how game advisers get on when they are fully set up.”
            (…) “The game advisers, when they get their full powers, will be observers in almost all respects except being able to make a binding decision on individual calls.”
            “And a final note that will doubtless distract from my main point (but I can’t resist). For me, the slippery slope in the US is not that the pro leagues have referees. It’s that the slippery slope is happening within the observer system – things like TMFs and PMFS are added, and we see articles like this [http://ultiworld.com/2013/0…] explicitly requesting yet more powers for observers.”

            “There will always be pressure to give more power to a third party when things go awry. Once we cross that line of allowing third-party, binding decisions, I can’t think of a single strong reason to stop ‘where we are now’ that logically refutes the need for yet more powers. The slippery slope isn’t always a fallacy – if you can show a force pushing in one direction, and no obvious or solid resistance, then you have a slippery slope. That’s what many international players see in the observer system.”

            I like your last sentence: “if you can show a force pushing in one direction, and no obvious or solid resistance, then you have a slippery slope.”

            It is the case about the GA’s…, there is no obvious or solid resistance to the WFDF force pushing for them.
            Even Patrick VDV, Chairman of the WFDF SOTG Committee at the time, accepted the GA’s…, but also the growth of their powers, like to enforce sanctions regarding the WFDF Conduct Policy, so to eject a player from the field…, that was the subject of your article.


  3. Thanks Benji. Where is it written that GA’s can eject players? I didn’t see it in item B6.3. in the WFDF Rules of Ultimate 2017 – Appendix v2.1 – effective 2018-03-01.


  4. Olivier says:

    Hello Benji, You didn’t reply to the question of Patrick, and also to my comment.
    Usually, you reply when people comment your articles with good arguments.

    You are in the WFDF Rules Committee, and you are also Game Advisor, so if you start a topic, you should reply.


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