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…
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.