Going into this inaugural season, it seemed pretty clear that the AUDL was trying to make ultimate more friendly to spectators. Several aspects of AUDL have been crafted with this goal in mind. I can tell you after weeks of watching games that the game pacing is much faster and there is much less downtime compared to USA Ultimate games. I think this is due to a combination of several factors, but the most positive change I’ve notice as a fan is the inclusion of officials. There are many ultimate faithful that think officials will/are ruining the spirit of the game. I’d like to explain why I believe the inclusion of officials has made ultimate into a better spectacle without eroding the spirit of the game.
I have been playing ultimate for 16 years now, though my first few years barely qualify. Many people cling tightly to the idea of the spirit of the game. Though spirit has nothing to do with whoever makes the calls on the field, there is a blind belief that ultimate doesn’t need officials and that taking away self officiating somehow robs the game of precious spirit. I think this belief is a misplaced projection of what the spirit of the game, or as it is called in other sports generally sportsmanship, really is.
I empathize and somewhat agree with the utopian view that ultimate can rise up through the spirit of the game to become somehow morally better than other sports. Unfortunately, ultimate players really aren’t much different from other athletes when it comes to competition. Putting the word “spirit” in the rulebook and tying that ideal to self officiating doesn’t make players more spirited. I’ve seen some of the best spirited athletes on an ultimate field, but I’ve also seen some of the worst. As a result, I struggle to see how self officiating is the key to the spirit of the game in ultimate.
Even if we assume people are striving to be honest and fair which is a stretch in any intense competition, the problem with the traditional solutions for dispute resolution in ultimate is that there is a heavy reliance on the opinions of players who have invested hundreds and hundreds of hours into their team. Of course players want to win, and most good club players have worked hard to place themselves in a position to be successful. I’m not saying these players are dishonest or lack spirit. They could have excellent spirit. They are simply fundamentally biased.
Notice how great football receivers will sometimes argue with their coaches asking for them to challenge a dropped pass, only to have the instant replay later clearly show it was a drop? The players know there is replay. They aren’t trying to get away with anything. They legitimately believe they caught it. Sometimes, when you live and breathe a sport it is hard to get out of your own head when trying to make a call.
I like to think of myself as good spirited, and I’ve fallen victim to this bias on more than one occasion. Most recently, I “toed in” a catch for goal. Admittedly, the sideline was very crooked (the other end zone was not even marginally parallel with the end zone on camera), and opposing players confirmed my call. Watching the video though, it was clear that I was at least an AU out of bounds. I owe a serious apology to Michigan Tech. Sorry. I’ve called myself out more times than I can count, but at that moment, I really thought I was in.
My point is that perspective is biased and subjective, even with the best intent. As people invest more into a thing, they are more likely to allow their wants and desires to influence their perspective. It only makes sense to try and minimize that influence. In the above example, I was playing an alumni game with a bunch of college teammates that had always relied on me to make exceptional plays. That artificial pressure likely played a role in my terrible call.
Observers are certainly a step in the right direction. They are able to provide great perspective and an unbiased ruling in situations where it is difficult for players to be focused on playing and making the call simultaneously. This works great for calls at boundaries and for travels. The observer is effective for these decisions because he/she simply makes the call and spends time in between acquiring a good perspective to watch for future rule breaking. For travels and boundary calls the observer basically acts as an official. They still get it wrong sometimes, but so do players, and observers have both the focused perspective and the lack of bias to be a more trustworthy pair of eyes.
So, it is pretty easy to think observers seem awesome (and compared to completely self officiated games they are). As a result, you don’t hear too many people complaining that observers are destroying the spirit of the game. The trouble is that observers are a compromise, a half measure. They are only given some power in an effort to maintain some level of player officiating.
This is where you can really notice the problem with observers. They start to lose their appeal on pretty much every player initiated call. Even again assuming completely honest players, there are going to be disagreements or contestations about calls. The result is essentially that every player has a “whistle” they can use to stop play and stoppages can last longer than timeouts. Coming back to my initial point, player initiated calls make the game generally confusing and bog it down.
Sure, some stoppages are quick, but most contestations have to be argued. The players have to make their case to each other. Then, the players have to bring in an observer to rule on the dispute. Once an observer is called, they will hear additional arguing before they rule. All of this is painfully slow as a participant on the field, and it is excruciating as a spectator.
It seems to me officials are able to take over where observers fall off. They can make the game better for spectators and give us calls that are closer to truth. It is a win win, so why haven’t they been used sooner? The real answer, as far as I can tell, is that a lot of entrenched ultimate players strongly reject the idea of officials. It could be that they generally don’t trust authority or that they worry that ultimate will become too serious at all strata of competition. I honestly don’t know all the reasons. What I do know is that all the reasons people don’t want officials in ultimate get grafted onto the idea that officials will somehow hurt the spirit of the game.
I’ve always rejected the idea that spirit is tied to self-officiating. It just doesn’t make sense to me. A pickup game of basketball doesn’t have any better spirit than an NBA game. Refs neither bring nor remove spirit. They simply police the game more efficiently and effectively than players. Don’t believe me? Try to call charging or travel in a casual game of pick-up basketball without starting an argument. Self-officiating has never been a boon in that scenario for me.
Maybe the argument for spirit in self-officiating is broader though. Maybe people believe that a sport loses spirit top to bottom once it starts being officiated, as though officials hurt the essence or soul of a games spirit. I just don’t think spirit is tied to some kind of absolute cosmic on/off switch though. While I think all sports have unique character based on their rules, tradition, history, and specific qualities, I don’t think that character translates into something spiritual.
The truth I fear, and it does sting a bit for some ultimate players, is that competition becomes less spirited as competitors become…well, more competitive. For example, I’ve never had another player scream at me in anger during ultimate at pickup. It has happened several times at competitive tournaments though.
The method of competition is spirit neutral. There is nothing that makes ultimate a special little snowflake when it comes to spirit. People who play seriously want to do well and win just as much as in other sports. Give them the ability to make the calls, raise the stakes, and watch the players raise their voices.
Sure, the sport has a higher number of affluent educated participants. You could certainly make an argument, though I wouldn’t, that this demographic fosters greater spirit. If true, that spirit is localized to a segment of players. It does not imbue the whole of ultimate with spirit magic that can and is bestowed on any individual that sets foot on an ultimate field.
The reality is some ultimate players are jerks. Why on Earth would you want to give them the power to make calls?
In my experience, self-officiating results primarily in yelling and arguing. In many situations, I’ve seen newer players bullied into changing calls they thought were correct. I honestly believe it is unreasonable to presume that all players will act in the best interest of the sport at large or that as a player in a game you could possibly be in a better position to make a call than an official. It is conceited and arrogant.
The AUDL changed all this nonsense for professional ultimate. They did away with the idea that you need to make your own calls in order to be spirited. Officials were already in the pipeline at some tournaments, and USA Ultimate has been making use of observers for a few years, so the AUDL doesn’t get all the credit. The AUDL was simply the first to recognize that the spirit of ultimate is not tied to self regulation, and games that are called by independent observers are more equitable. Whether the AUDL succeeds or fails, I hope we as a community can finally embrace officials and move past our ridiculous infatuation with self officiating. If that one change is the only effect the AUDL has on ultimate, it will have been a success.
Where does that leave the spirit of the game, though? Personally, I think officials are a great thing for the spirit of the game in ultimate. They remove the association of spirit from who is making the calls and place it on the history, tradition, and character the sport. That is a spirit far greater than a misplaced belief in the idea that players can/should perform the dual role of player and official on the field. Saying that is the spirit of the game belittles the sport and whittles the spirit of the game down to a gimmick.
Ultimate is more than that. It is a unique, exciting, and dramatic sport. Its history includes UFOs, grass roots organization, philanthropic outreach, battles with Wham-O, and many decades of non-professional national and worlds based competitions. The elevation of skill and strategy required to play has skyrocketed astronomically since when I first began playing, and the sport’s popularity has expanded along with its quality. These are the things that make up the spirit of ultimate. It doesn’t who is making the calls.
Because I can’t help myself, I’d also like to briefly mention that the spirit of the game rule was historically so ambiguous that as a rule it had little impact on the field. It was nearly impossible to distinguish between a player who was being a good sport, one who was being bullied out of making a call, and one who was applying the spirit of the game rule.
It is obvious just how confusing the “rule” is when people cheer “good spirit” if a player calls himself out. If he was out, it is his duty to call himself out. Spirit does not factor into it. The idea that this act is good spirit is ridiculous. It implies that normally in those situations an ultimate player would call themselves in even if they were out and thus act in bad spirit.
In the AUDL rules you won’t find the words “spirit of the game” scrawled cryptically in the rules. There is however an integrity rule which gives players the opportunity to make calls that adversely affect the player compared to the call made on the field by an official. It is a clear rule that lets players put the truth ahead of their own personal benefit. The best thing about this rule is that, since the players aren’t making the calls, it is absolutely clear that the player is trying to correct a bad ruling. If the crowd yells “good spirit” in response to a player enacting the integrity rule, they would be right.
Whether the game is more or less spirited with officials is obviously a point we could debate. I understand that my opinion may be in the minority regarding officiating, and I’d love to hear what you have to say regarding what the spirit of the game really means and whether officials negatively impact that spirit.
I would also like to move beyond spirit to talk about why the game is a better spectator sport with the inclusion of officials in more depth. However, this post has gone a bit long and I haven’t published in a couple weeks due to the start of my ultimate season, so I’ll have to address that topic in a follow up article.