Japan vs. Canada 2012 Words: A Spirited Discussion

There seems to be a lot of quality discussion floating around about the recent Worlds matchup between team Canada and team Japan.  As usual, Ultiworld did an excellent job illustrating the situation.  I really wanted to chime in here too, since many people are using this incident as a rallying point for increasing officiating in high-level ultimate.  I have a strong opinion about sportsmanship and officiating in ultimate, so I wanted to address this game in particular.

To start, I didn’t really have a preference for TC or TJ.  I casually followed Furious George last season, and I also watched a few of the Buzz Bullets games.  I guess I watch a lot of ultimate.  I wanted to review this particular game twice before commenting, and I really struggled to sit through it the first time.  The second viewing actually made me angry. While watching the game, you can easily focus on this point in time or that point in time and who did what to whom.  The disturbing thing to me in this game is not the specifics.  It is, as others have mentioned, the bigger picture.

Still, I’d like to chime in my opinion about the game first.  Hopefully, you’ll be able to see where I’m coming from.

Team Japan had a few instances of questionable play overall, but they seemed to moderate their emotions and temper their responses.  It’s true that the players didn’t argue or debate with Canada much.  This has been viewed in the community as either acceptable behavior or as an indication of inflexibility and poor sportsmanship.  I don’t honestly believe the Canadians would have listened to any arguments anyway, so I don’t really see a problem with team Japan trying to avoid those confrontations.

The only time I remember a player getting visibly fired up on TJ was after TC’s #9 (Saunkeah?) had two consecutive lay outs which injured players.  #9 then proceeded to flip out when a sub was not happening fast enough for his taste.  A sub, I remind you, who was only needed to cover for the second Japanese player this guy had injured in less than 30 seconds of playtime.  The TJ sub got fired up, aggressively removed his warm up suit, and subbed.  That was it.  No screaming or arm waving.  It was pretty clear to me that TJ was willing to let their play do the talking. 

Side note, the play/actions of #9 were in my view a disgraceful and an embarrassment to the ultimate community of Canada and at large.  There appeared so bad in fact, that I felt the need to call him out specifically.  It was pretty clear to me that that guy was going out to hurt people, because he really wanted to win and his abilities were inadequate to accomplish that goal.  I hope I’m wrong, and the layouts only appeared bad on film (if that is the case I truly apologize), but he seemed on the video to be both reckless and more importantly without remorse for his actions.

This win at any cost mentality really seemed to be the tone for TC’s play.  TC didn’t seem to want to be better at ultimate than TJ.  They just wanted to win.  Luckily for TC, the WFDF does not use observers or refs and relies exclusively on spirit and sportsmanship to regulate games.  Unfortunately for TJ, a team that cares more about winning than sportsmanship is allowed under these conditions to both abuse the rules and actually physically and mentally abuse other players on the field. 

I could cite any number of specific incidents that showed poor sportsmanship and outright disrespect by team Canada, but those are all situations which are subject to context.  As a result, they lend themselves to be argued away by TC faithful who point out that TC was just playing aggressive high-level ultimate; TJ was playing dirty too; and/or TC was provoked into their action. 

There is no way combat these arguments because context is everything.  I wasn’t there.  For instance, it is possible TJ disparaged #9’s mother, grandmother, and family honor repeatedly before he snapped and decided to just start leveling people.  You too would probably defend your family honor by disc and by layout – no matter who you had to blind tackle.  So why am I writing that I think TC’s sportsmanship was a polluted result of their desire to win over their desire to respect their competitors if context renders arguments about particular plays moot? 

Luckily, there is other less polarizing evidence that indicates TC’s mentality.  That mentality was particularly clear to me on TC’s pulls, during which TC was virtually always egregiously offside.  It was a little thing throughout the game, but it illustrates an overall mentality.  TC was willing to continuously and flippantly disregard a rule, which the other team did not have perspective to call, in order to gain a small advantage on almost every one of their defensive points. 

TJ, on the other hand, was rarely offside on the pull.  Even when they were, it did not appear to be an egregious violation, and it was usually only one or two players and not five.  The result is that TJ appeared to be willing to follow the rules, while TC appeared willing to do anything to gain an advantage and win.

There was no context on the pulls.  You can’t complain that TC was so angry at the goal line that many players felt the need to disrespect it by ignoring it during the pull.  So what though, right?  They are just pulls, and offside violations rarely affected play.  It isn’t really that big of a deal…..but it is.  Sometimes an extra step or two on a pull can make a huge difference.  No one on TJ could logistically be in a position to call offside, so there was also no deterrent for rule breaking. 

The players on TC knew that.  They have too much experience collectively and individually to argue ignorance of the rule, and the occurrences were too frequent to be an accident.  Moreover, many of the TC players don’t commit repeated offside violations when observers are present during the club season.  The only conclusion to be drawn is that TC saw an opportunity for advantage, knew they could get away with it, and wanted to win bad enough that they decided to forget about the rules. 

I’m not even prepared to say that the team was actively cheating, as if they said, “we will be offside and cheat.”  I don’t think that is fair.  I just think they all wanted to win so badly as a collective that they didn’t or perceive that they were constantly breaking the rules.  I.E. the team was focused so hard on willing that their sportsmanship suffered grievously.    

Since they acted like this on pulls, I find it likely that the same attitude colored the team’s entire approach to the game.   

I don’t want to keep beating up team Canada though.  I also don’t think, as some have suggested, that their captain should resign.  I do think they should probably take a long hard look at themselves and determine whether they want to be a respected international team or a reviled bully with everyone placing a mental asterisk next to each win they achieve.   They are certainly a quality group and capable of winning without abusing the rules.

Beyond team Canada, I think the WFDF bears some criticism and should use this game as a learning experience.  There will always be situations where dedicated athletes try to use the rules to their advantage.  Rules are after all part of the game, but players at this level dedicate too much time to this sport to always see their actions objectively.  The problem the WFDF faces is if you can’t enforce the rules the game loses meaning, and situations will arise where one player or team focused on winning just to win can manipulate plays on the field to achieve their goals.

Back in elementary school, I often played touch football with “that kid”, the one who wanted to win more than anything.  You might have had one in your elementary school.  The kid I knew was named Josh, and he would spend entire days complaining to anyone who would listen about why his team didn’t actually lose during touch football because this touchdown didn’t really count; that guy was out of bounds; or it was a do-over because he slipped. 

There were obviously no refs back then, and Josh was persistent and obnoxious enough to get his way more often than not.  Having played both with and against him, I can honestly say his arguments were almost never right or valid.  He simply got what he wanted by being a verbal bully.  Everyone knew what he was doing.  There just was no recourse. 

Without providing a neutral party for the enforcement of rules or at the minimum the arbitration of rules disputes, the WFDF actually encourages more people to play like Josh and to try to seek advantage.  It also forces good spirited players to have to deal with the world’s Joshes the way we all had to deal with “that kid” in elementary school.  You either cave in, or you punch him. 

Refusing to use observers and rely on spirit of the game only succeeds in preying upon weaker personalities on the ultimate field.  It allows people with poor spirit myriad opportunities to disadvantage or defeat spirited opponents.  Ironically, teams with poor spirit can rise to the upper echelons of competitive ultimate and potentially become ambassadors of the sport. 

I’m not saying that does happen or has happened in this specific instance.  I am simply trying to illustrate that the WFDF relying on spirit alone to guide the rules of the game places the sport in a precarious situation.  It allows games like this one, which I consider to be an embarrassment to the sport, to happen on the world stage.  Even more appalling, it fosters an environment that can reward teams for being poor sports.  It is harmful to the sport and dangerous to the players.

If the goals of the WFDF as indicated in their bylaws really is:  “to promote and protect the ‘spirit of the game’ of flying disc sports play”, “to promote flying disc sports play throughout the world and foster the establishment of new national flying disc sports associations…”, and “to promote and raise public awareness of and lobby for official recognition of flying disc play as sport”, then I feel it is incumbent upon the WFDF to adopt some form of rules mediation, whether it be through observers or referees. 

Placing blind faith in the idea that players need to self officiate in order to be spirited is ridiculous.  Observers do nothing more than facilitate the spirit of the game by mitigating players’ anger and frustration toward each other and providing a neutral opinion that can protect players and provide perspective on calls that are often difficult for players to make accurately.  That is not even considering the increased public recognition for the sport that can come from officiating. 

At the end of the day, people will probably still feel how they do.  I’m aware that my words are likely falling on deaf ears.  These are entrenched positions.  Often the people I am trying to convince consider self officiating and “spirit of the game” to be the same thing.  I can only hope that the WFDF will consider alternative rule enforcement solutions before a game like this spirals out of control on an international stage.  Canada and Japan seemed close to blows on more than one occasion. 

Is adhering to self officiating so important that arguments, violence, and bullying are acceptable on the field?  What does that say about the “spirit of the game” our community fosters?        

I know many of you may strongly disagree with me on this.  I’d really love to hear what you have to say about this game specifically or about the broader topic of spirit.  Feel free to leave a comment below!