Saturday, June 21, 2008

(editor's note: Toad posted nearly indecipherable comments addressing Former College Champ. I went archeologist on it and reconstructed from the fragmented bits of English what message I could. Again, Toad, if you can keep it civil I welcome your comments and voice.)

It’s not that “ultimate players are balancing fairness, it’s that ‘people’ (in general) are. We as Ultimate players are not special; we are the same as normal people. We are normal people. The anti-ref stance is dogmatic idealism with goals that are too lofty and don’t belong within a competitive sport.

Referees’ interest in performing well in order to keep his job or get promoted is what leads to them calling a good, efficient, clean, accurate, and fair game. Their interest in self-preservation (job-wise) ensures their objectivity. Their objectivity will lend the game an integrity that will come in the form of game management and presentation.

What you’re arguing is that the presence of refs will lead to what I call a Claim of Diminished value, where your perception of the other team cheating somehow makes their victory hollow and tainted. But as far as the root of competition and desire, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat can all be achieved in sports that use refs to facilitate rule enforcement.

And for your example of ‘doing the right thing’ and withholding a call in a big game, there are plenty of counter examples of bad calls being made when the stakes are equally high (see Steve Dugan’s confession of game-changing cheating in semis of Worlds). Understand that there is nothing that equates watching the “international competition with the self” via a self-officiated sport with good sports entertainment. There’s a reason this internal challenge doesn’t exist in televised sports. By your own admission refs will definitely make the game more “watchable, fast-paced, and like other sports.” Why is this a bad thing?

I also don’t buy the “focus on not getting caught” with refs. The focus of the athletes is on strategy and execution. How different is this mentality of “not getting caught” in refereed sports with the constant intentional bumping of a thrower, the fast counts, the double teams, the traveling that’s prevalent in the game today? Have referees enforce stricter deterrents against that type of cheating and I guarantee player focus will be on not committing the infraction in the first place.

And while I commend you on your no-call in the heat of the moment, you’re the exeption. The point isn’t to look at what people “should do”, but rather on what they will do, are capable of doing, and what they’re already doing *now*.

Your concern that Ultimate is heading towards mediocrity is laughable in light of the fact it’s not even mediocre yet from a presentation and commercial level. Your vision for rule enforcement is simply too idealistic, considering Ultimate is a sport and not a priesthood. It’s great that you can compete within the system, but the fact is others can’t, most haven’t gotten there yet, and others who have will falter and backslide. Your vision is too unrealistic an expectation and it isn’t fair to the sport for these unattainable dogmas to influence things on the “field of competition.” You would like everyone to keep themselves honest and not cheat but, after all, isn’t what entails (or is perceived as) cheating also subjective?

Referees are the way to go. The dynamic of them “breaking the pact” when the game gets heated is a non-issue. Their pact is with their crew to call a good and consistent game, nothing more or less. You say, "the inequity of the other team is no reason to throw out the notion of fair play." Agreed but, neither is the presence of referees. Point is, if people cheat with refs and use a "not get caught" tactic, dosen’t that say as much or more about that person than your idealistic notion of how Ultimate should be played now? I think the fact that those against referees think Ultimate players will “turn” overnight really says more about the kind of people they are, and the kind of people they think each other to be.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A friend of mine, former college and club standout, recently retired, weighed in on the previous few posts and comments made by people. Although he's loathe to sit in spotlight, I felt what he said was well articulated and came from a different mind than mine, JV's, or Match's, and wanted to share the things he'd said. Let's just call him Former College Champ, and you can take his point of view for what you'd like. (all emphases mine)

All of Hector's points about Match's misguided assertions of objectivity are valid, but I might argue that Hector pulls up a little short in his criticism. It's not just that Match isn't in a position to declare himself objective; in point of fact, no one reading or contributing to this blog, to say nothing of playing the sport, can consider themselves disinterested or objective. Match is an Ultimate player; he has played for San Diego. That he isn't an impassioned partisan for or against, say, the Hodags doesn't render him capable of seeing issues in the championship game in their entirety, or from a God's-eye perspective. Rather, like all of us, he sees each game through the lens of his own Ultimate experience, through the history of his interactions with other players, through the biases inherent in his own expectations.

That none of us has access to objective truth isn't important merely because it seems to harm Match's credibility when he claims an unbiased opinion; it gets to the heart of the game of Ultimate itself. There's been a recent resurgence in the argument over the role of observers and of refs in Ultimate, with proponents of an "objectively" officiated game saying, among other things, that players are incapable when the game is on the line of balancing their sense of fairness with their desire to win. That may be true. In fact, reading the posts about college nationals, it seems pretty accurate. But the idea that a third party – an "objective" party – really would be objective is just as specious as the notion that players can maintain their integrity when the title's on the line. All parties to a game see things merely from different perspectives – that a ref doesn't necessarily have an obvious interest in the outcome of a game doesn't mean that they have no interest at all. Poor calls have been part of officiating in all major sports since their inception, and those poor calls result from an erroneous perspective, a kind of blindness, willful or not, to the event as it was perceived by others. In other sports, though, the ref's perspective matters more than the participants'.

Those clamoring for refs and their attendant arguments – that it will make Ultimate more "fair," more mainstream, that it will lend the game an integrity it currently lacks, etc. – seem to err in their understanding of competition itself. Like all sports, even team sports, Ultimate fundamentally comes down to a competition with the self. Opposing teams provide a foil against which to test oneself, and maybe the memory of being beaten by other players contributes to your motivation while training, but really, sports are about struggling to facilitate the emergence of your best, at the right time. The level of one's play comes from within; while the presence of the other team challenges a player in new ways, the idea of beating the other team and the externality of that goal is secondary to the ascendancy of your own strength. When teams win championships, they're celebrating their own victories, not the other teams' defeats. It's an important distinction.

That Ultimate doesn't officially pretend that having an objective third party around will make the game fair is, in fact, a credit to the sport. One effect, intentional or otherwise, of the player-officiated game is that the competition with the self is actually heightened. Especially in big games, with meaningful victory or defeat forty minutes away, can one play with the same honesty and integrity that they would in a scrimmage? Can one stifle the urge to use the power of officiation to gain an unfair advantage? It's watching this internal competition play out, even within oneself, that makes Ultimate so great a sport. After all, no such challenge to a player's integrity exists in more conventional – or at least televised – sports.

There are ways to drift away from this added element in Ultimate. One is, obviously, refs. Refs might make the game more watchable, more fast-paced, more like other sports. But they wouldn't make it better as an arena of competition. The burden of ensuring fairness would simply shift from the competitors themselves to some other interested, biased, perspective-tainted party. Certainly not as biased or interested as the players, but not objective, either. With refs, players wouldn't have to be litigants; they'd merely have to focus on not getting caught.

I'm at the end of my career, now, and over the course of the last fifteen or sixteen years I've played on a number of really great teams, with a lot of really great players. And I came to accept that I could be an effective player at the top level of club play in certain roles, but would never be dominant. I trained hard and I tried my damnedest, and it didn't feel like defeat when I got beaten by somebody better than me. I had no problem giving them the respect that they had earned.

And I was glad to know, when, for example, Giora came flying by me in a crucial game at nationals to make a ridiculous play on the disc, that I had the fortitude not to call a bullshit foul simply because as he took the inside track and the aggressive angle on the disc, he made contact with my arm. While that contact may (MAY) have violated the rules as they're written, it was the peeling nature of my cut that gave him the opening. I offered him an opportunity, he took it, my team paid for it, and I didn't make that mistake ever again.

What I fear, hearing the coach of a prominent college program talk about teaching his players to expect other teams to cheat, is that cheating will become part of the game in a way that it hasn't been before. I'm not even as concerned with the victim of the cheating, though, as I am with the perpetrator. At the moment one team gains an advantage by misuse of the rules, there's really nothing left to win on the field. You can't ever know, even if you emerge on top, that you're better at ultimate. And if the sense of shame falls away from act of cheating, if it becomes acceptable to violate the pact in the pursuit of victory, the possibility of competitive greatness will simply evaporate.

What can be done to stem the flow of the game toward mediocrity in one form or another? Adding refs to police the cheaters will only be an explicit admission that it's impossible to compete with a sense of personal honor, that it's too much to expect of a player. Perceiving the objective truth – the play as it "really was" – is impossible; seeing a play from your opponent's perspective as well as your own, though, is not, and that's the goal. A player should stick with a call he believes in, but he should take back – or forego – the calls he knows to be either dubious or spurious.

With even the top teams making probably accurate but likely unnecessary calls, with games getting increasingly chippy, there's been (so far) no removal of the individual onus to play fairly and with respect. You don't have to cheat. You don't have to treat the other teams as potential or probable cheaters before the game even starts. There's this pervasive attitude that, as long as the other team plays fair, so will we; people are willing to reciprocate fairness, as long as they don't have to go out on a limb and risk the game by continuing to play fair at 13s when the other team, or some d-bag on the other team, has decided in his own head to break the pact. Nonetheless, until refs step onto the field, the fairness of the game is incumbent upon the players themselves, and the iniquity of the other team is no reason for you to throw out your own notion of fair play. The good guys tend to win regardless. The fear is that someday there won't be any good guys left, and every title will bear the taint of, charitably speaking, a strategic use of the rules. Strategic use of the rules is not Ultimate.

How do we maintain or regain the sense of competition that made so many of us opt for Ultimate over other sports? It's not complicated, nor does it require systemic adjustments in the sport itself: just fucking play fair. Admit it when you're beaten, call fouls when they've caused (and are not simply coincident with) the beating you've taken, and believe at the start of a game that the other team wants to play Ultimate – not Lawyerball – as badly as you do.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

This is a rebuttal post.

I am going to make various points regarding several arguments Match has made about: our sport in comparison to basketball/football from his latest MSSUI article, decision makers and people of influence in our sport, and the validity and importance of the Callahan award from another MSSUI article he wrote. It will be difficult, because as I re-read the two MSSUI articles and his comments on my blog here, I found few cogent arguments and many contradictions, false assumptions, and non sequiturs.

Let's begin with "One and Done," an article entertaining only because at its end I wasn't sure if it had been written by Match, or Jim Carrey on the set of his box-office bomb The Number 23. Like the Lincoln-Kennedy assassination coincidences, Match declares a conclusion and then sets about desperately looking for signs of 'proof.' And of course, he finds them. Let's examine a little more closely what he found.

He begins similarly to our RSD MI5 spammer, "the similarities are endless and the more I think about the two sports the closer they get." Then he proceeds to make comments that do nothing to further his argument.

Unlike football or soccer the better team cannot be decided in one game and one mistake (on offense) in football or soccer is not the end of the world.

Peyton can throw a pick and the Colts can still win, Ronaldo can miss a shot and Manchester United can still win. Offensive production is not assumed the way it is in Ultimate and Basketball. The game start to finish matters more in those two sports and a single match is a good indication of who is better.
Match, you say nothing here. One offensive mistake in football or soccer is not the end of the world: agreed. Guess what? Same in Ultimate and basketball! Breaks and turnovers happen. Peyton can throw a pick, Ronaldo can miss a shot, Parker can overthrow a receiver and Nord can spike a disc outside the goal — and victory is still possible. You've done nothing here to differentiate the sports from each other. You go on:
This isn't to say that a game can't come down to single play, but the impact of that single play losses [sic] its significance if you look at the game as a whole. Take football, a kicker could miss the game winning field goal, but what about a stalled drive in the 2nd quarter or a pick in the red zone in the 3rd?

Getting a big lead early is nice, but your offense must still grind it out over the course of the whole game. Maybe you don't get 5 more breaks in the second half, but you still have to score. Football and soccer don't work that way. If you go up 21-0 or 3-0 early, you don't have to score anymore if your defense does their job.
Again, you're chasing your own tail. Everything you write in that first paragraph about football applies to Ultimate, and basketball. Your D gets scored on and the game ends, but what about your poor resets that helped your Offense get broken earlier? You miss the last second shot to tie in basketball, but you were out-rebounded all game. No one play, in any of these sports, determines the game's outcome. Who wins and loses is a lengthy sum of small mistakes and breaks. And I barely even understand your second paragraph. How is that an argument for or against series play? If you got broken 5 times in one half, I guarantee you by the end of the game I've pretty much seen enough to know which team is better.

A series to determine the champs? Sounds interesting, I'm listening. But your article does nothing to convince me one is inherently better than the other, and for all your comments devolving competition down into nothing but winning, you sure sound eager to discredit a championship earned on "one and done." At least, when you have "objectively" determined the best didn't win.

Let's take a look at your own objectivity, Match. We should, because it seems central to your arguments in your article "What Would Hank Think," as poorly conceived as "One and Done" but unforgivingly fraught with 'theory of mind' assumptions about who Henry Callahan would vote for based on your goals.

You claim boldly, "As for being objective, I think I am objective because I have no emotional investment in who wins or loses." You follow that up with comments such as:
My frustration over single matches started with Brown/Colorado in 2005. In Corvallis, Colorado was the better team. Yes they lost 14-15, but come on.

Yes Zipp was awesome, but Brown capitalized on luck...Yes Brown was better then, but had they played a series, Colorado wins Nationals.

Gibson was easily the best player but people did not like his publicized attitude, especially towards his teammates.

Same thing with the Sockeye/Furious George Final in 2006. Sockeye gets a world's greatest and the unbelievable Skip play? Those two plays were pure luck and they completely erased a great offensive game by Furious, and Sockeye won 15-13.
That sure seems like you are emotionally invested. If you weren't, you'd take the outcomes as that: the outcome. Instead, here you are bemoaning all the times the 'better team' lost. You are not allowing the score to determine it, you're going back and giving your opinion on who you think should have won or lost. Doesn't sound too objective to me. (For that matter, I objectively think that Wisconsin '06 beats Florida '06 7 of 10 games. Oooh, see what I did? I said something was objective so that made it so! Just because I think I know what I'm talking about!)

Your Callahan article was likewise full of false assumptions and contradictions. Take for example, these two comments from the article:
In watching the last few Callahan Award winners come and go from the podium, it really seems like the award is nothing short of a popularity contest.

Despite his amazing talents, Richter got the award because he was the nomination when they won it all in 2004.
You claim the award was a popularity contest, but for 4 straight years the winner played on the eventual championship team, '04-'07, and Wiggins was a finalist in '03. And Richter, winner of a popularity contest? Did you even play in San Diego? No one liked Richter in college but his teammates; everyone feared him. He won not because his team won in '04 (irrelevent: the outcome of the Callahan was decided before Nationals) but because he was dominant. Dominant. Ask your former teammates on the Squids about how popular Richter was.

You propose a a more 'objective' means of electing the "real MVP," the NUMP, of which you are a member (did you forget to mention that?). And yet, how objective is the NUMP? A quick glance at this year's members shows that of the 34 members, 22 are current players or coaches of college teams. It also shows 34 of 34 once played Ultimate for a college team. How objective is that? At least most sports writers, who you assume guard the sanctity of objectivity when selecting other sports' MVPs, never played competitive college athletics. They are people who travel and study and watch game after game after game. And even then, they cant' agree on what "most valuable" means. Look at the Hall of Fame and steroid scandal in baseball; there's no consensus on what to do because of differing opinions. Objectivity has no opinion, Match. But why do you think the NUMP would do a better job of deciding the MVP than Callahan voters? Your response:
Athletes are responsible for playing, nothing more and nothing less. It is not their job to hype the sport, or write about it, or even discuss it because frankly it detracts from your ability and there are more objective people out there who can do a better job.

The future of the MVP is the NUMP. Having a body of intelligent, objective, and focused people is a great thing for this sport and their choice for MVP is better than the Callahan.
I see, Match. Is the NUMP really the "body of intelligent, objective, and focused people" that you say it is? It sounds like there's a thorough vesting process to become a NUMP member. How does one become a member?
What’s also great about the NUMP, is that it is purely volunteer based. It’s not like people are turned away, anyone can volunteer for it.
Wait, so you're saying anyone can be on the NUMP, including people who are unintelligent, biased, unfocused, or generally don't watch more than a few tourneys a season? Make up your mind already, but do so before you start putting down the Callahan award and calling its namesake "Hank." One last quote:
What Rob or Skip or Rodney or myself have done for the game was simply because we as individuals wanted to make a difference. We did nothing special, we didn't survey people, we weren't amazing players (well, skip is), we just knew we had a good idea and we were brave enough to put in the work to see it through.
And here is where I think your true intentions lie naked for us to read, as you list yourself along with Rob, Rodney and Skip; it's not that you think players' votes shouldn't count, but that you want so desperately for your vote to count, for you to have a say, for your opinion to matter. "Please listen to me, I'm on the NUMP, I'm unbiased, I know what I'm talking about, I flew to Centex this year" is scrawled along the margins of all these writings claiming objectivity.

I'm happy to read your opinion on who you think should have won the Callahan or the Championship, but you have failed to convince me that your opinion is any more valid than a kid casting his ballot having played in 4 tourneys against many of the nominees. And in case you're wondering, this year I was at Vegas, Stanford, NW Regionals, and Natties. I'd be happy to share my opinions with you too. In fact, I think I have.

Match, this sport is at a stage where, by pure virtue of you writing a lot (and often), you get a seat at the table of discussion on a national scale. Good for you. You put in the time, as you said; you earned it. Now, do you have anything substantive to add, or is merely braying and being heard enough for you?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Colin probably understates the number when he says, "you will always be able to call travel on any throw of significance and due to the normal motion of a thrower’s body, be technically correct at least 20% of the time." I think the number is at least 50%, from all the college ultimate I watched this year.

Then he says making the call if you weren't going to point-block the throw is the same as "forfeiting the competitive respect between teams." Is it? Since when is calling a travel when it's a travel bad? Why not put the onus on the throwers to be more controlled?

Thing is, a lot of people equate making calls with bad spirit. There are certainly bad calls out there, I saw plenty of 'em this year with no spirit in'em. But I think the problem is not so much in the calls themselves, but the inconsistencies in call-making as a game gets tighter and the outcome dicier.

A great aspect of self-officiation is that both teams, at the start of games, feel themselves out to see how tightly the game will be called. Elite Club has for the last several years adopted more of a 'let's play' mentality; we play physical and aggressive D and allow it on ourselves, despite the fact D like that would be instant fouls in summer league or college ultimate. I've had times when I get heavy body as I make a dump cut; there's a moment of contact where I think to myself "ok, let's play it this heavy." I'll even talk about it occasionally during a stoppage of play with my defender, and we nod our heads.

If a team makes close calls early, the other will follow suit. If a team lets play, the other does likewise. A tacit agreement is reached between them, unspoken.

It only feels like 'cheating' when one, usually toward the end of close games, begins calling fouls and travels that both had previously 'played-on'. Were those plays still fouls or travels at the beginning of the game? Sure, by the letter of the rule. But the level of play was established early on and had been played as such until one team started fearing losing and altered the game. In the 11th edition rules I.C. it says:

Captain’s Clause: A game may be played under any variation of the rules agreed upon by the captains of the teams involved. In tournament play, variations are subject to approval by the event organizer.
All players, captains included, set the tone early for what the game will be like by how aggressively they play and call. The second sentence above, regarding variations being approved during tourneys, might be construed against my point until you notice that the one thing players have full, unopposed control over is foul calling.

Changing the way you make calls towards the end of games, and suddenly calling everything you see, breaks this pact, and feels like cheating to the other team. Calls now seem to be made specifically to alter the course of the game, because the team allegedly committing the violations feels as if it hasn't changed anything about their throwing or game play, but calls against them have dramatically increased. Their minds leads them to the obvious conclusion: the other squad is cheating to win. They broke the pact; it feels like betrayal.

I have no problem with anally correct calls, calling every tick-tacky foul, as long as the team is being consistent. They tire of it soon enough, because teams adjust and because it sucks, for both teams, to constantly interrupt a game. I do however take offense to those who begin to call every violation they see towards the ends of games as a tool to win. If it's not cheating, it's inconsistency and it hurts the trust between teams, crucial for self-officiation to work. Anyone who has suddenly found themselves in a callfest knows too well the slope is slippery.

But before we start writing revisionist history let's remember that the Hodags had as many calls reversed by the observer as Mamabird in this year's semifinal, and less than Florida in finals. Also remember the callfest finals '05 against Brown, that for being a double-game point championship game was unbearably boring for its last 5-7 points. That game before calls increased? Incredibly memorable. Towards the end? It felt like watching litigation on C-SPAN.

I coach my philosophy: consistency and fairness. I devote the time you'd spend teaching them to play in shitty callfests to helping them learn and play with the rules. I tell them, "before making a soft call ask yourself if you'd be livid having that called on you. Chances are if you make the call it will. " Seems pretty simple to me: know the rules and call 'em straight. Do that and you've got a pretty fun, fair, and competitive game on your hands. Isn't that better than winning and feeling cheap any day?

Monday, June 09, 2008

(Editor's note: This is a guest editorial written by Colin "JV" Gottlieb, captain of Johnny Bravo '06–'07 and assistant coach of '08 Mamabird)

The UPA College Championship is dead. Long live the UPA College Championship.

The College Championship no longer holds the same significance it did even 5 years ago. The very essence of the tournament as a measure of who is the best at playing Ultimate is obsolete. I submit the following as evidence: as a coach of a college team there is simply no doubt that in the coming season I will have to spend practice time teaching my players how to deal with intentionally poor calls and fouling to gain an advantage in all phases of the game. After coaching my team in the 2008 College Championships, it’s clear it would be a disservice to my team to leave them unprepared to deal with these factors at the highest levels of competition. We will have to practice our offense with multiple stoppages in flow (to mimic the above mentioned intentionally poor calls). We will have to practice being willing to call fouls (thus stopping our own offensive flow) on every single mark. I will have to secretly instruct one of the teams in our scrimmages to try and get into the heads of their teammates with such bad calls and intentional fouling.

How top teams spend their practice time would seem to be an accurate assessment of the state of the game. That I see no other way to prepare my team for College Nationals 2009 other than to spend practice time on learning how to play against poor calls and intentional stoppages of play tells me the game is becoming less about the competition between two players and two teams. It is now becoming a competition between both teams and the rules. Rather than young talented players on the field competing against the athleticism and skills of opposing players, they are battling their own composure and their knowledge of the exact wording of the rules.

The rules are designed to rely on the respect of individual players for the game, if not for each other. There will always be aspects of our game, as a self-officiated competition, that can be taken abused. It is a harder and thus more worthy goal to win the college championship while making calls that respect the nature of player vs. player competition. To make poor, unspirited calls and to so blatantly exploit weaknesses in the rules is to cheapen whatever finish your season ultimately produces.

For those riding the short bus: you will always be able to call travel on any throw of significance and due to the normal motion of a thrower’s body, be technically correct at least 20% of the time. Similarly, as the disc begins moving quickly through the offense, one can always convince themselves that they saw someone’s pivot foot move on a give and go and stop play with a travel call. Doing so is a tremendous advantage for the defense; the offense’s flow is disrupted and the defense can plan a strategy during the stoppage to recover and stop the movement. However, if you were not going to point-block the throw and more importantly, if you did not conclusively witness the travel, then making the call is tantamount to forfeiting the competitive respect between teams and literally changing the game into a competition between both teams over knowledge of weaknesses in the rules.

Where will the game go if it dissolves into a glorified on-field litigation process over the intent of the rules and their exact meaning? The NBA has just announced that they will impose fines for flopping in the 2008–2009 season. How far away is ultimate from needing to institute similar corrective measures? And how sad is that question?

The challenge of our sport is unique. The responsibility of maintaining the integrity of every other sport is left to referees and judges. In our game, the rules have been created to give that responsibility to the players. Make bad calls and you may win, but you will forfeit the most fundamental essence of sports. If you start making calls every time you think you might lose a game, what’s the point of putting on different jerseys and finding out who’s better?

Congratulations to the University of Wisconsin. You were, without question, the deepest and most talented team in 2008. You didn’t need to make bad calls to win. You didn’t need to get booed in the finals. You were better than that.