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.

16 comments:

Jake said...

I've never been a fan of refs and observers in Ultimate. But last year at Nats, our team faced a situation where, because of one player on the other team, we could either compete fairly to the best of our abilities without observers and lose, cheat and win or get an observer and win.
Needless to say, we got an observer. The remaining calls made by the offending player were all overruled and we won the game.
I don't think that observers are needed because some people are less objective than others. That struggle with chippiness is one I'm willing to deal with between players. But when you have a player whose conduct strongly indicates that they are intentionally making calls they know are not true, you're stuck in a difficult situation if there isn't a neutral third party to appeal to, and no amount of talking about the struggle being against yourself is going to change that.
All that said, my preferred method for dealing with cheaters would be to have a process for players to be banned from competition at certain levels. If you cheat, you shouldn't be allowed to play.

Jeters said...

Excellent points...a post every player should read

david said...

I agree with most of this article but... you have defined objectivity away into the realm of unicorns and, um, $1 gasoline! You can't say objectivity can't be had because everyone is viewing from their own perspective - obviously in every situation facts are viewed through the perspective of ones own senses. And even then can you trust what your senses are telling you to be fact? There has to be a reasonable belief that people can form an unbiased opinion based upon the facts they have through their own perspective.
I don't think the objectivity of refs/observers and even bloggers (when they are trying) are so much an issue as their ability to have an accurate 'objective' opinion due to the limited facts presented to them. For ex. no matter how objective a ref is he will never be able to objectively call a foul happening behind him. As far as self-officiation goes you have the advantage that a lot of the time a player's perspective presents the most useful facts for making an accurate call but the disadvantage that they are more likely to be effected by bias and emotion.
If we are to stick with self-officiation there must be better ways of reinforcing good 'unbiased' calls and fair play - positive reinforcement beyond 'most spirited player' awards and sarcastic 'good spirit' heckles and negative reinforcement such as TMFs and ultivillage public humiliation.

Anonymous said...

This is fucking fantastic. We need more Ultimate philosophers...

David,
I agree with what you're saying, to a point. Objectivity is a tricky thing; no one is really objective, as College Champ says, but you're right that there are degrees of subjectivity here. However, I DON'T think that emotions blend with reason, even in the heat of the game. When emotions are involved, the question isn't whether or not YOU know that it was a bad call (and you always do, really), it's whether or not you make the conscious, reasoned decision to uphold your own bad call because the stakes are high.

david said...

Eh, the mind can be tricky when it wants to convince itself of something - denial, rationalization, etc. To be honest this is psychological stuff that I don't want to wrap my head around.
Players can make bad calls for other reasons; bad perspective, retribution, and just plain cheating to protect your pride... to get back to the original article, this is where the personal responsibility to make good calls; the sense of honor; comes into account.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Breathing said...

HH, mind deleting ulticritic's post? I am all for an open forum, but reasoned conversation is appropriate, not RSD nonsense.

To the point: The original post is very, very smart, well reasoned, and convincing.

The gap between ulticritic's position and Champ's position (BP?) is a classic one we see written all over our political world. Not the politics of presidents and congressfolk, but the politics of hope.

On the side of the original post: do we think that it is possible for humanity to become better, more just, or truer to its own changing being?

Or, on the side of ulticritic: do we think that humans are born sinners and there is no hope for them except to bind them to labor, imprison them, or let them act as wild animals in some imaginary market-like gladitorial contest?

I opt for hope.

Anonymous said...

No need to remove Toad's post. He long ago nuked the fridge... and whatever the substance of his posts he's simply unreadable.
Dan Murphy

Hh said...

Ah, that was a fun thing to do on a lazy Saturday morning. I told Toad if he wants to make a point here I'm more than willing to give him his entire post. As long as it's coherent and informative. But none of his usual bullshit tactics.

This is my house and we talk in here. Take screaming back to RSD.

Anonymous said...

so h, i guess that make YOU the ref of this game, eh?

Hh said...

Just the owner of this blog. Whereas in Ultimate, the game belongs to all who play.

Hh said...

I have edited the spittle and froth out of Toad's original comment out, and made it more coherent. I think he'd agree with it, considering I changed nothing of his message and just made sure it sounded like sentences and actual thoughts. New post with his response, as promised Toad.

Hh

Anonymous said...

thanks alot there h's. just wondering though. If you were cognitent enouph to desipher my "spittle" and rewrite it, what makes you think others couldnt understand it in its original form as well. Sure its all cleaned up and spelt right......but it just dosent have the same zing. I DO apreciate the efort and the gesture though. freezing me out completley would have been a classic upa move.

Hh said...

It's not that they can't, Toad, but that they won't.

Do you want people to listen TO you or be mad AT you?

You've done a lot for the sport. I enjoyed playing in the MLU. And, after taking some time to try and figure out what you were trying to say in your comment between all the angry insults, I actually found myself nodding my head at a few of the points that were hidden deep in all that noise.

But if you're *actually* interesting in convincing people you've got to meet them half-way. Sometimes you've got to meet them all the way on their end. Your methods are not effective. But somewhere in there you already know that. You're just having fun. Not doing too much for refs though, but you chose personal entertainment over the content of your message.

It was fun editing though. Glad you liked it.

Peter said...

I could say lots of things about these debates. I see a lot of truth in Former Champ's post, and a lot of truth in Hector's edits of Toad. And I have my own point of view.

David made largely the point I would have made about objectivity - an observer or ref or whatever is more objective than a participant, precisely because, whatever his biases, they do not include the fact that at the end of the game he might get a medal, or money, or kudos, or a sense of pride, or anything else if one particular team wins.

I write separately to address Former Champ's comments on the alleged uniqueness of our sport. This is not uncharted territory by any means. I've said before and I'll say again that I think the ultimate community's seemingly widely-held attitude that we are somehow called upon by our sport's rules to be better humans than are those who play other sports does not withstand even the slightest scrutiny. Self-officiation may add an interesting twist to the challenge that all athletes face to play hard and play fair, but to me that is all.

I understand Former Champ's point that in ultimate, as in few other sports, the players are the arbiters at even the very highest levels. He appreciates the test of will that comes along with sitting on one's own jury even as a championship hangs in the balance. I can see the appeal. But his is the perspective of a champion. I have played ultimate for many years and believe myself to be a quality player, but I have never touched Sarasota grass without an orange shirt on. When championships are on the line, I am either making the calls, or watching from the sidelines. And what I would like to see at such times is athletic excellence, great sportsmanship, and exciting gameplay. The players' internal morality play is not really on display for me - or at any rate, it tends only to be visible when it turns ugly.

I don't see this as an attitude which is cynical with regard to human nature. Just an opinion that athletic competition is more enjoyable to watch than another's own quest for righteousness. I want to see great sportsmanship from all competitors, but I'd rather minimize the extent to which the outcome hinges on it, and I think having a well-trained, neutral official helps do that.

Will D said...

Pretty great original post. Agree that Ultimate offers an opportunity to do things in competition that aren't offered elsewhere, and for those that appreciate that opportunity, it is a good thing. The fact that there are more people who appreciate it now than don't has allowed certain aspects of the game, including player-initiated calls, to continue.

(And I'm not buying the silent majority bit, b/c the UPA has probably done more experimentation and gathering of feedback from more people over more time than any other individual or group. And I can tell you that no one is messing with the results. Believe it or not, but it's true.)

One last thing I thought worth noting was about the sense of urgency and insistence on changing things before they get too bad (from folks like Match), b/c players and teams are starting to go south. I don't know that this is true or as urgent as some would have us believe. There were a lot of teams winning a lot of championships back in the 80's and 90's who had terrible reputations...certainly far worse than the reputations of many teams that are winning championships now. There's good eggs and bad eggs always, in any sport.

In my opinion, the call for drastic change just doesn't seem warranted. Likewise, the call from some to keep things the way they are forever isn't necessarily either. Careful, well-thought-out experimentation and evolution is the surest way to get things right. Otherwise, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and losing important aspects of the sport as we ditch the less important ones and try to make the game better.

Careful, incremental experimentation doesn't involve going straight to systems that we know "work" in some senses (e.g. other reffed sports), b/c we know pretty much exactly what we're going to get. There's no mystery.

Playing in the MLU game a couple of years ago, it became pretty clear in the first half of the first game that the refs were having a hard time seeing the bumping on the mark or the contact with the thrower during some throws. So at halftime, someone commented that b/c it was hard to see (and b/c we couldn't call it), we should start selling those fouls a little more. Stagger back when getting bumped. Hold your arm when there was contact on the throw. It made sense in the context of that game...like most other officiated sports. There you have one change in the sport. It took less than one half of Ultimate to get there. And it ain't a mystery where that one goes.

Point is, we have a chance to do something new with this sport, and we've come a damn long way doing it. I'm excited to keep working on making the sport better, but that includes keeping many of the aspects of the sport that the original poster argued are important.

Play fair, not b/c you'll get caught if you don't, but b/c it's not only the right thing to do, it's the whole point of competition.

Will D