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.