There has been a lot of pressure on the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) — which organizes the annual Ultimarte World Championships — to introduce observers or some type of rules arbitrators into their games. The issue came to a head this year after a rough, unspirited game between Canada and Japan, two of the world’s top teams. Many players have suggested that observers — with the ability to determine foul calls when called upon by the players and the option to give penalties for unspirited play — would eliminate games like that.
But WFDF, while acknowledging that some games like Canada v. Japan get ugly, continues to be staunchly against the idea of adding observers or referees.
Robert “Nob” Rauch, the President of WFDF, told Ultiworld, “I like having a World Championship without referees and making the claim that it is the defining feature of our sport is our best branding opportunity…It really is a core element of what makes Ultimate as great as it is.”
Rauch added, “When you have a ref there, you see what you can get away with. The calculus becomes: is the penalty great enough for me to not try to get away with it?”
He suggested that poorly spirited games are caused by just a handful of teams and players, and that the vast majority of the time self-refereeing works with adherence to Spirit of the Game. Speaking about the Canada/Japan game, he said, “A game like that can be an anomaly and not the standard.”
Rauch’s history in Ultimate gives him a unique perspective. During his time at the Ultimate Players Association (now USA Ultimate) in the late 80s and early 90s, he created the original observer program in the United States. “I understand the reason why we have adopted that in the US,” he said. “It’s because of those few bad apples.”
But, as a representative of WFDF, he does not see observers as the proper way to deal with unspirited play. The majority of WFDF’s member countries, he said, “think it would be the worst thing in the world to go down that path” and want to maintain the self-refereeing aspect of the sport. “The challenges of a bad game like [Canada v. Japan] make us consider responses, but it doesn’t need to be a move to observers or referees.”
However, a WFDF survey answered by 46 countries showed a small majority of respondents agreeing with the statement: “The use of observers to make line calls and settle disputes quickly preserves the best aspects of spirit of the game.” Referees were much less popular, but observers seem to be a palatable option for many countries.
But if they don’t use observers, how does WFDF deal with unspirited play or cheating? After the 2012 Championships that wrapped up last month in Japan, the organization sent letters out to teams with poor spirit scores. Rauch believes that “by highlighting spirit, you can, over time, make it work.”
At WFDF’s 2012 Congress, they held a presentation and session discussing Spirit of the Game; the American Ultimate Disc league and their use of referees; and observers, trying to weigh the pros and cons of each. Some ideas were floated about dealing with spirit problems, including putting microphones on players so that spectators could hear what is happening during a disagreement or foul call. The increased peer pressure, Rauch suggested, might limit hot tempers and bad calls.
One thing is certain: the argument about self-officiation and observers will continue to boil. “It’s something that’s been discussed since the very beginning of Ultimate,” said Rauch. In fact, the very first Ultimate Players Association newsletter had that debate as its cover story.
It won’t be going away anytime soon.