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Rethinking the Rules: Penalty Boxes

by in Opinion with 11 Comments

As with any sport, ultimate is constantly evolving. The rules that govern our game are by no means perfect and we should always be looking for opportunities to improve them.

With that in mind, Ultiworld is starting a new series, Rethinking the Rules, that will explore areas in which our sport has the potential to grow. We’ll be taking a look at a variety of ideas, ranging from the innovative and far-fetched to the obvious and easily-implemented, with the intention of sparking a discussion on how the sport can get better.

In the first edition of our Rethinking the Rules series, we will be exploring a concept that certainly falls on the creative side of the spectrum: penalty boxes.

Adding penalty boxes to ultimate is a fairly unexplored idea that first came to me while watching video from the now infamous Canada vs. Japan game at Worlds. If you haven’t seen our recap from that game, check it out, because the egregious fouls — and to be frank, the dirty and dangerous plays — committed by Team Canada exemplify the type of infractions that ultimate’s current rules have little answer for but that a penalty box system would be able to effectively combat.

Most people immediately associate the term ‘penalty box’ with ice hockey but a system developed for ultimate would be more likely to sample from lacrosse and rugby. Both of these sports allow officials to discipline players that commit infractions by taking them off the field for a set amount of time and forcing their team to play shorthanded. For our purposes, it seems necessary to assume that the hypothetical penalty box system for ultimate would similarly be enforced by either observers — with the authority to actively call penalties — or AUDL-style referees. The advantage of playing 7-on-6 is simply too great for players to be responsible for making these types of calls.

In the system I’m imagining, the vast majority of fouls committed in any single game of ultimate would not warrant a trip to the ‘sin bin.’ Penalties would only be assigned for the most absurd and unspirited of infractions. Similar to rugby, players would be taken off the field for:

  • violent fouls
  • dangerous plays
  • intentional rule violations
  • repeatedly committing less serious infractions

Once assigned a penalty for one of these infractions, the guilty party would be required to stand in a designated area outside the field of play for a set amount of time. This is where things start to get tricky. Determining the appropriate amount of penalty time given for the various infractions seems like it would take quite a bit of testing. Lacrosse is probably the best template to start with as most penalties last for 30 seconds but more serious fouls warrant increased time ranging from one to three minutes.

It’s hard to imagine playing defense 6-on-7 for even 30 seconds without surrendering a score. And, in a way, that’s the point. The penalty box would be used to regulate only the most excessive or recurring infractions. Officials would be able to give warnings when things get chippy, as the AUDL already has them doing, so players could know when to correct their behavior. At that point, each individual can either realize that crossing the line means they are essentially giving up a score or they can continue on and find themselves in the box.

It would also enable observers to regulate a match more quickly. One of the criticisms of the current system is that observers can’t quickly punish a player — both team and player misconduct fouls act mostly as warnings, and the yardage penalties that can come later are arguably not severe enough. Allowing observers to send players to the penalty box would get games in line — fast.

One last important thing to point out is that the penalty box system would have very little effect on the overall flow of the game. Penalties should be quite rare and, assuming teams could make it through an entire penalty a man down, players would seamlessly re-enter the field once they had served their time. Most games would likely finish without a single penalty being called but there would always be a safeguard in place to prevent the undesirable extremes.

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About Wes Cronk

Wesley Cronk is the Vice President of Business Development of Ultiworld. Originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, he started playing ultimate in high school and split his college ultimate between the University of Florida and New York University. He has played open club with Vicious Cycle (Gainesville) and Fox Trot Swag Team Unity (New York). He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can reach him by email (wes@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@wescronk).

View all posts by Wes Cronk →

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  • Jonathan Levy

    No Penalty Box is required. This problem is already solved.

    The Player Misconduct System exists today as part of the Observer Program. Two Personal Misconduct Fouls ejects a player from the game. Three ejects them from the tournament.

    • Wesley Cronk

      Yes, this is true, but just because there is a system in place to combat the same problem doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do so.

      Personally, I don’t care for the absolute nature of the current system or the power that it grants to Observers. Over the course of two or three judgement calls, an Observer can have a tremendous impact on a game or a team’s entire tournament. While this may also be true in the penalty box scenario, I’d much rather see a team penalized repeatedly than to have a player banned from multiple games for three PMFs of any kind.

  • The Manly Man

    I’m not sure how I feel about this particular idea, but I think this new series sounds very promising. Keep it going!

  • TJ

    I like the idea. I thought it was kind of ridiculous at first, but I do think the penalty of playing a man down is a more effective means of regulating behavior than some stupid yardage penalty… I think plenty of people have heard that TMF actually stands for Too Much Fun. Here’s one thing that I thought of that I don’t think the article addressed though: What happens to field position when play resumes? I could see it going one of two ways.

    Option one is to have a penalty function like a timeout. Both teams reset (the defense presumably adopting some sort of 6-person zone scheme), which allows the offense the advantages that go along with a time out, but gives the defense the ability to set up and takes away some of the momentum from the offense. However, this could be balanced out with longer penalty times.

    I bring it up because the more obvious scenario, Option 2, would be to pull the infringing defender out of play and leave everyone else with the field position they had at the time of the foul.

    Both have some obvious advantages and disadvantages. I haven’t really thought it through, but that’s what popped into my head reading this.

  • Evan

    There are some decent ways to setup 6 person zones that would usually enable the shorthanded team to slow the game down enough to eat up all or most of a time penalty. If the shorthanded team were to gain possession I would think it very likely that it could play keepaway long enough for the penalty to expire.

    Penalty lengths defined by points might be better suited, but they still encourages strategies that are generally considered less entertaining for spectators, if that is a consideration.

    • TJ

      yeah, evan, those are some good points.

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  • vStack

    I like this new series on rethinking the rules. The one change I would like to see that so far hasn’t merit much discussion with the changes brought by AUDL is allowing players to mack and dribble the disc without catching and pivoting. Basketball initially did not allow dribbling till the 50′s, and the passing component was even more similar to today’s ultimate. If this rule is adopted now, I would say the situation where macking the disc becomes effective immediately is for endzone passes that are just a few yards short.

    In time we might see players dribbling downfield for big yardage gain. But the offensive player has to trade that with giving more opportunity for the defense to get the bid. And of course the wind would put a damper to this.

    The current college and club players are probably too set in their ways to learn a new skill, but it would be interesting to see what innovation youth players can bring to the game down the road, if they start practicing the dribble in earnest.

  • Perry-David

    vStack, could you please explain what macking and dribbling a disc looks like? I’m having trouble visualizing it.

    Is dribbling something like constantly tipping the disc up on your finger while keeping it flat? Or simply tossing it up in the air and catching it every few steps?

    • vStack

      It’s the first case as you described of tipping the disc continuously with your finger to impart rotation, lift and horizontal momentum without catching the disc as the player is running. Once you catch the disc, you have to stopped and plant your pivot foot and throw a pass from that point on.

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