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Does Ultimate Need Referees?

by in Analysis, Opinion with 21 Comments

An American Ultimate Disc League referee looks on as two players battle for the disc.Over the first few weeks of the season, the National Football League has devolved into chaos due to poor officiating from replacement referees (the real ones are locked out) and increasingly unruly player, coach, and referee interactions. The spectacle has reignited — or at least continued — a debate within the ultimate community about moving from self-officiation with observers to a more typical third party referee system.

The discussion really got started after a terrible blown call at the end of Monday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. The call decided the game. Many — including us — took this as a sign of how referees in ultimate are not a panacea: not only do they make errors, theirs are irreversible.

However, others saw this game and noted the impossibility of having NFL players call their own game — arguing that even bad refs are better than no refs.

Really, this just rehashes the arguments for and against referees that have been made countless times. The basics are pretty simple. The pro-ref crowd says that officials will improve the flow of the game (fewer stoppages), allow players to focus on just playing and not think about fouls, stop bad calls, and legitimize the sport for an audience used to referees. The anti-ref crowd says self-officiation works and has worked for decades, observers solve the problems anyway, and spirit of the game is a critical tenet of the sport that would deteriorate with referees.

What hasn’t been as well considered is what exactly the problems are that need to be fixed at the highest levels of play and how they might be fixed without referees. (An aside: it is fairly clear that at lower levels of the sport — leagues, youth, and pickup, for example — adding observers or referees is not only a burden but is unnecessary for well-spirited, fun play). Let’s consider the issues.

First, some elite level games (notably the 2010 College Open Finals between Florida and Carleton) become unwatchable due to constant foul calls — some warranted, others not — that lead to long stoppages which slow the game down. This, while not necessarily bad for players (indeed, Florida used a very short rotation and made ticky-tack but usually legal calls as a strategy to rest their legs), is terrible for spectators.

Second, observers don’t always help play continue quickly, as players feel they can argue their case at length to help persuade the observer.

Third, observers are not able to make active calls that would affect the game. Players can’t see everything (travels, e.g.) so they miss calls that might get made by a referee.

Fourth, many feel that penalties are not severe enough for infractions. The TMF and PMF system is effective at tamping down aggressive fouls, but rarely stops players from playing less physically or getting away with travels. Players who have played in the American Ultimate Disc League generally praise the more severe yardage penalty system and instant turnover on a travel.

Do referees solve these problems? Well, yes. But they also create a different problem, perhaps bigger than any of the above. Players can get away with clear fouls.

The beauty of maintaining the “call your own” system is that there is no way to do that. If you push off on the defender to open up space to catch the disc, the defender will call that foul. And we already have observers in place to determine whether that call was legitimate or not. As Adam Ford pointed out in our series on observers, “A hybrid system of player officials and third-party officials (Observers as we currently know them) gets us the best of both worlds…The game ends up being called more fairly than either a pure self-officiated system or a pure third-party system. And just as importantly, the game is played more cleanly.”

So how, then, can we address the issues above without moving to third-party referees, which have their own major downsides?

It’s simple. Keep the observer system, but make the following changes:

Put a time limit on foul discussions.

Stop the endless arguing about whether the defender hit you before or after the block. Put a fifteen second cap on discussions. If the two players can come to an agreement in that time, great; if not, it goes to an observer for an immediate call. You don’t get to make your case to the observer. They make their decision. And if they didn’t see it, it goes back. Play on.

This will keep the game moving and make the game much more fun to watch.

Let both players and observers make active travel calls.

USA Ultimate experimented with allowing observers to make travel calls but not let players do so. Just let both parties make the call. Better enforcement on both sides.

Foul calls should still be player initiated. This allows for players to accept a physical level of play, much like players do in a pickup basketball game. And observers still have the power to set the tone like referees. If they feel too many chippy fouls are being called, they can overrule calls on light and incidental contact.

Give observers more penalty options.

There has to be a way to cut back on both bad fouls and bad calls without just the threat of ejection. There are many possibilities here: AUDL style yardage penalties, penalty boxes, possibly even a foul limit. There need to be immediate and tangible consequences for unspirited play.

In the case of particularly bad calls, players should be given an instant TMF, much like diving in soccer earns a yellow card.

The penalty for travels should also be increased — adding a yardage penalty or even a turnover would instantly cut down on the constant handler foot-dragging.

These changes would only be necessary at the highest levels of the sport — needed at just College and Club Regionals and Nationals. They would allow for a compromise between the two entrenched camps in ultimate — those who want full refs and those who don’t — and would create some of the fairest, cleanest play in any sport.

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About Charlie Eisenhood

Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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  • diddy

    I don’t get the issue with players will get away with clear fouls bit. You wouldn’t watch the NBA if they called their own fouls. Those guys could probably call a foul on every trip to the basket, or call travel on the same play.

    The problem comes when some players/teams are more/less physical that other teams. Then the calls start. Maybe we need to adopt a system where you get so many fouls a game before being kicked out like basketball. Or a combination of fouls/travels.

    Watching high level games is never as exiting as it should be, because of “do-over” calls. You can get away with a cheap call because if you have a pretty solid chance of the play being a do-over. Watch the CUC between Goat and Furious from 2011. Calls all over the place.

    I personally think it would be nice to have a ref/observer make a call one way or another. Sure it may be wrong, but at least it’s a decision, and the player’s debate/memory skills didn’t influence it.

    let players play, refs make calls.

  • Batch

    Active Observer travel calls should only be on the throw. Incorrect pivoting should remain with the defense only. Otherwise, a great mark who can handle it, is disadvantaged by giving the thrower a break and a chance to surveil the field.

    A limit on fouls is bad. I’ve seen this in an experimental game, and the captain in his pre-game and half-time chat was saying, if you don’t finish this game with three fouls, you weren’t trying hard enough (4 was the ejection threshold). The intentional fouling on defenseless receivers was appalling.

  • anon

    The referees are NOT on strike. They are locked out. This is a huge difference. The owners and the NFL chose to prevent them from working at the end of the previous labor agreement. The referees are not refusing to work, they are being prevented from working. This is even evident in the headline of the article you link to “NFL, official near deal to end LOCKOUT”.
    You undermine your own credibility by making this type of mistake.
    Rest of the column is awesome. Really well written and thought out suggestions. Keep up the great work.

    • Charlie Eisenhood

      Yes, anon, you’re right. It’s a subtle but important point. Corrected.

  • Ryan

    Brodie says on RSD regarding that “clear foul”:

    “Yup thats me running over that guy. Whats the point? The Ref
    called a penalty on me and it was a turnover. What did you
    want to happen?”

    • Charlie Eisenhood

      Thanks, wasn’t clear from the video. Despite that, I think the point is really the same. People will get away with fouls (especially away from the disc) in a match with just referees. That doesn’t happen if you keep a self-officiation element.

  • Josh

    “There has to be a way to cut back on both bad fouls and bad calls without just the threat of ejection.”

    Just to clarify, the existing misconduct system of TMFs/PMFs provide penalties other than the threat of ejection. Certainly egregious infractions can get penalized by an ejection or by a PMF (and 2 PMFs on the same player is an ejection… and 3 in the same tourney means ejection from the rest of the tournament). TMFs for less severe infractions also carry consequences. After the first two TMFs on a team, every one thereafter is a field position penalty on the infracting team.

    “In the case of particularly bad calls, players should be given an instant TMF, much like diving in soccer earns a yellow card.”

    This is already the case. From the USAU Observer Manual: “Finally, a single particularly egregious demonstration of disregard for the rules (such as an intentional infraction or
    clearly unfounded call) can be grounds for a TMF.”

    None of this is to say that other penalty options should not be considered. But some of what you are proposing already exists to some extent.

    • Charlie Eisenhood


      Yes, absolutely. I should have been more clear above. Basically, I think penalties need to be more immediate and given more often than they are now. It’s extremely rare to see TMFs given for bad calls, for example, despite the fact that bad calls happen all the time, even in observed games.

      There is a big psychological difference between a warning that could eventually lead to a yardage penalty and an immediate penalty that affects the game. I think expanding on the framework of what already exists is all that needs to happen to achieve the goals of refs with the benefits of self-officiation.

  • http://www.myalleycats.com Michael Potter

    I think that the AUDL Officials will get much better this year. Remember, this was first time for meaningful fully active officials in ultimate. It is a very difficult job. The view angles are very difficult to maintain. Many of the officials improved during the season by asking questions and reviewing film. We can think of 2012 as the worst possible officials in Ultimate and in general they system worked well.

    The fact that the foul was actually called on BS21 really kills your point about fouling away from the disc. It happens in all sports. Again, the officials are getting better.

    I think a foul limit would be great in the AUDL. The AlleyCats often had issues with contact on the handler (giving and receiving). Certain players in the league like to fly into their marking position. Sometimes the get too close. You can bet that if fouling out was a posibility, they all would have settled down. I don’t think Batch’s comment holds here.

    Now there is NO limit. So in theory, I could have told the ‘Cats that they were not playing hard enough if they didn’t have 10 fouls each at the end of the game. Or, just tell them, “if you don’t think that you can make a D, at least foul them to take them out of their flow”. I think one could make a decent arguement around games 2, 3, 4 that a similar strategy was used against BS21. Hold, grab, push . . . don’t let that dude just get a clean shot at the disc. In this area, the penalties just were not strong enough to stop that sort of action. Even with foul limits they could still use the “hack-a-shaq” philosophy.

    In general, fully active officials were great. I expect ultimate officiating skills will continue to improve. If any AUDL owners happen to read this, GET YOUR REFS ORGANIZED NOW. You might notice that they are kind of important in this other league that you might have heard of . . . the NFL. They should be actual players/former players that have some real interest in the game. Not someone that you grab off the street or from one of your other businesses. They control the flow of the game and the safety of the players. Please show YOUR team some respect by obtaining the proper officials.


  • Colin

    In terms of problems with the existing Observer System, your article does not really distinguish between implementation problems and systematic problems. Implementation problems don’t go away by changing the system.

    I also think your take on the 2010 College Finals is incomplete. Both teams fouled excessively on the mark, which was the primary cause of the stoppages. That and the travel calls. Thankfully, that style of play was totally absent from the 2012 College Championships, in part due to some changes in rules and Observer implementation.

    I also don’t think constant handler foot-dragging is a common problem. A greater problem is constant watching of handler feet, while totally ignoring the time of release — yes, an official would have a better view. Minor movement of the pivot should not be penalized, and major movement of the pivot is not a “constant” issue. The pivot rules are about defining the nature of the game, not about creating a weeny way to penalize the offense. The holier-than-thou “penalize the offense” mindset is what creates the problem of tons of stoppages.

    I think the active “egregious travel” call hybrid is worthwhile, just to catch the big throwing travels. Maybe movement of 5″ or more, and only on or immediately before a throw. Something that’s been discussed before.

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  • MRB

    The refs didn’t blow the call – as it turns out, they got it exactly right.

    It’s kind of like when the Mayor of Baltimore one the election on Jimmy McNulty’s made up serial killer

  • DDD

    I’d suggest that the Observer system would benefit even more from an extremely terse version of your suggested time limit. You ought to get about five words. The Observer is familiar with the rules, and will need no more to conclude whether to uphold the call. A similar discussion length for the foul call, and there’s no point in calling fouls to rest your legs. The stop-and-go would be just as bad.

  • clubPlayer_audlFan

    Decent article. Yardage penalties in the AUDL are silly, however, because they are not really a punishment.

    When the offense has to back up 10 yards it really doesn’t affect anything, because unlike football they aren’t trying to make first downs to continue their possession. Any good team will regain those yards lost–it just doesn’t put pressure on them the way it does in football.

    The only way yardage penalties work in ultimate is if they are very large, like in USAU. Moving from your brick to the other team’s brick, or to your reverse brick, etc is a real difference.

    I would say 20-25 yards minimum if you actually want teams to avoid doing whatever causes the penalty.

  • Wannes

    Seeing that I’m a European player, I haven’t played with observers of any sort. I’ve seen a lot of American ultimate though and I think you make a good case.

    I agree that the game should be attractive for (non-player) supporters. A well-controlled time limit for discussions can partly do the job.

    Concerning the penalty options: Every strategy will have its pro’s and con’s, but a foul limit, for one, seems to work pretty good -generally – in basketball.

    Keep ‘m coming

  • http://kmackdesign.com/books/allbooks.html Keith Mackenzie

    The title of this commentary: “Does Ultimate Need Referees?” is misleading, because the answer only takes one word: YES!

    What’s really being discussed is how best to referee Ultimate!
    And that’s a way hard question to answer.

  • AGS

    The Truck Stop/Southpaw game brings up a situation we can hopefully remove from its context. With an observed game, there should be no reason for players to need to know when the stall count begins after a stoppage. That stuff should be an automatic observer call. Once the thrower and marker agree when the count stopped, let the observer know so the observer may announce stall count.

    On the other hand, it would help for coaches and players to memorize the flowchart of how many seconds a stoppage alters the stall count.

    Now, to address clubPlayer_audlFan’s point, to fix the AUDL rule of altering yardage on a defensive infraction, a refereed game could add seconds to the stall count, as is done in USAU. I still don’t know how or whether to alter the yardage penalty for an offensive infraction; I do have a feeling that the flow interruption could be thought of as part of the penalty, though such interruptions can also hurt the defense.

  • http://www.ultimateargentina.com.ar Martin Gottschalk

    I would like to add a couple of points to Charlie´s argument:

    1) If we get some type of refs in “elite ultimate”, compared to “more spirited” less competitive ultimate, please, dont forget the huge factor of young players looking up to the best players. Elite ultimate it´s full of role models and dream aspiration for youngsters. You cant undermine the impact of this on the sport in general.

    2) Keeping Spirit is not about the perfect observer/ref system, it´s a social contract about how we do sports, that implies a social punishment for those who does not comply, the punishment of being cast out.
    I´ll keep saying it: Brodie saying “let the players focus about playing and not making calls” it´s for weak minded people. Strive to become a great athlete AND a strong minded, honest person in the heat of the moment. We are all great until tested when in really counts.

    Great writing Charly. Didn’t know you had this skill. Debate is what we need, always.

  • AGS

    But so many situations occur when both players *are* being honest (not just thinking they are).

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