April 18, 2013 by Bill Stewart in Opinion with 29 comments
Self-officiating, personal accountability, and sportsmanship are the hallmarks of our sport. They are what set Ultimate apart from most other team sports. However, in Ultimate games without observers, cheating is sometimes rampant, and even in games with observers, certain players and teams still cheat. They do whatever they can get away with, either because their attitude is: if the ref didn’t see it, it didn’t happen, or because they believe the consequence is worth the penalty. The organization that governs our sport has been complicit in allowing unspirited play by failing to sanction players and by coddling self-appointed “elite” players and teams.
The Ultimate Players Association removed “Players” from its name and rebranded itself as USA Ultimate on May 25, 2010. Under pressure from a few college teams who threatened to form their own league, USAU agreed to segregate first college, and subsequently club, Ultimate. A good example of “elite” college Ultimate was on display at the May 2010 College Nationals when Florida beat Carleton by breaking and exploiting every possible rule they could, slowing the pace of the game with intentional fouls and travel calls so their starters could rest mid-point, and pushing defenders out of the way to make catches. With three Team Misconduct Fouls, their opponent, Carleton, was hardly a paragon of virtue either. Thus began the new era of USA Ultimate.
Cheating was certainly not invented in 2010, but it has become more pervasive in college Ultimate at all levels since then. As the coach of Amherst College for the past 19 years, I have seen an increase in aggressive, physical, and sometimes dangerous play in the college game, though I have seldom seen players intentionally trying to hurt one another.
Without accountability, some club Ultimate players have taken “physical” play to an even more dangerous place. In addition to grabbing shirts, hand checking, and shoving opponents out of the way, some players have taken to intentionally injuring their opponents. I have been playing Ultimate for 32 years, including in eleven UPA/USAU National Championships and three World Championships. In that time, I have had my share of sprains, breaks, pulls, and separations, but none of those were caused directly and intentionally by an opposing player.
In the past two years however, I have been intentionally injured twice: an opponent broke my thumb at the 2011 Boston Invitational and I received a concussion during the 2012 USAU fall championship series. With the thumb injury, my opponent actually warned me (twice) that I might “break my wrist” if I tried to guard him, and then he fouled me so hard he literally broke and partially dislocated my thumb. With the concussion I received no warning. I took a blind “hard foul” in my back that knocked me out of the game and has left me symptomatic 5 months later.
In neither case was a player penalized, as there were not observers in the games. In other games I have played in and watched, teams have targeted a key player on the opposition and tried to “take them out” through repeated, intentional fouls and physical play that is likely to injure.
The newly formed professional leagues have tried to address these concerns by incorporating referees, yardage penalties, and, in Major League Ultimate, something akin to soccer’s Yellow/Red Card system. Both leagues give a nod to spirit of the game by allowing players to overrule referees to make calls against themselves. But the odds are that Ultimate will devolve into a game like so many others with referees: a game where players get away with what they can because if no ref saw it, it didn’t happen. A game where players flop, whine, and act injured to get calls from refs.
What’s the actual solution? There needs to be zero tolerance for any kind of cheating in Ultimate at any level of play. Any player who consistently and intentionally breaks the rules, including bumping the thrower hard early in the stall count, hand checking, shirt grabbing, flopping — or any of the many ways a player can cheat — must be ejected. In games without observers, players should be empowered to give other players Yellow Cards.
Any time a Yellow Card is given in a game without observers, the game must stop until observers are in place (therefore players will not be able to eject one another in the heat of play, but all players will have the power to trigger the presence of observers and to issue initial warnings). In tournaments without a pool of certified observers, neutral third parties can almost always be found in the form of experienced players and coaches from other teams.
In most high-stakes, competitive Ultimate games we need neutral third party observers to resolve disputes and contested calls. But those observers must also then be given the power to immediately remove any player who cheats. For observers, there should also be a Yellow Card option for situations where the observer is uncertain about whether a player deserves an ejection, but that Yellow Card warning should follow that player throughout the tournament, making the default for any flagrant cheating immediate ejection. Obviously, stronger penalties, sanctions, and bans must apply to anyone who intentionally injures an opponent.
As a player, a coach, a parent of two young children who play pick-up Ultimate, and the father (and sometimes teammate) of a son who was a US and World Juniors champion, I believe Spirit of the Game is alive and well among most players at most levels of Ultimate. The few who cheat are poisoning the game and do not belong in the sport. If they want to continue their “style of play” with referees in the professional leagues, let them. The rest of us can play Ultimate.