Pro Ultimate Leagues Are Not In Danger Of A Flopping Epidemic

The professional, refereed game has been subject to criticism because of the greater possibility of cheating and less of a moral imperative not to do so. But is there really a problem? Henry McKenna investigates.

Two referees watch as a player lays out for a disc in a DC Current v. Philadelphia Spinners game.
Photo by Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Pro ultimate players are incentivized to play dirty – all pro sports have rules that are bent before they are broken. There are ways to get away with rulebreaking in the pro game and there is a lingering sense that cheating could also translate to winning. So is professional ultimate on its way to becoming Serie A, an Italian soccer league well known for diving and overly dramatic antics? Will ultimate pros flop out of the stack like LeBron in the lane?

Easy answer: No.

The novelty of seeing a referee in ultimate has faded. So long as the pro game survives, the zebras have come to stay. The repercussions of referees, however, are still novel to those that watch and play the pro version of the sport. Players appeal to the referees for a foul call too often. Players have complained about little things like missed calls on the mark, both downfield and on the disc. But the problem is not endemic to the sport.

“I have honestly yet to see any egregious fouls or flops given the ongoing struggle over refs [versus] no refs in ultimate,” the DC Breeze’s Brett Matzuka said. “This has simply not really eventuated or been the case.”

Even in a game where the finish was determined by a referee’s foul call, players did not jump on the referees. In the MLU’s Week 2, the D.C. Current upset the Boston Whitecaps 18-17. The game-winning hammer, thrown as time expired, was as electrifying a play as I’d ever seen. It would never have occurred if not for a foul call that had been moments earlier in the final 10 seconds of the game. Boston Whitecaps captain Jeff Graham had no issues with the game’s result.

“I think refs do a good job. They’re doing their best out there. You see players make a lot of mistakes too, but they’re trying as hard as they can,” Whitecaps cutter and leading point scorer Graham said back in April. “Down field there was a lot of bumping. But I don’t think the refs dictated who won or lost the game … I think it’s great they’re willing to put themselves in that position. It’s a not position of glory.”

A Boston Whitecap team official was, however, frustrated with the result and refereeing during the contest, but pro players have been quick to say that refs were not determining games. A few players, however, pointed towards a desire for the refs to improve, which is natural. There was no such thing as an ultimate referee two years ago. They are a part of the professional game that is evolving and adapting as pro ultimate gets a larger sample size.

“I think a lot of the issues with the refs right now probably have to do with the inexperience,” Husayn Carnegie said. Carnegie played last season with the New York Empire and previously with the now defunct Connecticut Constitution. He recalled a time where MLU standout Chris Mazur refereed one of the AUDL games. “… He was a godsend,” Carnegie said. “It was the most tightly controlled game we’ve played.”

Whether intentionally pointing to it or not, Carnegie illuminated part of the issue. The people who know our sport best are the ones playing it. Yet the most experienced players rarely referee games. The ones that do are exceptional referees, but there aren’t enough of them refereeing yet. As Graham pointed out, it’s not exactly a position of glory. People want to be on the field.

Even if a call is not made, players still find ways to take things into their own hands. Brett Matzuka explained a scenario where the DC Breeze made up for a missed call against the Philadelphia Phoenix.

“I got a point block on a Philly player in our second game on the goal line. He called foul and there was no whistle so it was a turnover,” he said. “I thought about it while walking to the disc, and agreed that I think I got his hand. We intentionally turfed the throw and Philly regained possession just outside the goal line. As long as players are brought up engrained with spirit of the game, refs can’t change that.”

The spirit of the game lives through in a rare moment like this one. However, Carnegie feared the spirit of the game may suffer and deteriorate if the pro rules are implemented over club rules at the youth level. Matzuka turfed the throw because he’d been taught to self officiate. A younger generation raised on pro rules and referees could change the culture in ultimate. Though Carnegie admitted it would be difficult to measure any sort of long term effects on ultimate culture, we might see more “willful bending of the rules” that he experienced during his time on the Empire.

The shifts are small now. Hopefully, it will stay that way.

  1. Henry McKenna
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    Henry McKenna is a reporter for Ultiworld. An experienced sports journalist, he played ultimate for four years at Colorado College while pursuing a creative writing degree. He played for Inception and has coached in China and Spain.

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