AUDL Team Owner: USAU And Pro Leagues Share Values, Should Cooperate

Spirit of the Game is not restricted to self-officiated games.

SOTG DiscThe ongoing conversation being played out online among the Ultimate community about the meaning of the Spirit of the Game, the values of USA Ultimate, the impact of referees and the semi-pro game on Spirit of the Game, gender equity, and whether and how USAU and semi-pro leagues should interact has been a wonderful display of passionate expressions of heartfelt belief and thoughtful reasoning on these various issues. Tiina Booth’s recent article follows earlier voices. I would like to add to the discussion from the perspective of a long-time player, youth coach, and, more recently, founder of the AUDL’s San Francisco FlameThrowers. (I want to state upfront that these opinions are mine, and do not represent those of the AUDL, any other AUDL team, or others involved with the FlameThrowers.)

For myself, I firmly believe USAU and the pro leagues should engage in some basic cooperation to enable maximum player choice and help achieve the shared goal of growth and success of the sport of Ultimate.

First I’d like to address the “gender equity” question and whether the introduction of the pro leagues diminishes USAU’s efforts or should prevent effective interaction between the USAU and the pro leagues. Soccer and hockey are representative examples. US Soccer and US Hockey are the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) for their sports, just as USAU is the NGB for ultimate. They select both men’s and women’s teams for international competitions and promote the sport across gender.

MLS and the NHL are US/Canadian leagues for elite men’s competition. The NWSL is a new pro women’s soccer league; the earlier WPS collapsed. The NWHL was a (now defunct) pro women’s hockey league. Does the success of elite men’s pro Soccer and Hockey leagues while women’s leagues struggle undo US Hockey or US Soccer’s other efforts, or mean that these NGBs don’t cooperate with the men’s leagues? Not at all. And neither does the emergence of men’s pro Ultimate threaten the work of USAU as an NGB, nor — and I cannot stress this enough — should it reduce the importance the USAU places on gender equity in the USAU series and international competitions.

Second, and more importantly, I’d like to dive into the Spirit of the Game. I believe the Spirit of the Game belongs to all of us, and the question of referees vs. observers vs. total self-officiation is a red herring. Is self-officiation a value in itself or a means of expressing the deeper value of the SoTG? If self-officiation is the pinnacle of SoTG, why does the USAU allow observers at all? And if they allow observers to make active delay-of-game and TMF calls, why draw the line there?

Some have said the ability of players to overturn referees’ calls in AUDL and MLU games is “token.” Not so. Referees in most sports are the final arbiters of the rules and their application. They don’t want to be overruled by players, even those making a call against themselves, for fear of being “shown up” or “losing control of the action on the field.” The case earlier this year of a Premier League (UK soccer) referee red-carding the wrong player, despite the actual offender coming forward, speaks volumes on typical referee attitudes.

Do referees mean bad spirit, and observers or total self-officiation mean good spirit? During a close 1st half in the 2013 AUDL finals I personally saw a Toronto Rush player, correctly from my vantage point, use the AUDL “Integrity Rule” to call back a goal the ref had awarded him. With the San Francisco FlameThrowers, we went even further and developed a policy to turn the disc back over intentionally if awarded it on a call we couldn’t overrule or that wasn’t made. And at the Youth conference in Oakland, CA in February of this year, Miranda Roth Knowles directed a session on “Preparing Young Athletes For Spirited Play” and used a separate self-called foul from an AUDL game as an example of “good spirit”, and the notorious, totally self-officiated, Japan/Canada Worlds game as an example of “bad spirit.”

My experience is that players who want to bend/break the rules will do so whether the game is self-officiated, observed, or refereed, and others have pointed out that they’d rather have a neutral referee be wrong than be concerned about whether their opponent is, frankly, cheating. Clearly good spirit and bad transcend rule & format differences and diversity here should be no crime.

Nor is Ultimate the only sport to have a strong culture of sportsmanship. Golf’s adherence to a code of honesty and responsibility for one’s penalties can seem ludicrously severe to outsiders (Disqualification for mistakenly signing an incorrect scorecard? Yep.) Here’s a nugget on the “Spirit of the Game” (yes, they call it that, too!) from The R&A, the UK golf NGB: “For most of us, the game of golf is self-regulating. There is seldom a referee present [emphasis mine] so we are reliant upon our own honest adherence to the Rules in order to enjoy the game. As a result we are all occasionally forced to call a penalty on ourselves for infringements which, often, will go unnoticed by everyone else.”

Here we have a perfect description of both the demands placed on players under most normal conditions (Call your own fouls!) and the possibility of a referee under other conditions.

The way to ensure that SOTG remains healthy and vital is for all of us involved in the sport as players, coaches, teammates, observers/referees, and administrators to insist on it. Team leaders and coaches will always set the tone on acceptable behavior, and it’s incumbent on them to hold themselves and each other to the highest standards. A referee, observer, or teammate making a bad call is no excuse for a player not making the right call. Players who don’t know the difference should find themselves on the sidelines until they do, while those who refuse to learn the difference should be encouraged to find another sport. Upholding the Spirit of the Game both on and off the field is a core value of the FlameThrowers because as a youth coach, I know that the kids coming up in the game now, as Tiina’s article confirms, are most definitely paying attention. Part of our duty as “professionals” is to model appropriate behavior and represent the very best of SOTG, on and off the field.

Finally, I don’t believe that the USAU should “support” the pro leagues. What I do believe is that some basic cooperation will help grow awareness of, and participation in, the sport of Ultimate. One simple thing, for example, would be opening lines of communication about the timing of the major USAU TCT required events & plans for pro schedules so that we can jointly empower players to participate in both. Going a step further and working together to develop youth ultimate, as Tiina suggested, is a natural synergy and would enable the USAU to use the pro leagues as a “force multiplier” for their own efforts.

The pro leagues and USAU should recognize our shared goal in building the sport, and engaging in some basic cooperation and coordination would help achieve that goal in ways that enhance all our efforts without diminishing the values that the USAU, as a National Governing Body, rightly wants to promote.

  1. Michael Kinstlick

    Michael Kinstlick is a long-time Ultimate player and coach. He is a co-owner of the AUDL's San Francisco Flamethrowers and one of the world's foremost experts on craft distilleries. He lives in San Francisco.

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