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Here Is The Best Ruleset For Ultimate: Fouling Out, Stall Clock, And No More Picks

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I watch a lot of ultimate: college, club, AUDL, MLU, you name it. I’ve decided on what I think is the optimal ruleset for ultimate, combining a mish-mash of rules that already exist (this is built, like every rule book, on at least 80% of the existing USAU rules) and a few things that haven’t been tried. This is the framework for rules at the highest level of the sport, and many of the features are only feasible for the most important games and tournaments.

The Field

The USA Ultimate rules have the field shape right. The real key is the width — 40 yards wide seems just right. It’s wide enough so that the offense can change angles, but not so wide that stopping breaks and swings is impossible, as it is in the semi-pro leagues.

Proponents of the football-sized field at the pro level laud the benefit of more hucking and more offense, calling it more exciting. I think that sells the spectator public short. You need a balance in every sport between offense and defense — I like watching offense-only street basketball occasionally, but I would never encourage the NBA to adopt that style. Beautiful defense — both individual and team — can be as exciting as beautiful offense, especially for the intermediate or advanced fan.

The Stall

Having players count to ten on the mark is obviously not the optimal way to track the stall count. It is way too inconsistent and is one of the most hotly contested calls in the game (“I said the T of ten!”)

But the way the pro leagues solve it — with referees counting silently and inconsistently — is not great either.

The solution: a 7-second stall clock, visible to players and fans alike, operated on the sideline. A buzzer goes off if it hits zero. Disc still in the hand of the player? Turnover. A stall clock operator on the sideline presses a button to reset the clock when the disc is thrown/caught.

This would be a much more consistent and exciting way to watch a stall count unfold.

Officiating

If you’re coming here hoping for a firm stance on whether we should adopt observers or referees, you will be disappointed. From a spectator point of view, I simply don’t think it matters all that much. Players seem split on what they prefer.

Really, the key is to have a trained professional as the official. Whether they are making active rulings or waiting for player calls before adjudicating, there are way, way too many bad officials in ultimate right now. On the whole, the officiating is particularly bad in the AUDL, where each team slaps together a crew of local refs for each game. Like many things in the AUDL, your mileage may vary. Some cities have great refs; others, not so much. I can’t believe how often you see a player throw his hands up for a foul call, then get it 3-4 seconds after the play happens.

The MLU’s refs are not always great, either, but they are certainly more consistent.

There are some very capable observers in the USAU game, and the top tier of observers are the best trained officials in the sport. We need more of them: people who aren’t afraid to make a call, who manage the physicality and call infractions when necessary, and who know the rules inside and out.

Regardless, I am thoroughly convinced that top level ultimate should have officials; pure self-officiation has far too many pitfalls, especially for spectator ultimate.

Fouls

I think the current USA Ultimate rulebook does a great job of outlining fouls. You can’t bump the thrower. You can’t slash the arms of a receiver or hold them down as they try to jump. Physicality and contact in the stack is technically disallowed, but is often uncalled by players, observers, and referees alike. The rules seem to have found the sweet spot for a “non-contact” sport.

Unfortunately, enforcement leaves a lot to be desired; it’s probably the most glaring weakness in the current ruleset. The pro leagues have made an effort to combat fouls with a short yardage penalty, but a 10 yard penalty is so much less significant in ultimate than it is in football. USA Ultimate rules often allow players to get away with repeated, egregious fouls with almost no repercussions. The current TMF/PMF system still lacks teeth, especially when being wielded by inexperienced or timid observers.

It’s time to try a new approach. It would be easy to institute an individual foul limit on players in officiated games. Without in-game testing, it would be hard to know what the ‘foul out’ number should be, but it would serve as an effective way to stop continued offenders. Additionally, hard, physical fouls — especially dangerous ones on layouts through an opposing player — should be much more rigorously penalized, with a “yellow card” given that follows a player in the game (and perhaps the tournament) like in soccer. Get a second one and you’re gone.

Major League Ultimate referees give out bands for flagrant fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct — that’s a workable system. Anything would be better than the multiple-warning system used in USAU play that tends to allow too much bad behavior.

Picks

What a weird rule. We’ve been tinkering with it for many years and it still doesn’t seem quite right. It confers far too much of an advantage to the defense to simply be able to call “pick!” and effectively stop play, regardless of what happened. The continuation rule alleviates the problem somewhat, but it still brings play to a halt for what is usually totally unintentional.

The semi-pro leagues have solved the pick dilemma by…almost never calling them. When’s the last time you saw a pick call?

What if we were to abandon the pick rule altogether? Would it screw up the game? What if it were more like football, where outright screens are illegal, but crossing routes designed to gum up defenders are common practice?

It seems crazy to have the back of the stack defender calling a pick because their mark cuts away from them to the break side and their path is slightly altered by the players they knew were standing there.

The defense would have to adjust, certainly. We’d see more switching and different schemes. But, boy, would it improve the flow of the game to take a “stop the game” button out of the defense’s hands.

Substitutions

Full substitutions should be allowed during timeouts as well as between points, a la the pro leagues. There’s no reason not to allow it — it adds an awesome strategic element, makes timeouts more interesting (and valuable), and creates better opportunities for the best players to be on the field at the same time going head-to-head.

There should be some consideration of giving each team one or two 30 second timeouts to be used almost exclusively for subbing players. Exciting!

Travels

All travel calls should be initiated by officials, not players. There is already an observer or referee watching the thrower, who of course is stationary. Asking the official to watch for travels is not a huge reach, given proper training. And then we could have a clear third-party look at whether or not the toe dragged. No more reenactments.

I think the idea of thrower travels being turnovers in the pro leagues is very interesting. It does seem better than a “do over” — why should the offense get a freebie for an infraction? Maybe there could be minor and major travel penalties — a slight toe drag gets you a yardage penalty; an egregious one is a turnover.

This is another call — like picks — that is too easy to abuse.

Movement During Stoppages

It should be 100% allowed, like it is in the pro leagues. No more tedious repositioning of players after calls.

Given proper penalty enforcement, you won’t run into problems with intentional fouling to stop a huck in transition, for example (a time when the repositioning dance often favors the offense).

Timing

It’s time for timed games. Not wink, wink, nudge, nudge timed games. Actual timed games.

Last second scoring drives are exciting! Explicit clock management is more compelling than letting teams burn clock with timeouts and offsides infractions.

The thing is, we already play timed games. Cap rules — both soft and hard — are designed to create time limits. But it really is more fun to watch a game expire because the clock hits zero and not, as often happens under hard cap, when the losing team scores.

Alternatively, USAU rules can stick with what they did this year at the College Championships. Remove hard cap from the semifinals and finals. Perhaps the biggest benefit of this system is that there is always a comeback opportunity. You’re down 11-7 in a game to 12? Just score five straight. There’s no clock. Also exciting.

Assorted

– Double team: take it or leave it. I think on the 40 yard wide field it may be too much of a defensive advantage.

Penalty boxes (a la hockey, rugby, and lacrosse) are not a bad idea and are certainly a better deterrent than a yardage penalty.

– Every official should have a whistle to stop and restart play. It just makes sense.

What else needs to be tweaked? What did I get wrong? Sound off in the comments.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    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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