In All But Name: Observers Are Looking Too Much Like Referees

Have observers started to leak too far towards being referees?

Photo: Kevin Leclaire -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

It’s extremely unfortunate that the main talking point after a weekend of fantastic ultimate action at the USA Ultimate National Championships isn’t about the athletes, the teams, or even ESPN’s blue screen woes. It’s about observers. How unfortunate.

Here are some things I saw that are not encouraging developments:

A Player Asking That An Opponent Be Carded

I love football (“soccer”), but something that irks me is that a good proportion of the post-match analysis is devoted to refereeing decisions. Managers complain about referees constantly, and since referees have the ability to change the course of the game, they are manipulated by players. I saw a clear example of this in the semifinal between Sockeye and Ironside when one player seemed to request that another be issued with a card.

“Gaming” the observers like this is something I have an intense dislike for. Like diving in football (“flopping” in “soccer”), it hurts the reputation of the sport and should be stamped out.

Changing Incentives

I was also surprised to overhear the commentators mention how one team had been given a TMF for failing to contest repeatedly; their view was that if the team wasn’t going to contest, then it was tantamount to deliberate team-wide fouling.

To me, that’s a dangerous line to cross, as it effectively provides an incentive for players to always contest calls. This breaks down the very idea of mutual respect between players, a keystone of WFDF Rules (“1.4 Highly competitive play is encouraged, but should never sacrifice the mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play”). Speaking of which…

Not Discussing Calls Means The Loss Of The Mechanism That Develops Mutual Respect

It might not be popular with neutrals, ESPN, or armchair fans, but I believe that discussing calls is a hugely important part of ultimate and a sign of truly healthy SOTG.

Over the years, I’ve formed friendships with opponents because we were able to talk calmly, act like adults, and show that we would never play with a “win at all costs” mentality. So it pains me whenever I see ultimate players turn directly to the observers whenever there’s a call (something very obvious during Sockeye v. Ironside semifinal), rather than turning to their opponent to discuss it.

WFDF has a great strategy called “BE CALM” which helps guide how players should react to calls, but then there are no observers under WFDF rules. The equivalent USA Ultimate guideline says:

“Spirited games result from mutual respect among opponents. Assume the best of your opponent. Give him or her the benefit of a doubt.”

Going straight to the observer is a sign of poor spirit, and I’d love to see the regulations changed to prevent observers from giving a judgment until both players have discussed the call.

Swearing Debacle

Jimmy Mickle, potty mouth. Well, not quite. A barely audible expletive directed at his own teammates results in a technical, a huge yardage penalty on double game point in prequarters, and virtually hands Machine the game.

The quote? “For our f**king lives here, let’s go, alright. Let’s go have some fun.” The penalty is already well-documented.

In a game where the difference between winning and losing comes down to inches, observers can have too big an impact. And from my perspective, observers have, in some instances, begun to blur the lines between observing and refereeing.

What’s the distinction? According to USA Ultimate:

“The primary difference between Observers and Referees is that Observers shall not make active foul and violation calls of a subjective nature, while Referees are empowered to make any call authorized in the rules, bylaws, officiating guide, or any set of tournament ground rules.”

Here’s a key section from the USAU Observer Manual:

“The Game Belongs to the Players.

Managing and conducting the game is primarily the players’ responsibility, and the outcome of a game should be decided by their actions, not those of Observers. Your role is not to alter the outcome or dictate the course of a contest, but to assist players in following the rules and to help resolve disputes where necessary. Thus, except where Observers are empowered to decide a matter, all calls and play stoppages are initiated by the players. Likewise, if there is a reasonable chance that the players may be able to quickly resolve a dispute on their own, they should be afforded the opportunity to do so before you intervene.”

It’s hard to argue that the actions taken in this video — nor the justification of Head Observer Mitch Dengler — aren’t overstepping the boundaries laid out in the Observer Manual, turning them at times into referees in all but name.

A Potential Solution

Don’t get me wrong; refereeing can be done right, as can observing. Just look at the Rugby World Cup, currently in progress, where referees are there to enforce the rules and take no prisoners when players misbehave.

Rugby refereeing is well-known for being non-nonsense, and for treating players fairly. If players act like adults, they are treated like adults. When they behave like children, they are punished. Carding a player for swearing as they roll on the floor injured is petty and clearly over-stepping the boundaries required of an observer.

Common sense should always apply, and observers should have the flexibility to control the game as required, and not be forced to adhere to nonsensical penalties that might force an observer to interject themselves into a game unnecessarily. When the rules are open to interpretation (“audible from the sideline” to whom? What’s the definitive list of words that constitute “profanity”?), context is vital. Screaming a swear word at an opponent or an observer, or during a live-streamed ESPN broadcast, is very different from a captain talking to his own team without a raised voice. I’d like to think that observers in ultimate could exercise a little more common sense and leave the game to the players.

In most of the world ultimate remains a fully self-officiated sport, but it appears that in the USA, the worst aspects of refereeing have begun to infiltrate our sport at the highest level. USAU needs to lead the way and set things right.

  1. Sion "Brummie" Scone
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    Sion "Brummie" Scone coached GB Open from 2010-2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013, and the u24 Men in 2018. He has been running skills clinics in the UK and around the world since 2005. He played GB Open 2007-12, and GB World Games 2009. He lives in Birmingham, UK. You can reach him by email (sionscone@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@sionscone).

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