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Ultimate 2030: How Should We Officiate?

Differing priorities for the sport will understandably lead to different perspectives on officiation. How can we respect all viewpoints?

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

This is the third article in a series about what ultimate could look like in the next 15+ years.

When it comes to the topic of officiation models, there is much to be discussed. Is self-officiation sustainable over the long term? Do we need referees for the chaotic moments? Are observers the correct compromise?

Officiation is something that has been discussed and debated within the ultimate community for decades, especially as it contrasts with many other refereed sports. Self-officiation remains dominant for 99% of our 5 million players in the United States. International players and organizations are usually huge advocates for spirit of the game and play self-officiated even at the highest levels. USA Ultimate’s 50,000 members (top 1%) might get an observed experience in their lifetime, but maybe only a few thousand elite players do consistently. We have largely been self-officiated in our long term growth and, perhaps, it is the reason for the culture and community we enjoy today. Yet is there still room for improvement? Certainly.

More recently, the referee model has been implemented in the semi-pro leagues, meaning all three models are currently being given tested consideration. The debate and discussions still go on, yet with most discussion occurring in the digital echo-chamber, it’s very hard to find consensus or common ground.

But what if we started looking at each other as allies instead of oppositions? What can we learn from each side of the debate? Which experiences tend to make someone identify with one officiation model over the others? What is the optimized solution for everyone?

I believe many of our arguments — the places we usually get stuck — come from considering only the worst case examples of each model’s weaknesses. Whether someone is a competitive or recreational type, they may see these as critical flaws or reasonable compromises. Here’s just a small portion of worst case scenarios I have heard for the various officiation models:

  • With no third party, defenders gets physical to disrupt offensive flow with foul calls
  • Without observers, players automatically contest calls for their own benefit
  • Observers overstep their appointed power if they interpret a rule differently than the players on the field would
  • Observers or referees are largely uninformed or minimally trained
  • Referees didn’t see an obvious foul that the player can’t call
  • Referees made an incorrect ruling (and the beneficiary didn’t use the integrity rule)

Is human error or behavior to blame for these situations? Or does the system in which we’re competing impact our behavior to create better or worse outcomes? While it is somewhat easy to point out hotheads, bad eggs, or adrenaline junkies, it is more difficult to analyze the influence of intangible systems. So just as we commonly  blame individuals for negative outcomes based on personal experiences, are there other arguments that we should consider based on this unseen phenomena?

In the study of social systems, a branch of Sociology, there are two points of view that create a spectrum of perspectives. With players, teams, and a sport community at-large all interacting within the game environment, we may be able to stretch our understanding by considering these viewpoints and how they would look at each officiation model.

Atomistic Viewpoint

This is the view that the whole is the sum of its parts, or that people determine the society. Individuals are the reason for bad calls, temper tantrums, disrespect, or — alternatively — playing fair, having respectful discussions, or avoiding dangerous plays. If a whole team behaves badly, it could be from the captain’s or coach’s playing philosophy. Essentially the overall feeling about the game is based on the people who played it, not the system and parameters they played within.

Holistic Viewpoint

This is the view that the whole determines the actions of its parts, or that people are influenced by the society. For example, because self-officiation enforces an active approach to conflict resolution, it creates social learning situations. Similarly, since the referee model takes a passive approach, people might keep bending the rules as long as they don’t get caught. This viewpoint predicts we would see different personalities come out of each officiation model. Environment, colors, weather, and crowds can affect our mood and behavior; the officiation system within a sport could do that as well.

This duality can be found in many social/behavioral disciplines, most commonly referred to as “nature vs. nurture.” Regardless of whether you’re all for one or against another, each viewpoint is relevant and important to consider when looking for an optimized solution. Yet maybe instead of asking why individuals act the way they do, a more useful question is how or in what way something happened. Working from limited case studies and sports comparisons, here’s how each viewpoint may consider each officiation model for ultimate across different divisions.

Atomistic viewpoint (all officiation models)

Youth/College Play – The number of irresponsible/undisciplined players on the field is going to determine how the game is played, regardless of the officiation system. If some players aren’t as skilled as others, they may think cheating is the best way to even the playing field, so it will likely happen. Players wouldn’t become better people from learning conflict resolution in the self-officiation model, and they wouldn’t become worse if referees didn’t always catch their misconduct. Even within teams, the captains or culture may favor certain styles of physicality, but each player is independent to make their own decisions on the field.

Adult Play – The number of aggressive/physical players on the field is going to determine how the game is played. There will always be dangerous plays, misconduct, and cheating, but that is because of players’ emotions and adrenaline in the moment. If we want fair play all around, which may be impossible, we would need to single them out for penalties or fair play training. These inevitable behaviors have no effect on what techniques younger players use in their own games because they make decisions about their development independently.

Holistic viewpoint of referee model

Youth/College Play – Athletes learn a game where all officiating decisions are made for them; taking conflict resolution opportunities out of their hands as the progress into their adult lives misses a chance for character development, regardless of whether or not they plan on sticking with the sport. With less skill or discipline amongst developing players, this system may produce more intentional, surreptitious cheating without the peer pressure of fairness that comes with self-officiation. When referees call fouls on underdeveloped players, this may be frustrating to them if it was an accident without a way to discuss. On the other hand, players who aim for the big leagues can put more time into improving their play with fewer interruptions, yet may go unpenalized for mistakes more often. If players develop within this system alone, they may be less inclined to respect opponents as well as officials and cheat more often to gain every possible advantage or make up for weaknesses.

Adult Play – Because players themselves aren’t allowed to make calls on each other, they play to and beyond the limits of the rules as they test out what the referees can see and will call. Friction between players and teams can build up because there is no discussion to reach a shared agreement on acceptable levels of physicality. Participating in this model long term can create a lot of negative experiences that carry into the community as preconceived judgements going into future games. Younger athletes watching these games would imitate much of the aggressive or uncaught cheating behavior, trickling down to the grassroots level as well.

Holistic viewpoint of observer model

Youth/College Play – While the observer model has been known to strike a good balance of power more frequently than not, it will reduce the amount of discussion of fouls from the players that don’t know rules as well or don’t have the confidence to argue. With an alternate scapegoat available, they may be less incentivized to learn parts of the game in-depth or aim for the “fairest” outcome in any conflict. This model still gives power to the players to call fouls, maintaining the peer-pressure effect from self-officiation. If players develop within this system alone, it might provide a more efficient playing (and spectating) experience but may not have as much of the learning potential as self-officiation.

Adult Play – Players are given more power to call what they see and experience, but the accused have a chance for justice if the third party saw differently. For elite play, as long as the observers are highly trained, this produces the largest number of people focused on fair and safe play for a spirited game. Participating in this model long term can help teams work with each other in future games and making adjustments in the middle of them, reducing any built-up emotions. Younger athletes watching these games would see that adults are efficient in resolving calls and don’t take things too personally with the support of observers.

Holistic viewpoint of self-officiation model

Youth/College Play – While there may be plenty of mistakes and fouls called in this system, players have the opportunity to actively resolve calls building reasoning and communication skills in an important part of their life. Because there is no third party, teams need to find mutual understanding in each other, creating more of a peer-pressure effect when the wronged accuses the wrongdoer. The delay of game from foul calls may provide enough incentive for players to play more cleanly to avoid them all together. Alternatively, players can decide the game is unfair and either quit altogether or intentionally cheat if they don’t care what others think. If players develop within this system alone, they will improve many values and behavior as they develop skills that bring their integrity and personality into adult play.

Adult Play – Without a third party at all, some aggressive/physical players or teams will adapt their styles to serve themselves if they feel no remorse from the grief they may cause. It is up to leaders on each team to resolve any conflict that gets out of hand. However, if everything goes well, some of the most competitive and spirited ultimate can be witnessed. Participating in this model long term will always have it’s unfortunate moments, but it can help leaders emerge and encourage reasonable discussion for some change in adult players. Younger athletes watching these games will see more dangerous plays but much more distress come out of them, potentially giving them the will to work hard on fairness and skill development with the amount of time they have.

By understanding these viewpoints, we can already see that the holistic is insightful about relationships within the game environment, while atomistic leaves voluntary reformation up to each individual player. This is not to say one is better than the other, but that they should identify the parts of a full solution: have methods to keep aggressive/undisciplined players in check, and implement a well thought-out system to keep the rest of the game fair and help younger players see and learn self-regulated behavior.

Some might say that the referee model is the proven standard to do just that, but more and more cases are showing that putting conduct in the hands of the players from the beginning encourages a more respectful and fair community. As much as we feel like our sport is chaotic at times, consider a few that have stuck to a self-officiation system or are starting to experiment with one to improve conduct.

No matter how much science we get involved or case studies we review, there will always be a debate as players explore their personal preferences and values. In any spectrum of opinion, there are two sides far away from each other. Each have their own merits, and people identify with elements of both based on events that challenged their thinking. To show the big picture and acknowledge that each end has a respectful case, here are the known sides and some common values.

Sides of the debate

  • Self-officiation vs. referee
  • Holistic Viewpoint vs. Atomistic Viewpoint
  • Participation sport priority vs. spectator sport priority
  • long-term character building vs. short term ‘fair’ game
  • Is ultimate ahead of the trend or exploring an idea that the mainstream won’t understand?

Referee Sided Values

  • Fairness
  • Efficiency
  • Game-focus
  • Embracing the moment

Self-Officiation Sided Values

  • Responsibility
  • Communication
  • Character-focus
  • Thinking of the future

We can’t settle this debate overnight, yet we can learn to respect the other side of it. We all have good intentions, yet we think about priorities differently. Optimized solutions are somewhere in the middle, so it’s important to listen as much as speak. This is our best approach to continue improving the sport by 2030, keeping the best attributes of our existing community while scaling it up. Overall, we may not be seeing the ideal forms of the various officiating models quite yet, but systematically we should be able to understand how they may affect behavior and culture long term to frame decisions moving forward.

Next up in Ultimate 2030: Does philosophy belong on the playing field in the form of Spirit of the Game? Why do many celebrate it but others think it no different that traditional sportsmanship? A tricky topic to say the least, but looking at origins and trends may give us the best perspective.

Thoughts from the Expert Panel

“Allowing third party officiation into ultimate erodes its very character; asking for help from a third party is implicitly suggesting that you think that your opponent isn’t trustworthy. By handing responsibility for our actions to someone else, it becomes less of a character test to cheat. Correct application of SOTG is a genuine test of character not often seen in other sports, and something we should be proud of. Deep in our hearts, we all know what fairness is and that fairness is vital to our enjoyment of sport. Self-officiation is something that surprises many who are new to ultimate, but it remains the norm at almost all levels of play across the world. As more and more players take up ultimate at a younger age, and people can pick up a disc and teach themselves to play after watching YouTube, there is much to do if we wish to retain SOTG as it currently is. It will be our ability to teach SOTG, rather than teaching people to throw and catch, which will steer how ultimate looks by 2030.” – Sion “Brummie” Scone

“With each new skill I coach, I teach a relevant aspect of self-officiation. For example, in/out calls go with catching and travels go with faking and pivoting. Much of the downfall of self-officiation at the highest levels likely comes from a lack of training throughout player development. When I teach self-officiation, I always get asked some version of the question, “What if someone calls the wrong thing on purpose?” I always throw it back to my players, asking them what they would think of someone who did that in comparison to what they would think of someone who makes fair calls, even when it doesn’t competitively benefit her. At that point, my athletes start to feel the social contract we enter into every time we step onto the ultimate field – the way that who we are on the field is a reflection of who we are at our core. As in all aspects of life, it is ok to make mistakes in self-officiation, but we must always strive to learn from them and grow, to be better players and thus, better people.” – Miranda Knowles

  1. Ken Kaminski
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    Founder of Aero Ultimate with previous experiences at USA Ultimate and the AUDL, Ken is best known for his expertise in college team startups and the meaning behind ultimate's culture, systems, and future. He began his journey starting Kettering University's Ultimate Team, obtaining annual funding of $18,000, and now continues to mentor many other teams towards the same goal. Ken is a natural problem solver and is dedicating his abilities to young leaders, teams and the future of ultimate.

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