In Defense of Referees, Sorta Kinda (And Some Possible Compromises)

Refs, observers...what about refservers?

A possible compromise? Original photo: Kevin Leclaire -- UltiPhotos.com
A possible compromise? Original photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Full disclosure right off the bat: I’m an AUDL referee. Get your boos out of the way now. I’ll wait. Don’t worry, I’m freaking used to it. You won’t hurt my feelings – that much.

(Insert cascade of insults, guttural spleen noises, and disagreeable hand gestures here.)

Ah, there. I hope that was cathartic. Maybe now we can share a beer and talk to each other like the handsome (or beautiful) and rational human beings we are.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about the pros/cons of professional ultimate and whether the new referee model can ever possibly fuse the core values that our sport was built upon with typical spectator expectations. When the pro leagues popped up seemingly out of nowhere and began using refs, I saw it as an inevitable next step in the evolution of the game — albeit ten to fifteen years earlier than I’d expected. I spent no time whatsoever contemplating the overall ramifications. But when someone who I respect as much as USAU board member Henry Thorne asks us all to examine to what extent ultimate loses its proverbial soul in the absence of self-refereeing, I was forced to ask myself whether in my current position, I was unintentionally helping to steer the game I love into a ditch. And not like a fun, comfortable ditch filled with bunnies and moss. I’m talking one littered with shot up mobsters.

I’m writing this article because, so far, we haven’t heard from a real human referee as to what works and doesn’t work for us on the field – and how that on-field experience may be able to yield a modicum of compromise between the observer and referee models.

After playing college and club for over twenty years, my old ass got cut from the Pittsburgh Thunderbirds last year, I’m assuming damn near immediately after the combine. And I thought that would be the end of my pro ultimate experience, until the owner/general manager decided to peruse the cut list for anyone who might be naïve enough to help out the franchise by donning the stripes.

When asked, I was reluctant because, well, I didn’t see an upside. Hooray for getting heckled and yelled at, all while being close enough to the disc for a sick layout but not being allowed to even attempt a play on it!

Who needs that shit?

Especially when “Spirit of the Game” is such a central tenet to who we are as a community, I felt that by putting a whistle around my neck I’d be essentially “Ides of Marching” everyone who taught me the game back in the mid-90’s. But the GM convinced me I’d be helping to grow the game, so I agreed anyway — and learned a few very interesting things along the way.

As ultimate players, I believe we hang onto Spirit of the Game because it amounts to the most idyllic, utopian social contract ever attempted in competitive athletics. I mean, it’s the ideal of what most of us want from our society, let alone the sports we play. And despite what anyone says, it does make ultimate special — because we’re genuinely attempting to live up to incredibly lofty standards that we’ve set for ourselves as a collective in a way that the nature of competition typically does not allow.

That said, there are major holes in Spirit of the Game that we all know exist but rarely publicly acknowledge. The two biggest are:

1) The fact that (even with observers) if you’re willing to break the social contract and be a total jerkwad, you’re actually rewarded with a distinct competitive advantage. I mean, if you put it into analytics, ultimate would be the only sport to have stats like WAANT. (Wins Above Average Non-Toolbag) And we all know players who’d come in every year at like a +7.2. And when Spirit of the Game goes wrong, it can poison entire ultimate communities — say, for example, we picked a city at random, like….I don’t know, Wilmington, North Carolina. (Again totally at random). You can get a whole generation of players brought up playing in direct contrast to the original ideal. And that’s not at all good for the sport or its growth.

2) Even the most logical and honorable among us make calls with our hearts and not our heads. (See the mixed Beach World Championships.) We are active participants with a vested interest in the outcome and there’s no way for us to be truly objective, no matter how much we try. Our desire skews our judgment; it’s simple human nature.

We have to acknowledge these holes before we can figure out a way forward. And, admittedly, observers have helped in this regard, but still — in my opinion — haven’t provided the final answer.

I’ll admit that the state of refereeing in the pro leagues isn’t necessarily good everywhere and I’m not going to pretend that we’re somehow the gold standard all the time. In Pittsburgh, I believe our crew was exemplary (despite what Madison might tell you) because we practiced, learned from our mistakes, and were incredibly dedicated to getting in position and getting the calls correct.

But here comes the current problem: our normal four-man team had nearly 50 years of ultimate-playing experience amongst us. And yet by the end of the season, we all had somewhere just north of 50 hours of real, on-field refereeing experience. There were constantly things happening I’d personally never seen before and didn’t know how to react to in a split second no matter how many times I’d read the rulebook. At least once a game I’d say to myself, “Man, I really fucked that up.” But (if anyone noticed) I’d try to admit it to the offended team and make a mental note of how to do it right the next time.

As more and more ultimate players (i.e. not football and basketball refs trying to learn the rules on the fly) decide to referee and more of us get a few years of experience under our belts, the state of refereeing itself will improve. It’s inevitable. It’s just going to take a little bit of time to get there. Patience young Jedis.

And players have to get used to not always getting their way. In ultimate, we’ve been spoiled in comparison to other sports in the fact that we always get the satisfaction of making a call if we feel impeded or wronged on a certain play. Even if overruled by an observer, you get to speak your mind and let everyone know that the dude or chick next to you was the reason you turfed that pass or flubbed that catch. Your opinion is always, at minimum, recognized even when not actualized.

So what are we to do? How can we create a model that works for all of us? How can we combine what Henry Thorne and many others rightfully view as the core of our game while eliminating the nine-minute discussions about whether one dude’s shirt brushed the other guy’s arm that will send casual fans heading straight for the nearest minor league lacrosse game?

My suggestion is as follows:

We combine observers and referees into supermen and superwomen called refservers for the pro leagues.1 It could in theory be the best of both worlds, creating a system that helps us move forward all the while staying true to our roots. So here it goes…

Things I believe refservers should call outright:

In/Out of Bounds – Up/Down

You’re concentrating on catching the disc so you have zero idea whether you actually did or not — especially because you desperately want your toes to have been inbounds and the disc to have been up off the turf.

Stalls

On the field, nobody counts the same. And everybody jumps the gun between stall nine and ten.2 Don’t try to deny it, you do. You just get so excited that you’re about to stall someone that you prematurely vocalize by a beat or two. And unfortunately there’s no pill for that yet.

Consequently, when you’re throwing, you have zero idea when the person in front of you has actually said the “t” in ten. By stall eight, the disc feels more like a grenade in your hand and you’re looking downfield for anyone to get it to, not paying attention to the precise moment your defender pursed his lips and pushed air through his larynx. How often does this happen….

“Seven……..eight………nineTEN! Stall!”

Throw.

“Yeah, that was a stall, buddy.”
“Stall? No way. I got that off. Contest.”
“If I’d have kept going I’d have been on thirteen.”
“No way. No way. Contest.”

No more. Refservers should call stalls.

Travels

73% of all on-field, player-instigated travel calls are made up.3 Most of them are made by someone who isn’t even looking at the thrower’s feet — which is, you know, where the travel occurs — or by someone running by as they’re scanning the field for fourteen other things. And again, the player making the call always has a very personal interest in whether the handler’s pivot foot may or may not have slid a micrometer or two.

Offsides

“Who? Me? Nah. Really? Me?”
This is a purely objective call that is easy to enforce. Let’s let unbiased refservers in the correct position call it as such.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

I mean, someone needs to tell your punk ass to knock it the hell off. Clap catch in the end zone ain’t cause for a kick spike, chief.

***

Meanwhile, I think there are some things the players could call…

Marker/Thrower Fouls

Seriously, these are the worst for a referee. It’s damn near impossible to tell who initiated contact, whether a defender was too close and didn’t give a thrower room to pivot, and especially whether the disc was, in fact, barely still in the thrower’s hand when it got hit. You also have to wait a second or two to make the call just to be sure you aren’t screwing the offense out of the great scoring chance that’s inevitably going to appear the moment you do blow the whistle. (Then you feel like a jerk when they have to bring it all the way back to midfield after a beautiful huck because you messed up and stopped the game. Not that I ever…uh, let’s move on.)

It’s nerve-wracking deciding when to blow the whistle because you have about fifteen jobs including counting the stall, watching the thrower’s feet for travels, attempting to focus on their upper body for contact, and trying not to call every ticky-tack little thing so the fans won’t have to sit through a stilted, call-marred mess.4 As a ref, I would welcome keeping this responsibility on the players. It would also give me a second or so to process what I saw, hopefully leading to a higher percentage of correct calls.

Receiver/Defender Fouls/Strips

These are a lot easier than the marking fouls to call as a ref, but again, we can’t see everything. A lot of times you’re sprinting as fast (ok, not quite as fast) as the players in order to catch up with a disc after a turnover or a long swing. Allowing a second — but only a second or two — for guys to talk and work things out wouldn’t be so bad. It would, again, give the ref a second to catch his or her breath and process what they’d witnessed. As an added bonus, we could really show what ultimate is all about as guys say, “Yeah, I got you,” or “You know what? I should’ve had that. I rescind my call.” That’s what we could promote to the fans as “Spirit of the Game.” It’d be like nothing else in pro sports. The players would have some control. Not full control, but some.

***

Things I still need to mull over in terms of who should have the primary responsibility for the call….

Picks

We all know the players would call way too many picks5 But as a ref, trying to call a pick is like trying to keep your eye on a single bird after the flock got scared out of a tree by a shotgun blast. Consequently, as the players will no doubt tell you — ad nauseum – we miss a lot of picks. So I’m not sure how to resolve this one. Although I assume someone much smarter than me will figure it out eventually.

***

Implementing this refserver system would require a rigid protocol as to what to do in instances where players control the initial call. For instance, a player informs the referee of a call, the referee blows the whistle to announce the foul call and asks the defender if he/she contests. If no contest, then the appropriate penalty yardage is marked off. If it is contested, then the refserver decides if it was indeed a foul or not and either marks off the yardage, turns the disc over to the other team, or announces where the stall count will be when the disc comes back into play. Boom, no discussion, none of the Monty Pythonesque, “You did this,” “I don’t believe I did that,” “You most certainly did,” “I disagree with your current stance,” “Well I don’t agree with your disagreement,” that can permeate a typical foul call.

It is important to note, my opinions don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of all referees around the country; they’re just my humble thoughts. I also propose these changes simply for the pro leagues in relation to spectators and broadcasts. I fully believe “Spirit of the Game” should still be the model used at the club level and especially at the youth level, where kids can indeed use our sport to learn compromise, ethics, and conflict resolution.6

So that’s my take. The referee model isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be and will indeed get better. That will come with experience. I believe a lot of resistance comes from the fact that the pro leagues themselves were a quick shock to the system for a lot of long-time players who weren’t quite ready to have this discussion yet. But the game evolves; it’s always evolving. I’m old enough to have played with dudes who swore cleats were going to totally ruin the game.7

At the heart of this discussion is the fact that we all want what’s best for the game we love. We want people to see it and celebrate it, but we still want it to be ultimate. And if anyone is going to figure out how to put the best product on the field while still remaining true to our founding values, it’s going to be this community. I only hope my ideas foster more positive discussion.

Thanks for reading and see you on the fields.


  1. I guess observerees would also work. 

  2. Or six and seven in the pros. 

  3. That guesstimate may be a little low, to be honest. 

  4. It’s a business after all. 

  5. And games would end around sunrise. 

  6. For more on this, check out Pittsburgh’s “Camp Spirit of the Game,” an amazing program for kids which uses ultimate to teach those very things I’d mentioned. 

  7. And who’s to say they didn’t? 

  1. Kevin Cramer

    Kevin Cramer founded the ultimate team at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1996 before becoming one of the founding members of Jacksonville Open Club. He’s also played in Pittsburgh, State College, and Harrisburg, PA, as well as Los Angeles, retiring from club ultimate in 2013 after two years with Pittsburgh Dire Wolf. A freelance writer, Kevin has a nonfiction narrative, “Universe Point - One Dude’s Journey through the Greatest Sport on Earth,” due to be published in the fall and he’s already stumping for his son’s possible Callahan candidacy in 2033.

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