Ultimate Has A Bad Bid Problem

Officials need to crack down.

The play in question.
Andrew Carleton was ejected for the collision that followed this photograph.

It’s been a rough month for fans of the non-contact sport of ultimate.

While calling ultimate “non-contact” has long been a misnomer (like it is in basketball), it has become increasingly clear that the level of acceptable contact between players has risen over the last 10-15 years. Players are more athletic, more willing to tacitly agree to physical play downfield, and more eager than ever to get that huge layout block.

But has the elite end of the sport reached a tipping point? 2016’s club and professional competition has been defined by a growing number of dangerous bids caught on video, and the health and safety of players are becoming a real concern.

Just this week, we have seen two (admittedly extreme) examples of reckless plays: first, a heavy collision from the Toronto Rush defender Geoff Powell into the DC Breeze’s Markham Shofner and, second, a brutal impact from Nightlock cutter Laurel Oldershaw into the All-Star Ultimate Tour’s Jenny Wei.

Both plays caused injuries: Shofner was limited with a back injury and may miss future games. Oldershaw landed awkwardly and suffered a broken leg.

Here are a selection of plays — taken solely from the month of July — with various levels of contact and outcomes.

Game: Toronto Rush v. DC Breeze [AUDL East Division Final]
What Happens: Toronto’s Geoff Powell attempts to chase down a huck and make a block, but collides heavily with DC’s Markham Shofner.
Outcome: Common foul, goal awarded to DC by referee. After the play, two offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were handed down for the players jawing at each other. Yesterday, the AUDL announced a one-game suspension for Powell.

Geoff Powell Hard Foul

Game: Denver Molly Brown v. Seattle Riot [USA Ultimate US Open Women’s Semifinal]
What Happens: Denver’s Claire Chastain attempts to get a layout block on an in-cut by Seattle’s Molly McKeon, but Chastain lands hard on McKeon as she makes a sliding catch.
Outcome: Team Misconduct Foul assessed to Molly Brown for a dangerous play. Riot disc.

Claire Chastain Foul

Game: Seattle Mixtape v. Minneapolis Drag’N Thrust [USAU US Open Mixed Semifinal]
What Happens: Minneapolis’ Jay Drescher makes a late bid into the back of Seattle’s Khalif El-Salaam, who lightly throws the disc at Drescher, on a scoring catch. El-Salaam also lightly shoulders Drescher as the players walk away.
Outcome: El-Salaam caught the disc for a goal. No fouls were assessed.

Drescher Foul

Game: Seattle Mixtape v. Minneapolis Drag’N Thrust [USAU US Open Mixed Semifinal]
What Happens: Later in the same game, El-Salaam tries to get around Drescher for an in-cut layout block but collides with him heavily in the back. Drescher leaves the field with a significant shoulder injury.
Outcome: A foul call by Drescher is contested by El-Salaam but upheld by the observers.

El-Salaam Foul

Game: Jacksonville Cannons v. Atlanta Hustle [AUDL Regular Season Game]
What Happens: Jacksonville’s Andrew Carleton lays out directly into Atlanta’s Sean Sears, who was making an upline cut. Sears was concussed on the play and left the game.
Outcome: Carleton was immediately ejected by the referee.

Carleton Foul

Game: Seattle Sockeye v. Chicago Machine [USAU US Open Final]
What Happens: A Chicago throw into traffic is blocked cleanly on a layout from Seattle’s Simon Montague, right in front of Chicago’s Brett Matzuka. But Seattle’s Justin Lim, coming from the weak side, crashes into Matzuka.
Outcome: A Matzuka foul call was contested and overruled by the observer, as Montague made a clean block before contact was made.

Lim Foul

Again, let me reiterate: this is from less than four weeks of competition (and does not include footage of the Oldershaw bid, which is arguably the worst of all).

You may not agree that all of the above deserved to be called fouls, but each of these plays deserves scrutiny. Should a player be allowed to blow up a receiver who didn’t have a chance to catch the disc (as in the case of Matzuka/Lim)? Should bad bids through the back be tolerated as long as they don’t knock the player down or cause an injury (as in the case of the first El-Salaam/Drescher play)? These are questions that face both players and officials as we lurch towards new definitions of acceptable physicality.

Notably, the much more stringent enforcement in these situations has come from the AUDL, a league that has drawn heavy criticism in the last few weeks for the physicality of its play. But the problem of bad bids is not confined to the AUDL, nor is it exclusive to the men’s game.

So what is the solution?

While having broader community discussions about dangerous plays is important for setting norms, I believe a much more rigorous penalty system needs to be enforced by observers at the highest levels of the game.1

Currently, observers are empowered to hand down Team Misconduct Fouls (TMFs), Personal Misconduct Fouls (PMFs), technical fouls, and direct ejections. The basic structure exists for observers to begin penalizing dangerous bids much more heavily, but, right now, most observers are slow to call such fouls. This should change, either by a policy shift at the observer level or by a rules change at the USAU level.

PMFs, which essentially serve as a yellow card like in soccer (i.e. if you get another, you are ejected), are quite rare. But most of the above plays would qualify for a PMF in my mind. Heavy contact — whether intentional or not — should simply not be allowed, and PMFs alone have the teeth to stop bad bids.

TMFs, on the other hand, should be used for more systematic bad behavior, like mark-bumping or egregious travel calling to stop flow.

But the physical safety of players should be front and center in any officiating system: right now, there is not enough being done to set the tone.

Observers have already done a tremendous job of changing the attitudes of players towards what constitutes a foul by giving immediate feedback in the form of rulings on contested calls. They have also nearly done away with the chippy tactics that plagued the sport around 2010. Those benefits have spilled over into self-officiated contests as well.

But enforcement of dangerous plays has not been sufficient, and we are beginning to see that crop up with an uptick in such plays — and subsequent injuries. Observers have been too focused recently on calling technicals and TMFs for ticky-tack violations: foul language, sideline encroachment, and other non-consequential incidents. Those are appealing to deal with, as they are very black and white.

But it is time for a new point of emphasis in a grayer area. Players have no real authority to punish bad bids, but observers do. USAU should also consider adding immediate penalties for dangerous plays and/or PMFs, like a yardage penalty or a turnover.2

Physical play in ultimate is here to stay. We cannot pretend that the sport will become contact-free, or even that players want that. But there is a difference between jostling in the stack and blindsiding a defenseless receiver. The sport’s officials need to start making that much more clear.

  1. The AUDL has its own issues to work out, but an immediate ejection and a suspension upon review are setting the boundaries in their league. I would also say that Major League Ultimate’s officiating may be the best in the country right now; referees are quick to hand out bands and punish players for bad bids. 

  2. This is a much bigger conversation that I’m happy to have. I believe fouls should be penalized, not just given warnings as often happens. I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of a possession in ultimate and how other sports treat hard fouls. 

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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