Altered scores after heat-shortened games lead to punishment.
October 10, 2018 by Graham Gerhart in News with 0 comments
To the outside observer, the Southwest Mixed Regional Club Championships occurred without incident; the three bid-earning squads advanced to Nationals with convincing performances in their elimination games. On paper, the biggest story coming out of the weekend was Mischief sputtering on Saturday and slaying on Sunday en route to a tournament title.
And while the tournament itself went very smoothly for an event with only three volunteers on hand during the weekend, there was an asterisk on the action.
On Tuesday, September 18th, five days before Regionals was set to start, USA Ultimate sent an email to the captains of Santa Barbara Robots, Phoenix ROBOS, L.A. Family Style, and L.A. 7 Figures informing them that they would be unable to compete with their teams on Saturday. The captains would not even be allowed to set foot on the fields until Sunday morning.
Sectionals Scores & Sanctions
While the email may have come as a surprise to the SoCal captains, the cause for the sanctions was clear.
On Sunday during Sectionals, all four teams had one final game. 7 Figures was set to play Robot; Family Style was set to play ROBOS. All four teams had already qualified for Regionals by this point: the final game was strictly to determine seeding.
The temperature in Tucson, Arizona where the tournament was being held had already exceeded 100 degrees, and the heat index was threatening to match that during the round. Per USAU rules, if the heat index rose above 100, play would have to be suspended. The captains of the four teams were informed that they were allowed to continue under the current conditions or wait until 6 PM for the heat to dissipate.1 Because of the implications for Regionals seeding, the teams were alerted of the high temperature but told by staff members that they had to play their games, or at the very least wait until 6 PM before they could make any decisions about forfeiture.
That put a strain on many of the teams set to play. Some had players whose flights were scheduled to depart before 6 PM while others were just worried about what time they would arrive home. The drive from Tucson to Los Angeles is more than eight hours — closer to ten for the players from Santa Barbara. Even if the players left immediately after their games, there was no chance they were returning home before 2 AM on Monday morning. And with most players working the next day, it was ruled out of the question.
The teams chose to play their game during the heat of the day, but, as they were warming up, it became clear that the temperature was having an adverse effect. Injuries had shortened rosters, and cramping was a factor for many players even before games had begun. But the games still proceeded as planned. It only took a few points for teams to decide that they felt it was unsafe to continue. 7 Figures and Robots agreed to retroactively set the starting score to 8-8, so as to finish a ‘full game,’ while Family Style and ROBOS simply ended their game at 4-3.
The saga was only just beginning.
A volunteer, Eric Eia, approached the teams after their shortened games. “I was cleaning up the fields after the tournament,” he said. “The last round had three fields that should have had games on them, the middle field was empty very early into the round…[a player] then told me that an incomplete game would count as a forfeit and both teams would lose their bid to Regionals if a full game was not played. Noticing the 2/3 game ending with team photos and lack of cleats, I headed over to warn the team captains of this report and apparent rule. I said, ‘do what you need to do, but it needs to be a full game apparently,’ stating that I did not know the actual rule myself.”
Thinking they could be disqualified from Regionals, the ROBOS and Family Style captains agreed to change the score of their game to 11-10. Similarly, 7 Figures claimed a 13-9 win, even though they had only played six points.
This was a problem for the same reason that forfeiting their games would have been a problem. USAU and the Southwest Regionals tournament directors rely on Sectionals for help when seeding teams. Shortened games can impact that seeding process. But altering scores is never acceptable with USAU, as the teams would soon find out.
Making matters more complicated was that the games never even needed to be played.
“It was especially disappointing to learn that the games did not have to be played, as the TD had misinformed all teams about the rules and potential consequences of not playing the games,” said 7 Figures captain Chris Feeney.
But the games did start, and the teams took Eia’s statement to mean that they needed to report scores that appeared to show the completion of a full game.
As they were not directly involved, the tournament directors did not have a full understanding of the events that led to this miscommunication but were adamant that they did not tell their staff or any captains that altering their game’s score was acceptable. “From [our] understanding, the problem was the teams wanted to play the game and started, then after a few points changed their minds and reported the current score, then, likely because of what they were told, changed the score to make it sound like a full game,” said the tournament director Tim Wood.
The teams emphasized that player safety and returning back home in time for the workweek were their chief concerns; otherwise, they would have finished their games. The intention was not to cheat or game the system but to look out for the players on their team. But after being told that reporting an incomplete game could result in a disqualification, they quickly corrected their scores to match that of a full game, believing that to be what the tournament staff had asked of them.
When USA Ultimate found out about the score alterations, they discussed the situation internally and decided to apply sanctions.
“After considering a variety of issues, including forfeit rules, playing conditions, and communications during and following the event, USA Ultimate’s competition staff determined that the captains from all four teams would be suspended for the first day of their next tournament (Southwest Regionals),” USAU Director of Marketing and Communications Andy Lee said in a statement. “The suspension was exclusively for intentionally submitting incorrect final scores of scheduled games and is consistent with previously issued penalties in similar situations.”
“The decision was appealed by the teams and the Judicial Committee upheld the sanctions after conducting its own investigation.
“Fundamentally, and with Spirit of the Game as a guiding principle of ultimate in both our rules and competition guidelines, USA Ultimate’s competitive structure relies heavily upon the honesty and integrity of the competing athletes, including the reporting of accurate scores. This has an influence on rankings and seeding, and even small variations can have a significant impact. In order to provide a fair and manageable competition structure for all athletes, we need to trust that teams are being truthful.”
The USAU Sanctions & the Corresponding Appeals
The sanctions themselves were straightforward. As it was the captains of these teams that had knowingly misrepresented the scores when they reported them, they would be the ones punished. USAU suspended them from participation in the first day of Regionals, which included barring them from joining their teams on the sideline or even being on the tournament grounds. They were allowed to rejoin the team on Sunday for all subsequent games.
USAU was met immediately with outcry from the teams. Apart from 7 Figures, none of the teams has a coach and each relies on its captains to call lines, formulate their strategy, and motivate the team throughout each game. ROBOS, Robots, Family Style, and 7 Figures weren’t just losing seasoned players: they were losing the very core of their subsequent teams.
“In the week leading up to Regionals, the captains found ourselves preoccupied and mentally drained from this sanction. We were unable to focus on preparing our team for the most important tournament of our season. With Kay and I both being starting offensive players, this left a void on our team,” said ROBOS captain Fernando Lugo.
All of the teams appealed the decision. The appeals revolved around three key factors. First, the heat index was above suggested USAU guidelines as their games wore on. Second, the teams did actually play their games, even if the scores did not match, and the outcome (win/loss) wasn’t falsified. Third, the game technically didn’t need to be played at all. There is an allowance under USAU’s guidelines for these games to be forfeited if agreed to by the captains.2
But none of those arguments addressed the reason for the initial sanctions. The teams were not being penalized for how the game was played, they were penalized for knowingly misreporting their scores, which the captains admitted was wrong.
“We made a mistake in misreporting the score from the final (4th/5th placement) game of SoCal Sectionals, and take ownership of our actions. Accuracy in self-reporting scores is a vital and necessary component of the USAU ranking system, which we all rely upon for bids, seeding, etc., and is also a reflection of the Spirit of the Game,” said Feeney.
In the case of ROBOS and Family Style, the teams felt particularly victimized, as they had originally reported their correct final score of 4-3 before being told that it should be changed to 11-10. “At no point did the TD approach anyone on ROBOS and say, the scores in the GroupMe are not the same, which one is correct? Why? Because they told us what needed to be reported,” said Lugo. “The teams were told to report a different score. The teams did as they were told and are now suffering a consequence that will ruin their season.”
While it is difficult to confirm, as the exchange happened verbally, both Family Style and ROBOS are adamant that they were told by the tournament director that it was acceptable for them to report the inflated score. Otherwise, they would not have done so.
“A captain from each team was approached by members of the tournament staff and told that we could not report that score without violating the rules of USAU and forfeiting our bid to Regionals, but that they would accept a different score,” said the Family Style captains.
USAU did not feel that any of the points made by the teams altered the fact that they issued a false score report and thus the sanctions were upheld.
How did the Sanctions Impact Regionals?
Of the four teams penalized, only 7 Figures made it into the bracket, and that was by the skin of their teeth. Robots, ROBOS, and Family Style all finished day one in the bottom of their pools and did not have a chance to prove themselves on Sunday when their captains returned. This was particularly devastating for Family Style, who had their best ever finish at Sectionals and were looking to make it deep into the bracket at Regionals.
For ROBOS and Family Style, it was particularly frustrating that they never had a chance to appropriately appeal the decision. USAU received their initial appeal, which was written in haste, and never followed up with either team. “Kay and I were handed a full tournament ban without warning,” said Lugo. “There was no investigation done, no opportunity to present our side of the story, and no consideration given to any mitigating factors. We were not even informed that there was an official complaint or investigation. They upheld a punishment without speaking to any team involved.”
“We found that USAU’s heavy-handed punishment, suspending and banning from the facility our captains as well as the captains of three other teams for all of Saturday at Regionals, vastly exceeded the reasonable sanction that arose from the decisions made in the heat in Arizona,” said Feeney. “…Rather than taking the opportunity to engage and educate all participating parties, USAU went out of their way to levy a punishment that devastated teams’ chances to advance at Regionals. We found the appeal process to be a sham, as USAU seemed uninterested in addressing our concerns and more interested in defending their employees. Our hope in speaking out is that other teams will not make the score reporting mistake we made. And, most importantly, that USAU will reflect upon their treatment of the players when, inevitably, there is another opportunity to learn and work together rather than punish in the future.”
With their captains back on the sideline, 7 Figures lost in the quarterfinals 13-7 to Classy and then in the backdoor semifinals 11-10 to BW Ultimate. The tournament’s top three seeds — #2 Mischief, #3 Polar Bears, and #1 Blackbird — qualified for the National Championships that will take place next week in San Diego.
The heat index never actually reached 100 degrees. The tournament organizers have the data to verify that the highest the heat index reached was 98 degrees. ↩
11.b.iv – case 1 ↩