Understanding And Applying The Clarified Dangerous Play Rule

Trying to remove the confusion and stigma from calling dangerous plays.

Revolver's Grant Lindsley, PoNY's Matt Lemar, and observer Jonathan Monforti discuss a controversial dangerous play call in the 2018 Club Championships Men's final. Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Revolver’s Grant Lindsley, PoNY’s Matt Lemar, and observer Jonathan Monforti discuss a controversial dangerous play call in the 2018 Club Championships Men’s final. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

This article was written by guest author Janna Hamaker, the National Rules Director for USA Ultimate.

After a string of high-profile dangerous plays over the last few years, players and coaches throughout the ultimate community have increasingly called for a renewed focus on player safety. At the same time, players were either confused about how to apply the dangerous play rule or hesitant to invoke it. So, as the USAU National Rules Director, I’d like to help clear up what the rule is and help break down the stigma of calling it.

When the USAU Rules Working Group — which I chair — began working on the new 2020-2021 ruleset, reviewing the rules around dangerous play was a primary concern. At the start of the process, we solicited input from the community and received much feedback requesting both more clarity on the rule and ways to ensure safer play. We took these requests quite seriously and spent many hours, over several months, discussing how best to structure the rule such that we could achieve the desired outcome of safer play without leaving too much gray area in the rules about when a dangerous play call is appropriate.

To that end, the dangerous play section in the USAU Official Rules of Ultimate 2020-2021 has been clarified and amended from the 11th edition version of the rule in a few ways:

  • in limited situations (17.I.1.a.1), a player may call dangerous play when no contact occurs;
  • detailed call resolution instructions are given; and
  • example dangerous play behaviors are articulated.

Let’s dig in a little bit to better understand what these changes mean.

First, better understanding the rule will help us to take away the stigma from calling dangerous play. To make a dangerous play call is not a slur nor an accusation that your opponent is a “dirty player.” It is simply a comment that the play at hand was dangerous, the player showed “reckless disregard for the safety of” fellow players, the player’s behavior “posed a risk of significant injury to” fellow players, and/or the player was exhibiting “other dangerously aggressive behavior.” It is not “soft” to make a dangerous play call — it is enforcement of the most important rule in the rulebook, one not superseded by any other rule. By making dangerous play calls, we help each other identify dangerous behavior in the moment and remind each other of the expectation of safe play.

It has been an unfortunate misconception that if you “didn’t mean to hurt the player,” or “it was just an accident,” that it can’t be a dangerous play. Intentionality is not a requirement for a play to be reckless or dangerous, or for it to be called as such. I think this misconception is one reason why players are hesitant to call dangerous play.

It is also often heard when discussing dangerous plays that the contact was just part of playing a sport, and if you don’t want the contact, then don’t get on the field. This is a particularly dangerous point of view and is in direct conflict with rule 17.I:

It is the responsibility of all players to avoid contact in every way possible. [[Avoid contact in every way reasonably possible, while still playing ultimate. Some contact is inevitable, but players have an affirmative obligation to make reasonable efforts to avoid contact.]]

I think that part of the reason we hear this defense is that players haven’t learned and understood exactly what constitutes a dangerous play and therefore misjudge it for inevitable incidental contact. As a community we need to get better at teaching players about some common plays that are often dangerous and how to navigate them safely:

  • significantly colliding with a mostly stationary opponent,
  • jumping into a group of mostly stationary players,
  • diving around or through a player that results in contact with a player’s back or legs,
  • running without looking, especially when there is a likelihood of other players occupying the space into which the player is traveling,
  • jumping or otherwise leaving the ground where it is likely that a significant collision will result,
  • wild or uncontrolled throwing motions,
  • initiating contact with a player’s head,
  • initiating contact with an airborne player’s lower body that prevents them from landing on their feet, and
  • jumping in front of a sprinting player in a manner where contact is unavoidable.

The better we recognize the behaviors and situations that often result in a dangerous play, the easier it will be for a player to make a different decision in the heat of the moment to completely pull out of the play if it seems unsafe or plan for how to proceed safely if making the play. It’s better to not make a play, than to make a dangerous one.

Having strategies for proceeding safely helps keep potentially dangerous situations from becoming dangerous. For example, from the list above, taking a running leap into a crowd of mostly stationary people presents a serious risk of crashing part of your body into someone’s head/face area or otherwise violently colliding with a person in the crowd. The safe play will be to sprint to the area, chop one’s feet to control one’s momentum, and then either jump straight up or select a clear flight path to jump near, but not into or through the crowd. A player intending to jump for a disc in a crowd should determine while approaching whether there is an opportunity to control their momentum and make a non-dangerous attempt. If such an attempt is not available, then the player must recognize that their opponents and/or teammates occupy a superior position and they were either out-of-position or late to recognize the opportunity and should bail out of the play. It will be a dangerous play to simply sprint and jump for the disc, without considering one’s flight path, landing area, and ability to control one’s momentum.

Next, I’d like to discuss the removal of the contact requirement for calling dangerous play since it was one of the most cited changes of this new version of the rules. One of the main reasons for removing this requirement was to address player safety. However, even as written in the 11th edition, the dangerous play rule is fairly permissive in the types of behaviors that are callable under the rule; if the requirements of the rule were met, even the slightest amount of contact would permit a dangerous play call.

However, in the 2020-2021 version of the rules, removing the contact requirement carves out a class of no-contact plays that are now callable as a dangerous play. The caller must be reasonably certain that contact would have occurred if the calling player did not take steps to avoid the contact. A player is not required to hold their position and receive contact in order to call “dangerous play,” but — importantly — the mere possibility of contact is insufficient to justify a call. Furthermore, if the offending player stops or changes their path such that contact would not have occurred, contact was not “reasonably certain.” There is nuance here that is difficult to fully articulate, especially when trying to keep rules clear and concise.

Let’s examine three different ways a common situation can play out on the field and examine how the dangerous play rule should be applied in each. Imagine two players (O and D) are running from opposite directions to make a play on the disc.

  1. In the first scenario, suppose the defender is running without watching where they are going and without checking the space to see if it is clear. The offensive player recognizes this and prepares their approach such that they can bail out of the situation if it remains unsafe. The offensive player determines that the defender is going to collide with them if they continue moving to catch the disc, so the offensive player pulls up and calls “dangerous play” even though there was no contact, and in fact, even though the defender caught the disc. In this case, the dangerous play call is valid even without contact as the defender was proceeding through the space recklessly. Had the offensive player not stopped, there would have been a collision. It is important to note that, you can switch the roles of the offense and defense here and have the same outcome — if the offense is similarly moving into space without watching where they are going, a dangerous call against them by the defender would be valid.
  2. In a second scenario, suppose that instead of the defender running without watching where they are going and without checking the space to see if it is clear, let’s assume that the defender is scanning the direction in which they are running and is adjusting their approach in order to play safely. They are slowing down appropriately as both players near the disc. Several yards from the disc’s final destination, the offensive player stops and calls dangerous play. The defender also does not run through the space and has pulled out of the play a few yards from the disc because they couldn’t ensure making the play without significant contact. In this case, the offensive player cannot validly call dangerous play because contact was not reasonably certain — the defense was not playing with a reckless disregard of the offensive player’s safety, they weren’t posing a risk of injury to the offensive player, nor were they exhibiting other dangerously aggressive behavior. The defender in this situation was behaving in a manner that took into account the offensive player’s safety.Again, the same is true if the roles are reversed.
  3. Lastly, suppose the case where the offensive player stops 10 yards from the disc’s final destination and the defender checks the space and determines it is safe to enter and thus proceeds safely into the space to catch the disc. By stopping 10 yards away, it is no longer reasonably certain that contact would have occurred, and the defender is not demonstrating reckless disregard, posing risk of significant injury, or exhibiting other dangerously aggressive behavior by entering the space, so a dangerous play call would not be appropriate.

While these examples are clear in their interpretation — at least in the eyes of trained observers — we want to ensure that this rule is not encouraging a game of chicken between opposing players. It is equally incumbent on all players to play safely. You do not get an automatic right to a space because of your role as offense. You also don’t get to initiate contact if you could avoid it just because the other player is playing dangerously. In this case, the proper response is to stop before contact occurs and call “dangerous play.” We couldn’t outline every edge case in the rule, but we tried to put in place a rule and system that would allow players to put safety above other concerns and resolve issues with clear outcomes.

Up to this point, all of the examples in this article have been hypothetical situations. To give a concrete example, let’s analyze a well-known instance of a dangerous play call from the 2018 USAU Club National Championships men’s final and examine this situation using the 2020-2021 rules.

Lindsley DP view 1

In this play, a throw goes up to a receiver making an under cut. A defender poaches into the throwing lane and pulls up when he realizes he cannot get to the disc in time without creating a dangerous situation. Meanwhile, as the receiver is about to close his hands on the disc, he sees the defender ahead of him and alters his path in an attempt to avoid a collision, and in doing so fails to catch the disc. The offensive player calls “dangerous play.”

Lindsley DP view 2

From the view in the first video, the defensive player begins moving towards the throwing lane before the throw is released and well ahead of the offensive player’s location at the time. As soon as the defensive player sees the offensive player moving in the cutting lane, several yards from their eventual paths crossing, he slows, changes direction away from the offensive player, and essentially abandons his play at the disc. The offensive player is startled by the defensive player’s proximity and makes an evasive move which causes the offensive player to drop the disc. Minimal contact occurs after dropping the disc.

In this particular play, both the offensive and defensive players have similar viewing angles of the other (both being in an area that is generally in front of the path each was running) and both have the same obligation to avoid contact with the other. This is not a case of the offensive player having to stop or bail out of a play due to dangerous behavior by the defensive player. The defensive player had already adjusted their movement to be nondangerous. Therefore, this is not a dangerous play, nor is it a receiving foul. It is a turnover.1

Updating the dangerous play rule in the 2020-2021 USAU rules was one of most requested updates for this new version of the rules. The community asked that we make the rule more clear and to potentially allow a dangerous play call without any contact, similar to WFDF. It was a very long process to examine how to write the rule to allow dangerous play to be applied without contact in limited situations, while also avoiding making the rule inconsistent or hard to understand. As you can see from the examples illustrated in this article, there are many nuances to consider in every single play. We wanted to be able to create a framework to not only encourage safe play, but to make it the expectation. It was important to write this rule such that it applies to everyone on the field, does not stop people from actually playing ultimate, but requires players to think about how to approach a play safely in all situations.

As players use the updated rule, it’ll become important to have discussions about its application. One way to help reduce the stigma of calling dangerous plays is to encourage players to continue talking through situations on the field and helping create common language and understanding of what is or isn’t acceptable. In addition, ongoing official commentary from the Rules Working Group on plays that may fall into the gray area is important for clearer interpretation of the rules such that everyone can improve their knowledge of the rules. This will help players become more aware of when to call dangerous play or how to avoid making dangerous plays. Because I feel like this communication is important for gaining understanding on how to approach similar situations ore safely in the future, I don’t expect this will be the only time you’ll hear from me or other members of the Rules Working Group on rules — my intention is that we produce more frequent communication about rule interpretations.

In addition to the RWG proving more communication, we want to encourage more feedback from the community. We’ve committed to making rules updates every two years, though most changes won’t be so significant as the 2020-2021 changes since it was such a long time since the 11th edition was released. It’s important for us to hear from the community about how the current changes are working and things that potentially should be changed in the future. You can email me at [email protected] with any rules feedback.

  1. This analysis is the majority interpretation of the Rules Working Group and the Observer Working Group. 

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