Reforming Spirit of the Game: Six Steps to Consider

Now is the time for productive dialogue on how SOTG must evolve if it is to remain a core part of ultimate's identity.

SOTG Disc

Disclaimer: Tim Smith is executive director of the Washington Area Frisbee Club (WAFC), a nonprofit disc organization in the Washington, DC region. His comments are his own, and in no way reflect the official position of WAFC, its staff or directors.

I hate doing post-game cheers. When my team is discussing what cheer to perform toward our opponent, you can typically find me trying to ‘locate’ my water bottle, stretching some non-existent injury, or — at best — lurking on the periphery with some half-hearted participation to maintain appearances. If you watch me closely, you may notice an involuntary flinch of disgust when that “Prepare To Receive” warning echoes down the sideline. Yet despite this personal antipathy, I had never previously doubted that post-game cheering between teams was an important component of reinforcing the Spirit of the Game in ultimate.

In January 2020, I noticed Khalif El-Salaam’s Twitter post challenging the cultural norms around high-five lines in ultimate. As someone who had never previously questioned the value of post-game high fives, I remember struggling to understand Khalif’s perspective. After all, everyone always does post-game high fives right? Isn’t that part of reinforcing Spirit of the Game (“SOTG”)?

The reality is that individuals interpret SOTG and engage with self-officiation differently as a reflection of their personal identity. This is a feature — not a bug — of ultimate. As the ultimate community becomes more diverse, we should expect and celebrate increasingly diverse perspectives on SOTG and its evolution as the core ethos for our sport.

But even before that, ultimate must address the reality that SOTG as it currently manifests is an obstacle to diversity in ultimate.

Back in early 2020, I disappointingly failed to recognize the obvious similarity between my detest for post-game cheers and Khalif’s critique regarding high-five lines. Since then, two overwhelming years — which for me included a stint volunteering on USA Ultimate’s Spirit of the Game Working Group — have caused my perspectives on SOTG to evolve.

It is time for SOTG to evolve as well.

Without active officials, ultimate has relied on cultural norms to reinforce SOTG and limit the abuse that self-officiation may tempt in competition. Faith in cultural guardrails has enabled a largely passive approach to managing SOTG, where most work from dedicated USA Ultimate staff and volunteers is focused on improving spirit-related tools and resources for players to utilize as they will. This alone is a lot of work, as I can attest from my time on the SOTG Working Group. Considering the small amount of people-power and resources currently allocated to spirit-related work, there has been significant ongoing progress on developing the backend of USAU’s spirit-related materials. Communicating these resources and monitoring their use (or lack thereof) in competition remains a challenge with the limited capacity of the folks currently doing the work.

As it stands, the full spectrum of SOTG features is employed only at national events, where the competitive stakes are highest and where USAU typically has a spirit director assigned to engage with teams when interactions go awry. Beyond the most prestigious events, at volunteer-run tournaments with fewer or no observed games, teams are on their own to adjudicate spirit-related issues, without dedicated real-time support or intervention. When crappy stuff happens in these settings — even when tools like spirit scoring are used correctly — there is no obvious or understood process for follow-up or resolution. Here is where the passive culture of SOTG has the deepest influence on individual player experience, for better or worse. When those experiences become negative, folks soon realize there is very little institutional backstop to support players. You are basically on your own.

For years this culture has generally persisted without meaningful scrutiny from ultimate’s disproportionately white community (Chris Lehmann’s 2018 piece, “On Ultimate and Race: Spirit Of The Game,” being a noteworthy exception). As the sport now reckons with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion following the racial justice protests of 2020, many more diverse and prominent voices are candidly questioning the SOTG ethos:

  • During a discussion panel at USA Ultimate’s Organizer Convention this past January, 2021 Callahan winner Jasmine Childress (from reporting by Mags Colvett) “described spirit as ‘the sole reason I’ve contemplated walking away from this sport.’”
  • Zoe Collins Rath’s 2021 piece “To Play And Be Black: Black Players Share Their Experiences” features several criticisms of spirit, including Amel Awadelkarim’s perspective on spirit scoring: “The (spirit) scoreboard is such a biased representation of what spirit is…it’s a superficial depiction of what spirit is.”
  • Appearing on the Share the Air podcast, longtime coach and National Ultimate Training Camp founder Tiina Booth stated (24’52”) “Why do we have to have this spirit clause, which doesn’t really reflect competition or sports or our history or how people interact…it seems problematic, and it seems performative, and it seems inauthentic.

If we promote and listen to marginalized perspectives, we realize that the existing culture around SOTG isn’t working the same for all players. At best, the tools and trappings of SOTG are inconsistently valued and inauthentically performed. At worst, the culture surrounding SOTG serves to reinforce white supremacy within ultimate, making our sport a less safe space for players of marginalized identities. If we indeed value “the contributions and perspectives that a truly diverse community provides our sport” as USA Ultimate’s Inclusion Statement affirms, the time has come for some radical rethinking of how SOTG should function moving forward.

Referees are not the solution, if only for practical reasons. Amateur sports in America are losing referees more than ever from a combination of COVID and an unchecked culture of abuse toward folks brave enough to wear a whistle. Ultimate’s existing refereed formats have not been immune to a shortage of officials — the AUDL’s Chicago Union and Indianapolis Alleycats played a game in 2021 with a game-time recruit as the lone official, as no trained referees were available to work the game. Beyond the challenges in recruiting officials, the increase in participation costs to compensate game referees at scale would surely be contentious in a community with erratic perspectives over what playing ultimate should cost.

Beyond the practical obstacles, adding another layer of flawed humanity (referees) is a backwards step that only serves to shift accountability away from players at a moment when collective accountability is critical for progress in our sport. Referees are not immune to bias, and — based on ten years of personal experience officiating high school basketball — referees forget the rules, misapply the rules, or go rogue and enforce their own version of the rules. We cannot offshore accountability to a flawed third party and magically transform our sport into a safer place. We have to do the work and hold ourselves and each other accountable to make SOTG viable for our sport’s future.

Improving SOTG to safely serve players throughout the sport may ultimately require different strategies than tweaking the rules with half-measures to promote a more watchable spectacle. Consider this addition to the recently updated 2022-2023 Official Rules of Ultimate:

Players are required to “explain their viewpoint clearly and concisely” and “resolve disputes as
as quickly as possible.” As such, most discussions should not exceed thirty seconds before either reaching a resolution or requesting an observer to resolve the dispute. [[Section 2.D]]

Sure, protracted on-field discussions make for terrible viewing, and nearly every player has witnessed or contributed to frustratingly long unsettled disputes in games without observers (as most remain). No one enjoys these moments. But if developing communication and conflict resolution skills is an emphasis for ultimate — as stated in the Preface of the Official Rules — how does an artificial time limit reinforce that ambition? A sentiment like “our sport builds character, but only in 30 seconds or less” indicates that seamlessness in competition is the driving motive for SOTG’s current trajectory, and not the outcomes around player development and player experience. We cannot expect SOTG to be sustainable without prioritizing its impact on experiences at all levels of the sport, not just at the highest levels of competition.

Self-officiation is messy as hell. Other than the piece of plastic we throw around, the messiness around SOTG is our biggest differentiator when competing against the traditional sports for new players. Instead of making compromises for a better viewing product — and watering down what makes ultimate different — we should reconcile ourselves to the chaotic aspects of SOTG and market that as the identity of our sport. Instead of suggesting ultimate is innately better than other sports, we need the gumption to say “SOTG will never be perfect, but it is a core aspect of ultimate and we believe in the values and outcomes that self-officiation can promote compared to other sports.”

We must own the gritty inconveniences surrounding self-officiation as worthwhile trade-offs for promoting the values our sport purports to care about. We must celebrate the differences in how individuals interpret and engage with SOTG and redevelop our culture on a foundation of authentic individual expression. First and foremost, we must create a system where players are provided the support and safety needed when self-officiation goes wrong. So, how do we get there?

Step 1 = Reboot the culture of ultimate by explicitly defining what SOTG is and — more importantly — what it is NOT!

Spirit circles are not spirit. High fives are not spirit. Cheering the other team is not spirit. Choreographed dances are not spirit. These are rituals, they are not spirit.

Put simply, Spirit of the Game is a set of principles that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. As Tiina Booth puts it so succinctly on the Share the Air podcast (7’40”): “This is my big talk about spirit: ‘Don’t Cheat!’ That’s it, we’re done.” Khalif El-Salaam’s definition, as explained on the Huckin’ Eh podcast (24’45”), is similarly simple: “My definition of spirit is…knowing the rules, and playing by the rules.”

The explicit definition of SOTG is not the problem, and USAU staff and volunteers have worked to address the perils of implicit bias within SOTG. The problem is when we conflate how we define and talk about SOTG with all the additional fluff you see in the Celebrating Spirit section of USAU’s website. We have built a world where the expectations for being “spirited” go far beyond each player’s simple responsibility for “knowing, administering, and adhering to the rules.” Before moving forward, we must strip away this confusing cultural baggage and reboot SOTG around its simplest definition.

Step 2 = Rebuild SOTG on a foundation of authentic individual expression — and embrace all the messiness that comes with that.

Once we remove the pressure to conform to ultimate’s cultural standards for SOTG, we must create space for folks to authentically participate with less risk of being judged as “unspirited.” So long as players are competing fairly, folks can engage with additional rituals — high-five lines, post-game cheers, ‘spirit’ circles, etc. — in accordance with how they value them as individuals. This allows players to be themselves and ensures that rituals within the sport are not cheapened by performative engagement.

In an opinion piece published by Ultiworld in August 2020, Ari Nelson suggested: “Let’s create a new culture around spirit that provides space for a wider range of acceptable natural responses and acknowledges that we’re not all coming into this space with the same backgrounds, privileges, or emotional dispositions.” Of course, as the ultimate community becomes more diverse and more players disengage from previously entrenched norms and rituals, we must have a system in place to moderate a widening range of perspectives within the sport.

How do we build that?

Step 3 = Develop and use partnerships to create moderated spaces where players can share perspectives and resolve disputes outside of competitions.

In order for SOTG to facilitate a safer and more diverse community, players must know that a space exists where their perspective and experiences can be shared when self-officiation goes wrong. We simply cannot expect players to feel valued by a sport that gives them no backstop or support for spirit-related concerns outside of national-level events. But how do we build such a system when the necessary human resources are not immediately available within ultimate’s infrastructure?

By leveraging SOTG as a feature that makes ultimate distinct, USAU could seek out partnerships with institutions focused on conflict resolution with an anti-racist framework. These partners could provide personnel and expertise on retainer to appropriately moderate discussions between teams and players and seek to resolve spirit-related issues which arise at all levels of competition. This system would serve as an active follow-through on spirit issues where none currently exists, but would also keep accountability in the hands of players themselves. Except for serious incidents of misconduct, these moderated spaces could exist with no interference or policing from USAU personnel.

If time-capping on-field discussions is now an explicit expectation of gameplay, an institutionally-available space to revisit unresolved disputes feels like a necessary backstop to maximize the potential of building communication and conflict resolution skills prefaced in the rules of the sport. At the individual level, these spaces would allow for an authentic exchange of perspectives, removed from the adversity of live competition and without the surrounding cultural pressure of teammates, opponents, coaches, and spectators. At the macro level, access to this type of system could prove extremely valuable to affiliate organizations that lack the resources to manage spirit-related issues in their local communities. Even as a pure opt-in system where portions of the community do not engage, this approach could help resolve a litany of unsettled disputes and discussions.

Step 4 = With an institutional system of moderated spaces as a backstop, maximize the value and potential of spirit scoring.

Beyond spirit circles and the cringey vibe they can evoke, spirit scoring is perhaps the most popular target for complaint among the SOTG-related tools. By testing an online scoring system and revising language to reduce implicit bias, the SOTG Working Group has invested tons of labor in improving the spirit scoring process. Despite these enhancements, spirit scoring suffers from the fundamental weakness that our player community has no sense or understanding for how this system actually helps the sport. What’s the point?

While acknowledging the challenges of translating the subjectivity of SOTG into an objective numerical rating, the potential value of spirit scoring is massive. A growing dataset of spirit scores from all levels of competition — not just national events — would promote fascinating opportunities for analysis, benchmarking, and dialogue on the state of SOTG throughout the sport. That said, the potential for conflict and harm from expanding the spirit scoring system is just as significant — increased transparency over contentious scores could serve to deepen divisions between teams and players if there is no available system prepared to reconcile negative experiences.

Building a broadly available resource for moderating SOTG discussions and disputes is the foundation from which spirit scoring could achieve its maximum potential without provoking unnecessary harm. Moreover, this approach could facilitate restorative outcomes through shared perspectives of teams and players, such that spirit scoring does not only result in punitive actions against teams with poor scores, but also serves to promote shared understanding and reconcile differences.

Step 5 = Codify the importance of rules knowledge at different levels of ultimate and create systems to hold players accountable for rules knowledge accordingly.

As a high school basketball official, I was required to pass a 30-question online rules exam before I could work each season. In ultimate, every player is an official. At the club level at least, requiring every player to pass a rules quiz is not an unreasonable expectation. Regardless of the extra work and hassle involved, this would send a clear message that rules knowledge is essential for self-officiation to be sustainable.

Expectations on rules knowledge must be approached more judiciously in formats and divisions which include more beginners. In my experience organizing local leagues, team captains who prioritize rules knowledge and enforcement over creating a fun and positive atmosphere can contribute to negative player experiences. Criticizing beginners for not knowing the rules is a sure-fire way to lose recruits to the sport. However, once a player enters more competitive levels of play, accountability on rules knowledge must be reinforced alongside other requirements for player eligibility.

Step 6 = Reinforce institutional stewardship of SOTG through an increased investment of money, resources, and clear strategic prioritization.

Evolving SOTG into a more active system would not be free of charge. Any relationship with a third-party partner would likely require significant investment, but also provides a more operationally sustainable solution than relying on USAU staff or volunteers to sufficiently resolve spirit-related issues from competition. Maximizing the potential of the spirit scoring system is also no small project and would require considerable time and effort. Ultimate’s institutions do not presently possess the resources needed to support more active work on SOTG issues — if anything, budgets are spread thinner than ever as ultimate rebounds from the pandemic.

Like so many other challenges facing our sport, money is a primary obstacle. As I have argued in previous opinions, the existing player community must be willing to contribute more financially towards the goals, initiatives, and experiences we value which desperately need more resources and attention. Just as universities or charitable organizations host massive donation campaigns to support the institution, a funding drive to “Rebuild SOTG for Ultimate’s Future” is not unreasonable — a slew of small donations could seriously boost the resources available alongside a parallel pursuit of grants and other contributions.

Of course, additional resources are only meaningful if improving SOTG is treated as an institutional strategic priority. My ongoing critique of USA Ultimate is the disproportionate degree to which budget and bandwidth are consumed by hosting competitions, supporting the national teams, and marketing toward high-level visibility, while other issues of the sport’s development with broader community impact are left to wither on the vine. If the priorities of an organization are reflected by how its money is spent, stewardship over SOTG and its evolving impact on player experiences seems unimportant in the current governance of ultimate. Unless that changes, no influx of resources could do much to make things better.

With an updated USAU strategic planning process on the horizon, our community stands in an apt moment for productive dialogue on how SOTG must evolve. As this piece suggests, there is meaningful feedback about SOTG coming from prominent players and organizers in our sport. Even if my recommendations are not the best ones, there is enough valuable dialogue swirling around our community that harnessing these insights to inform new strategic options feels like an obvious next step — and an opportunity for the powers-that-be to affirm their stewardship over the core ethos of our sport. Doing nothing would only prove that SOTG — a “unique and defining element of ultimate” — is truly only an afterthought.

  1. Tim Smith
    Tim Smith

    Tim Smith is the executive director of the Washington Area Frisbee Club (WAFC), a nonprofit disc organization in the Washington, DC region

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