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USAU Board Member Henry Thorne On Observers v. Referees

On a closed Facebook page about the prospect of professional ultimate in Pittsburgh, USA Ultimate board member Henry Thorne made a case for using observers instead of referees in the pro leagues. Thorne sent his post to Ultiworld for publication. Here’s what he had to say.

It’s been a lot of fun watching the World Cup over the last couple of weeks but it also reinforces my belief in our observer system and I really wish the pro leagues would recognize it and use it. I’d be a big supporter of them if they did.

I don’t think Ultimate players are better people than soccer players. I think they are the same, they are people. But soccer really does have a culture of whining. And it’s disappointing to watch. I don’t want my heroes to be whiners. And it comes from the system, not the people. Soccer players are brought up in a system that rewards whining. You’ll literally get more calls if you’re an effective whiner and flopper. Getting that ref on your side gets more calls, more free kicks, and thus more winning.

In Ultimate, your character gets revealed through the calls you make or don’t make. Opponents and fans get to know you and they either like what they see or they don’t. Players generally want to be appreciated in the community so they generally make an effort to play fair and be decent to each other and voila, there you have it, a system that fosters integrity.

The difference is clear. Ultimate players don’t whine like soccer players and they don’t flop all over the place and, even in pro leagues, the culture carries over and you have really honorable play that’s a great example for everyone and a joy to watch as opposed to somewhat embarrassing. So why drop a system that is clearly making sports better?

Especially because it’s quite harmful to the health of that system. Pro leagues using refs says that Ultimate without refs isn’t legitimate, that our observer system isn’t “professional” enough. It really undermines it. And simultaneously let’s every high school kid who’s misbehaving out there know that he can eventually reach a pro level where he won’t have to worry about it. Go ahead, be a jerk, it doesn’t really matter, in the pros you don’t have to deal with it/yourself.

And the legitimacy argument isn’t correct. The US Olympic Committee just recognized the sport of Ultimate and one of the two primary reasons was that our observer system meets Olympic ideals. (FYI the other was that our sport plays particularly well co-ed as compared to other sports). You can’t get more legit that being recognized by the USOC.

I realize it’s harder. It’s easier to be like all other sports. There’s explaining to do, and it seems a bit like backyard ball when you first hear about it. But it’s better. So stick up for it. Don’t undermine it. Use it as a differentiator that appeals to everyone’s sense of right and wrong. Don’t head us off in the direction of the whiners, keep on the path of making sports better and you’ll be more successful in the end.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

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

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