Whether Ultimate needs referees is a complex issue without an easy solution. There are arguments that adding refs will allow ultimate to expand in popularity beyond its current niche, and at the highest competitive level it may be a necessity to promote both fair play and excitement. Others continue to insist that the top priority should be to preserve the “spirit of the game,” and that to bring in refs would be detrimental to spirit.
While there are compelling cases to be made for refs in high-level ultimate, youth ultimate doesn’t need them and shouldn’t have them.
In October, I sat down a few of my non-ultimate playing friends to watch the Ironside vs. Doublewide semifinal game at the USAU Club Championships. They loved the fast pace of the game and the players’ high level of athleticism, but were turned off by how often the action stopped for players to dispute calls. These would-be fans were deterred solely by a problem easily solved with the introduction of refs.
When the AUDL decided to institute referees during its season, the goal was to retain the energy and pace ultimate by encouraging continuous action. This was meant to attract more fans like my friends to the sport. The overall success of the AUDL’s first season is up for debate, but the goal of the rule change was widely deemed to have been accomplished.
Whether or not you think there should be refs in high-level ultimate, there’s at least a case to be made for them, especially as its success is contingent on attracting fans more familiar with refereed sports. But what about youth ultimate?
Unlike professional ultimate, the goal of youth ultimate is not to sell tickets or keep fans interested, and unlike USAU Club, there is not a huge amount of stoppage in most games. Youth ultimate is less competitive, and both teams’ biggest priority is to get on with the game.
Having referees in youth ultimate may also cause harm. Their inclusion would also diminish the “spirit of the game”. SOTG is a huge part of why many people—especially at the youth level—play ultimate. It adds an element of fun to the competitive atmosphere of high school sports. Silly cheers, lining up to say “good game”, and other aspects of SOTG make ultimate an appealing sport to both players and parents. Getting rid of self-officiated games would put take away a huge part of SOTG, making it less appealing for those just learning how to play or not interested in more traditional competitive sports.
Not all youth players are convinced that referees are a bad thing. Max Rooney, a player from Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, PA argued that, “Having referees in youth ultimate would improve the legitimacy of calls and develop a new generation of educated ultimate players who would be able to go on to the next level and make successful calls and really learn the different ins and outs of the game.”
The policy Rooney proposes would likely improve the game from a competitive standpoint, and kids who go on to play college ultimate may understand the rules better, even if there are no refs. However, most serious ultimate players say their love for the game stems from having enjoyed the fun aspect of the sport as beginners. Doing away with the free spirited aspect at the youth level might change the sport for the worse.
Putting competitive pressure on beginners by having referees would be detrimental to the fun aspect encouraged by SOTG and would drive many would-be players away. The balance of fun and competitiveness allows anyone to enjoy our wonderful sport. Tipping the scale to the competitive side would limit the inclusiveness of the sport and diminish spirit of the game.
Feature Photo by Christina Schmidt – UltiPhotos.com