Food for Thought

by | March 19, 2014, 6:52am 15

I had an interesting conversation a couple of weekends ago at Stanford Invite. The observers were going over the time limits and I really wanted to know exactly what the penalties were for going over time. Our usual sub-caller couldn’t make the trip and so I was stuck doing the job on top of a lot of other coaching responsibilities, so I knew that the chance of us going over time at least once was very, very good. (This turned out to be correct. We missed time twice, costing us disc at midfield on the second.)

Discussing the consequences sparked a philosophical conversation between myself and head observer Wes Chao. Time infraction penalties are set consequences for set behavior enforced by a third party. That’s reffing. Under Spirit of the Game, intentionally breaking the rules is verboten, but in a reffed system, breaking the rules is a matter of weighing the cost-benefit. Fouling at the end of a basketball game or the Seahawk’s endemic hand-checking are both great examples of the cost-benefit coming out on the side of breaking the rules. The observer system is a hybrid system that attempts a best-of-both-worlds combination: allowing players to call the things that they can do best (like fouls) and observers to call things that are difficult for players (like in-out and time). Time penalties (or penalties for language and encroachment) are refereed penalties. Here’s the question I posed to Wes: Does SotG apply in these circumstances? Are we still morally bound by SotG to not break the rules? Or does the refereed nature of these situations free us to take a more pragmatic approach?


I’m not sure what rock you are living under if you’ve missed the contrived dust-up between MLU and USAU. (Back story here and here.) I’m not really interested in either the critique of USAU or details of the subsequent olive branch; you shouldn’t be either. The interesting stuff is all the currents swirling underneath the surface. Ask yourself: why would MLU do this?

  1. This was a single move. The critique and the olive branch are a part of an orchestrated strategy. (See #4 below.)
  2. This is coming from a position of weakness. If MLU has everything going its way there is absolutely no reason to make this move. However, it doesn’t have everything going its way. In addition to all the struggles you’d expect for a start-up in an emerging market, MLU lost the one competitive edge it had. That brings us to number 3…
  3. This is the AUDL’s fault. If it had accepted its little brother status and let MLU rule with big money, big talent and big cities, everything would be cool. Instead Beau went to the Spiders and Ghesquiere went to the Breeze. Then Sockeye bailed on the Rainmakers because it didn’t fit into their preparation for Worlds and the Triple Crown. And ESPN3? It is an impossible task to take on both USAU and the AUDL. The MLU lost ground this off season to both rival organizations.
  4. I am willing to acknowledge that this whole mess might not have been a coordinated strategy, but two separate events – the olive branch a reaction to the firestorm that followed the critique. For MLU’s sake, I hope not. It is far, far better to be Machiavellian than incompetent.

Amazingly, USAU responded. I don’t think they needed to — it would have been strategically fine to just let Snader rant on his own and pretend he doesn’t exist. But they chose to respond and in doing so made a very strong move. For most of Will Deaver’s reign in Boulder, USAU has been more concerned with management than leadership. (Management is focused on execution, logistics and process. Leadership is focused on vision. While management is quite possible without leadership, leadership is impossible without good management.) The focus within the organization has been on upscaling events and generating change through effective management and eschewing vocal leadership. (Deep breath, everyone. We all know USAU screws up, but before you go crazy, talk to someone who played in the 90s.) USAU has largely opted to avoid the tempestuous winds of rsd, Ultiworld and Twitter. Personally, I wish USAU had a bigger public presence, but there are some very valid strategic reasons to stay largely quiet. Because USAU is so often silent, it gives the rare occasions when they say something greater weight. With this piece, they’ve dictated the terms of the argument. The semi-pro leagues will have to address philosophical (SotG, gender representation) and practical (financial) issues before any meaningful discussion with USAU will happen.

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  • Molly McK

    Great article. I really like hearing peoples opinions on this topic. Both from USAU/AUDL/MLU supporters of today's game, as well as those that played at the highest level (club national semis/finals and worlds). Thanks for this Lou.

  • The part about cost-benefits reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast I listened to. It compared the evolution of safety equipment for both football and NASCAR with the tradeoff being players getting hit harder and more reckless driving, respectively. Don't know if you listen ever, but you might find it interesting:

  • The part about cost-benefits reminds me of a Freakonomics podcast I listened to. It compared the evolution of safety equipment for both football and NASCAR with the tradeoff being players getting hit harder and more reckless driving, respectively. Don't know if you listen ever, but you might find it interesting:

    • jbk

      That's funny…it made me think of a Freakonomics podcast too..but instead it was the one where they talked about self-officiating in ultimate and it's implications:

      • Burruss

        I have listened to both of these; I'm quite familiar with the work that the Freakanomics and Gladwell school of thought has produced. They are much more interested in explaining behavior, particularly at the societal level, than they are with individual ethical decisions.

        I believe that the opening clause of the rules (the SotG clause) places a higher moral requirement on us than a standard, referee based rules do. I know that not everyone agrees with this; people would often like to equate SotG with sportsmanship. They are related, but not the same. When a third party is responsible for policing your actions, you are less responsible for your own behavior. When you enter into any kind of game, you are entering into a social contract with everyone involved. Because there is no officiation and because the way SotG is defined, that social contract is different in ultimate than it is in refereed sports.

        The question I asked here is: does this change when we add observers? I left this an open question because while I have opinions, I don't have answers. Also, because rules aren't rules in a vacuum, we have to have an agreed upon understanding of what is and isn't acceptable.
        I would encourage you to watch the way teams play and function with and without observers. I know that most people think that games are smoother and more Spirited with, but in my experience they are often less Spirited with observers because teams quit talking to each other – that relationship between teams and players evaporates.

  • When we choose not to break a rule, what is our motivation? The Utopian vision would be that we do so out of a strong moral character. In this case, not only would we not need refs, we wouldn't need any outcomes for rule breaking. We would not need to say that if you are offsides the other team gets the disc at midfield, we would simply say: don't be offsides, and no one would be (offsides being an admittedly simple case).

    On the other hand is the pure risk-reward analysis. I think our motivation is a mix of both with different people falling on different points of the spectrum. I don't ever intentionally injure another player due to my moral character, but I don't take every effort to avoid all contact on the mark more out of a risk-reward analysis.

    I think about SOTG in the context that we want to promote adherence to moral character as the basis for following the rules. This is largely independent of how the game is officiated. If the ref can't see us foul our defender, a risk-reward analysis says we should, but a character analysis says we shouldn't. If we don't foul, even when we could get away with it, that is exhibiting SOTG. Conversely, why do we choose not to foul our defender in a self-officiated game? Does the fact that we can't get away with it (the defender could obviously call it himself) play a role? Does that diminish our ability to exhibit SOTG?

    To those that hold that self-officiation is paramont to SOTG (which seems to be the take of USAU in their recent press release on semi-pro), what does it say about our moral character that when there is no ability to call offsides (calling it from 70 yds away is nearly impossible), the rule is so frequently violated (I would guess it is violated more often than it is followed)?

    Why not structure the rules and officiating to enable consequences to more properly balance the risk-reward calculations, while still allowing the moral character to shine through. Observers are a strong step in this (IMO correct) direction, but let's not pretend that they are something that they're not (merely allowing the players to better enforce the rules on their own).


    p.s. USAU could make a huge stride in watchability if they just let players move freely on stoppages (like they can when the disc is being brought to the brick mark)

    • I just want to say that I think this is a fantastic comment. +1.

    • Burruss


      A lot of what I want to say I said up above, but I'd like to reiterate a coupe points. I don't think the rules exist in a vacuum; when they were written it wasn't as if a correct way to play suddenly sprang into being. The rules have to be interpreted and agreed on by all the players. Take stall counts as an example. I picked stall counts because they are a case where everyone 'cheats' but no one cares. Unlike travels. If everyone agrees that a stall count that runs in around 7 seconds is okay and we'll call fast count when they drop below 6 – then no one is cheating. There's a grand, unspoken captain's clause to the whole thing.

      This works the other way as well. There used to be a loophole in the marking rules that said you had to be within 10 feet to "start" a stall count. So you could start it and run away. Completely legal within the written rules. But when I tried to implement this tactic (including quoting/showing people the rule) they refused to accept it, because it wasn't the way the rule was interpreted traditionally. I'm not sure they were wrong (but I was sad because it was a cool trick in certain circumstances).

      To shift gears a minute: You make the argument that better risk-reward balance would make the sport better – I'm not sure that what you are asking for is possible. The rules must be in words – words are imprecise, too precise, inflexible and vague. I don't think you can really write rules that avoid gray areas, loopholes and imbalance. If you leave them vague, they are interpreted all kinds of ways. If you make them too specific, you end up like football, with a Byzantine set of rules that not even trained and professional officials, coaches and commentators can keep up with in real time. So while perfect rules are great in theory, they are unfortunately played by people in games under a multitude of conditions and motivations…

  • Talking from a rules writer perspective, there is no question that the intention of these penalties is not that teams intentionally choose to take the penalty over the consequences of rushing to the line to get the point started. The intention is to catch the negligent teams, and to drive the point home that they need to pay more attention.
    If teams are really abusing the rule in this sense (i.e. not feel guilty for breaking the rule as long as you accept the penalty), we need to discuss other forms of penalties. Possibly penalties with more "guilt feeling" and less influence on the actual game… ideas are welcome!

    The WFDF approach is usually "the smaller the penalty itself, the larger the guilt feeling. With education, the rule breakers will come around eventually." USAU is a bit stricter on the penalties. Here, the approach is a bit more "there are many rules which get broken by players without guilt feelings, small penalties are having no effect as the culture accepts breaking these rules. We have to introduce heavier penalties to drive the point home." But in any kind, the driving force behind the rules is that players internalize that intentionally (or out of neglect) breaking a rule is never ok, even if you accept the harshest penalty. This is supported strongly on the board level of both organizations, and if you want to change this, you need to elect different board members.

    • Burruss

      Thanks for the comment – it's great to get the international perspective here because it really is coming from a different philosophical place than US ultimate is. I think you've summed that difference up really, really well. My point is that the observer system has referee elements in it – does adding those elements change the moral imperatives of our sport? I believe that WFDF believes that it does – WFDF actually supports the idea that referee-style penalties within the observer system erodes SotG in this way – which is why they don't support observers. WFDF is willing to pay the price of an occasional Canada-Japan debacle to avoid the issues that come with observers.

      Here is a hypothetical for you to consider. For whatever reason, you were late getting your team to the line and don't have time to get the matchups you want. Is it okay to:
      1. Intentionally take the time penalty.
      2. Intentionally pull the disc out of bounds and use the time the handler is bringing the disc to the brick to set up.
      From a perspective of abstract morality, these two things are the same – you are intentionally doing something to incur a penalty because it is to your advantage. However, the first choice is distasteful to most people and most would find it a cheat-to-win type tactic. The second choice, is widely accepted and used. Why?

      • Lou,
        I have both perspectives as I am on both rules committees… and have played under both sets for several years.

        And yes, you are correct on the WFDF perspective. One point I wanted to make is the the USAU perspective is not all that different when it comes to the desired outcome (no intentional rules breaking), but USAU has given up a bit on the more idealistic approach.

        I hear you on the example… . For this particular issue I guess the brick is not perceived as a penalty (even WFDF has it…) but rather a consequence of an OB pull (by the rules writers as well, nowhere does it explicitly say that you are supposed to pull inbounds) — more a balance of risk/reward on the pull. It's not so much a penalty for failing to keep it in bounds, and more a rule which rewards difficult (float plus inbounds) over easy (pull it out the back, I remember the pre-brick times we did this) pulls.

        But I am sure there are other examples along these lines where I can not so easily weasel my way out of the hypothetical.

  • c m

    One thing that's missed by analyzing the the USAU-MLU interactions from a strategic perspective is a conversation about the finer question of whether they should partner at all. Taking a high level strategic approach has meant conversations have focused on who's winning and who's losing the PR war. I'm not saying this isn't a meaningful conversation—we're human and these somewhat superficial battles tend to guide the loyalties that drive important, non-superficial behaviors—but there are practical reasons for ignoring the forest sometimes and looking at the trees. Does a partnership with the MLU/AUDL go against gender equity? Should a partnership be dependent on refs? Should the USAU have any control over a professional league?

    The gender equity issue is an admittedly tricky one, but I think we forget sometimes that recognition of the MLU/AUDL doesn't preclude partnerships with women's leagues. It often feels like a Yes to the MLU is a Yes to men's ultimate and, thus, a No to women's. I don't think that last part is true. The USAU has touted the (great) work Without Limits has done to grow college women's ultimate; its support (verbal or financial) hasn't meant the USAU couldn't also promote a similar future endeavor on the men's side.

    I don't have a firm opinion on whether games should be reffed. One thing I disagree with is that reffed ultimate is somehow not ultimate. Ultimate doesn't have a strict definition; it resembles, but is not equivalent to the sport defined in the USAU rulebook. Games played under WFDF, MLU, and AUDL rules are also ultimate. If we went through the rulebook changing one rule at a time, we'd never find or an agree on an exact place where the sport we were defining was no longer ultimate. The rules vary from Pop Warner football to high school to college to the NFL—we call all of those things football. Ultimate, for me, is flexible enough to accommodate self-officiating here, refs there, and observers over there. I think it's this capacity for different versions of ultimate that MLU believes its differences with USAU are "minor and largely irrelevant."

    For me, alignment on referees and gender balance shouldn't be requisites for partnering. These things aren't thoroughly vetted for other types of partners—whether that's corporate sponsors, apparel companies, or WFDF—it's specific to these leagues, which compete more directly with the functions of the USAU. Personally, I feel that the USAU should be involved with whatever form of professional ultimate exists in the US, but should not be in direct control of it. Professional leagues and recreational/club play are driven by different motives. Correspondingly, the people running those organizations (and those playing in them) also have different reasons for partaking. These groups need to be managed by different people. It makes more sense to me for the organizations to cooperate in order to raise awareness of ultimate, but operate separately to fulfill their base's goals.

    • Burruss

      Great questions. Great thoughts. I agree with you about the gender equity issue for the very reasons you laid out. I think Snader's sexism and the cheerleader issue has really muddied the water on this one, but USAU partners with all kinds of organizations that serve a subset of the ultimate population. I don't agree with you about refs. Reffed ultimate is fundamentally different – not the game itself (yet) – but culturally. Right now players are bringing decades of SotG culture with them into the reffed games. They also don't really care if they win or lose semi-pro yet. It's like Potlatch for most of the players – they want to win but not at the expense of some other priorities. As these things shift, reffed ultimate will start to look more and more different. There is SO much to this discussion; I'm not going to go further, but I'll promise a full explanation sometime soon.

      Lost in a lot of this discussion is the money issue. It isn't as sexy or exciting as the refs/gender/scheduling/politics stuff, but the fact remains that the semi-pro teams are for-profit entities and their accounting is completely opaque. Do you know how much they made/lost? Wouldn't you like to know that before the governing body of our sports goes out of their way to restructure the schedule of the entire season and the competitive nature of the sport? I would. These two corporations need to prove they are going to last and be worthy partners first.

  • FD88

    Thanks for the article. I'm not a fan of the MLU/AUDL, but this helped me understand the political posturing of the MLU in light of recent events.

    As for the larger question of spirit, maybe I can bring a little light to a WFDF country. I'm an American currently playing in France and I have encountered my own frustrations at the spirit/rules level. A few weeks ago, my team was scrimmaging another team (one of the higher ranked teams, top 5 I think?) and I ran into some problems regarding fouls. The first incident was when I had possession of the disc and the player marking me had set up in a completely illegal position: wrap-around, chest to my shoulder, and full octopus-arm movement. I threw through his arm and called foul and he contested, saying that I had thrown into him. We talked about it after the point on the sideline and he said that it was unfair for me to call a foul since I was just looking to get insurance on my throw. I brought up the social contract (that you mention above): if you mark illegally I am okay with that, but be prepared to have a foul called. This kind of marking seemed to be the basis for their defensive strategy, as all of their players were marking the same way. A couple things come up in this example: 1. Fundamentals: in the States (or at least on every team I've been on), you are taught to fight through the contact and call a foul on the throw, because the reward outweighs the risk, where European teams seem to shy away from that contact to throw an around; 2. Morals: hypocrisy in application of the rules—the mindset that just because the marker's fouling doesn't mean you can draw contact on your throw.

    The second incident came later in the game when I made a bid on defense and rolled onto the offensive player's ankles after hitting the ground. He didn't call foul, but when he turned it over he immediately began screaming at me for making a dangerous bid. As soon as I got the disc, he ran up on the mark, lowered his shoulder, and slammed into me. His teammates reprimanded him in the moment, but there was nothing I could do other than call a foul and resume play.

    While this was just a scrimmage, it is intensely frustrating to know that in a game that matters there will be no penalties for this kind of play. I firmly believe in spirit of the game and don't think that observers are necessary in all cases, but the cynic in me says that there will always be games where they could clean up the game by imposting penalties. The two incidents could be considered violations of WFDF's definitions of spirit ("Intentional fouling" and "taunting or intimidating opposing players") and I feel that under an observed system both would receive a TMF (maybe a PMF for the second). I also agree with your assessment of the observed games being less spirited, but sometimes (in the cases above) talking doesn't actually help since the teams can't agree on the interpretation of the rules (lack of captain's clause). The big question for WFDF seems to be: can an un-observed "morals first" system work with non-US teams learning from their international experience and becoming more competitive and physical? If yes, then what is the proper response to breakdowns like Canada-Japan?(On that note, let's not underestimate the effect of the "video era" of ultimate and written media like Skyd on perceptions of spirit and physicality in play as well.)

    I think it would be a great move for international ultimate to experiment a bit with observers, maybe on request or for showcase games at tournaments like Windmill Windup.

  • In the late-90's I built this computing system specifically to answer these types of philosophical questions. I called it the Ginormously Enhanced Reduced Instruction-set Computing System. It included an innovative (for then) input / output module where its answers could be sent directly to RSD.

    Unfortunately it ran on XP and has stopped working. But I'd previously asked it all these disc related questions and kept notes.

    Here were it's results:

    1. Is deliberately pulling a disc out of bounds bad sportsmanship? NO

    2. Is deliberately stalling on a line-up and taking a mid-field penalty bad sportsmanship? NO

    3. What happens if a team deliberately stalled to trigger a time cap by sending everyone to the bathroom? TMF

    4. Is ultimate still ultimate if players don't make their own foul calls? NO

    5. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? 0

    I'm sure you'll all agree these type of clear, unambiguous, answers super helpful. Feel free to post any other questions and i can review my notes.