AUDL Referees Are Not Going Away, Nor Should They

by | November 15, 2016, 10:23am 17

I am an AUDL player for the Austin Sol. I spent the first 6 years of my frisbee career playing self officiated ultimate (both USAU and WFDF) before playing AUDL for the first time in 2016. Having played both, I personally much prefer refereed ultimate. Nonetheless I think that outside of professional leagues self officiating should remain the standard and here’s why.

The Weaknesses of Self Officiation vs Referees in Professional Play.

Ultimate as a sport is expanding far beyond the circumstances and limitations that existed at its more formalized inception under the UPA. The sport’s increasing popularity and the transition into professional leagues introduces a number of elements that force the sport to shift away from its counterculture roots. The more successful and mainstream ultimate becomes, the less effective self officiation will be. Presently the professional leagues have no intentions of changing away from referees. However there has been much pushback in the community that I have experienced personally and observed through online media. I write this to make clear that if there are going to be professional leagues, referees are a necessity.

Players can’t be as objective as referees, regardless of circumstance, and that disparity becomes greater the more competitive the sport becomes. Everyone is subject to unconscious biases.

In the case of self officiation the emotional investment in the outcome of the game has a bias effect on every player. SOTG is the ideal we hold up to try and mitigate this bias, but the history of ultimate shows the difficulty of that. The Bias Blind Spot is a bias that pushes us to believe we are less biased than others in our decision making under identical circumstances. This bias remains even when we are aware of, or are faced with the evidence of, our own bias1Scopelliti, Irene, Carey K. Morewedge, Erin Mccormick, H. Lauren Min, Sophie Lebrecht, and Karim S. Kassam. “Bias Blind Spot: Structure, Measurement, and Consequences.” Management Science 61.10 (2015): 2468-486. Web..

The greater the emotional investment of a player, the more that unconscious bias will affect their decisions, even if they are attempting to compensate for it. As ultimate became more competitive the UPA included observers at the highest level tournaments to mitigate an emergent problem of extreme competitiveness undermining SOTG. This was exemplified in the 1989 club nationals final between NY New York and San Francisco Tsunami. The game was marred by excessive calls and extended on field arguments, leading to disgruntled fans heckling both teams. It made for an experience that wasn’t enjoyable for the players or the fans. While observers existed, they were primarily line judges and had little on field involvement. The fallout from the game prompted the UPA to formalize the observer program and make them more involved on field. All this happened at the club level, which is an amateur competition. Strong player bias and the willingness of some to abuse play calling pushed the governing body to make a change.

The same reasons that pushed the UPA to include observers are amplified at the professional level. SOTG is an ideal that is increasingly difficult to live up to the more competitive and emotionally invested the players become. That same emotion that drives their competitiveness and investment works against their ability to effectively self officiate. Referees should have no direct investment in which team wins, and the effect of unconscious bias on their decision making is drastically reduced.

Prioritizing Flow

An argument against referees that is often made is that self officiating empowers players to make calls that referees would otherwise be unaware of. In The Philosophy of Officiating (an extremely relevant thesis written by a former ultimate player) it is explained that it is the duty of a referee not to simply make calls when rules are violated, but do so in a way that prioritizes the flow of the game2Davies, Robert L. Jr., “The Philosophy of Officiating” (2012). University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects.
. The idea being that the referee can choose not to call infractions that do not impede play or result in an advantage for the player responsible.

In a very close game between competitive teams it can be extremely beneficial to call all infractions that occur (which is absolutely within the rules) whether or not it affects the play. Defenses can use calls to slow the pace of the game and eliminate advantages gained from dynamic movement. Offenses can use calls to reset their offensive play. A prime example for defense is a pick call in the stack between uninvolved players before a huck is thrown to an open receiver. The disc is forced to go back, giving the defense another chance (now aware of the deep threat) even though the pick didn’t affect the play. A completely literal application of the rules can be detrimental to good play, and how literally players apply the rules is affected by their bias. Referees will miss things and make fewer calls, however they are more consistent in the types and frequency of calls they do make.

It is very apparent in competitive play that the more crucial the game situation is, the more beneficial it is for players to call minor infractions that they could otherwise ignore. My argument is that more consistent play calling that prioritizes the flow of the game is better than more literal play calling that is strongly affected by the bias of the players and game situation. This is especially true from the spectator’s point of view.

The Corrupting Power of Money in a For-Profit League.

Money corrupts, and the more successful the AUDL becomes the more that money will influence those that play it. Though many players will resist, the influence of money creates a direct incentive to cheat and abuse any officiating power given to players. While the financial stakes for players are very minor at the moment, as the league becomes more successful that will change. In the previous section I assumed that players are doing their best to be objective arbiters, but what about when they aren’t?

The point at which I believe any amount of self officiating ultimately collapses is when the AUDL is successful enough for ultimate to be a career, not just an endeavor. The bias caused by competitiveness and emotional investment is already incredibly strong. Now imagine if a player’s income was determined by the outcome of a game, the ability to support themselves and those they care about. Imagine if they stood to become richer and more famous the more they contributed to their team winning. It would put adherence to SOTG in direct opposition to personal and financial gain.

Undermining SOTG doesn’t necessitate cheating, intentionally using minor infraction calls as a way to influence the speed of the game violates SOTG but not the rules themselves. SOTG rests on mutual trust that all players will strive to play and call fairly, with so much to gain by abusing that trust, it is difficult to imagine none would.

Ultimately the leagues are the deciders. The leagues see referees as being necessary (both the AUDL and MLU employ them) and it is understandable why. Referees are a ubiquitous aspect of organized team sports, and to a culture so accustomed to it, professional self officiating is an alien concept. USAU is a player oriented organization, but professional leagues are not. Leagues stand to make the most money by appealing to as many fans as possible, and referees are a part of that. They want to make ultimate a spectator sport, where more people watch it than play it. Referees help make ultimate a better spectator sport, especially for those who don’t, and never will, play it. The leagues see referees and appealing to a broader base as the way towards long term financial success, and I agree.

Teaching SOTG

I want to reiterate that all this applies to professional leagues. SOTG is absolutely the way to teach people to play ultimate, and how the game should be played in nonprofit environments. It is the particular circumstances of spectator first, for-profit leagues that make referees a necessity. For many though it seems to signal a shift away from the community of ultimate and the origins of the sport. The integrity rule is a clear sign that SOTG will always be a part of ultimate, it empowers players to correct the calls of the referee when it is to their detriment to do so. To display true sportsmanship in a way other sports don’t allow. I’ve also heard that removing the responsibility to self officiate leads players to cheat and play dangerously. Presently it is overwhelmingly the same group of people that play elite club and professional ultimate. But I’ve seen no more cheating or dangerous play in professional leagues than in elite club. And when it has happened in professional leagues players have been ejected as a consequence, something which rarely, if ever, happens in a self officiated game. Ultimate is changing and resistance to such change is only natural, but in this case I don’t think it is necessary. Referees are a small price to pay for all that professional leagues can do for the sport. That includes making the highest level of the sport far more accessible, I have never played USAU club because I couldn’t (or didn’t want my parents to) pay the cost of playing on a Nationals level team. Elite club is overwhelmingly composed of people who can afford to pay thousands of dollars a year or have parents who can. A professional league’s ability to pay players both makes referees necessary and opens elite competition to those that otherwise could not afford it. Even if you absolutely hate referees, that seems a very small price indeed.

P.S. The most direct counter-position to my argument is that for-profit professional leagues do not necessitate referees to be successful. Or that for-profit leagues are stupid and ultimate would be better off without them. Please make these, or any other, argument in the comments, it’s always good to hear both sides.

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  • Read through my research here and let me know what you think. It’s the best way I think I can prepare to offer feedback afterwards.

  • parinella

    I would have liked to have seen a more direct and explicit comparison with Observed ultimate rather than with unobserved ultimate. Most of the benefits of refereeing are also there with observers.

    • ColinMcI

      Yes, I was hoping for the same. Observers vs Referees is a much more interesting discussion than referees vs strict self-officiation. But no USAU club experience and a 1989 Observer system reference suggests the author may not have much observed Ultimate experience.

      Also wanted to note the pick example given in the article is incorrect. Rule XVI.C.2.b.2 of the 11th edition and WFDF Rule 16.3 make clear that the completed huck would stand.

      • Lucky Mosola

        Thanks for the correction, my mistake. I’ll find a more appropriate example to demonstrate what I meant.

        • ColinMcI

          Happy to help. The minor travel call is a classic flow stopper, but also against the rules. SOTG is part of the rules. WFDF has a provision on that very topic, and USAU official rules interpretation takes similar approach.

          There is actually tons of room for discussion regarding the observer system. The existing system can address misconduct. In the last 5-10 years, play in the U.S. has cleaned up dramatically, in part with influence of Observers. One could layer penalties into the observer system to deter petty calls, as well. For example, a 20 yard penalty for an overruled pick call or travel call (in addition to Misconduct System). A 3-stall penalty for an overruled foul or marking violation called by the thrower. These types of penalties have not been favored or necessary. But in my view, the leap from saying pure self officiating has challenges or does not work to concluding that referees are necessary is overly simplistic. As Parinella suggested, there are many benefits of a third party official shares under both observers and referees. The interesting discussion is exploring that intersection and reasons to go one way or the other or possible modifications of either system. For example, the integrity rule is a beneficial modification to referee system (observer system has similar provision) and there are a wide range of penalty options that could be incorporated into a hybrid pro league observer system, if the pro leagues feel like SOTG is breaking down and greater incentives/deterrents are necessary.

          I think your point of keeping self officiating, and observed play at all other levels makes sense. I believe the pro leagues benefit from fairer, cleaner play as a result of having players raised in self officiating, many of whom compete at the highest level with self officiating and observers.

          • Charles Kerr

            Once that veneer of sportsmanship from traditional ultimate starts to fade, the current AUDL rules and penalties couldn’t be more perfectly setup for exploitation. Watch some of the more contentious AUDL South games and project that 5 years into the future and it’ll be Katie bar the door. No doubt.

            I’m sorry Mr. Moso, but I’m all for strangling the referee experiment in the crib right now. I’ve seen 50,000 refereed games of football, soccer, and basketball in my life — I know how this story ends up. Ultimate won’t be any different.

          • Trent Simmons

            Charles, are you the same Charles Kerr who helped usher in the era of observers?

          • Charles Kerr

            Trent, I am. And I can tell you 2017 Charles’ views on these issues hasn’t changed in any fashion. Still don’t want referees initiating foul calls, still think USAU Observer system, officiating structure and rules could be improved upon to make the game more enjoyable for players and fans.

    • Patrick Christmas

      To look at systems, I would say that WFDF, USAU & AUDL agree on:
      Desire to showcase spirit of the game
      Need to speed up elite ultimate in order to make more fan friendly(WFDF & USAU because of Olympics)

      For these(Elite, broadcast or fan focused) games
      WFDF is starting with Game Advisors( – Rule Experts to explain and encourage fast resolution of calls.

      USAU has Observers – Similar to above but allowing for the players to agree to observer making final call.

      AUDL has Referees – Call starts with ref, but allows players to overturn calls in their favor.

      I’ll avoid analysis of the pros and cons (to players and fans), but I feel we’re closer than it sometimes feels in online message boards and that all allow us to show our spirit as ultimate players.

  • An interesting article. I think the thing that’s missing, from my own point of view, is a discussion of the impact of referees on game play.

    I’m easily persuaded that referees can help the flow of a game, and can often improve a game for players as well as spectators if the teams are not letting it flow. But that’s one game at a time, and short term. In the longer term, for me the inevitable downside of that is a change in behaviour. Small, niggly fouls – the sort of thing that a referee either won’t spot or won’t choose to stop the flow for – will in my opinion inevitably increase.

    If I know on defence that little nudges and holds won’t get called, then you’d better bet I’m thinking about doing it. If we also take away my responsibility for making the game flow and put that responsibility on a referee – so that there is no moral pressure on me to avoid petty fouls – then I can’t imagine any way in which the stack can avoid the sort of nonsense you see in soccer.

    Every kid watching that league will see that sort of play all the time. And soon, even in self-officiated ultimate where I have the power to call the foul and stop the game, clean players might be in such a minority that it becomes socially impossible to play to the rules. The guy calling a stoppage on every shirt-pull will seem out of step.

    Ultimate, for all the contact it sometimes has, remains by a huge distance the cleanest invasion sport I ever played. I like that. I think referees represent an enormous risk to the enjoyment I get from playing the sport.

  • Charles Kerr

    That’s the ideal picture for this article! The mindless substitution of the perfectly good, organic, not to mention far more cinematographic, double disc flip with a coin flip done by guys in zebra shirts because that’s “the way other sports do it”.

    The whole AUDL has been built like this — its core foundation is a series of generic sports ripoffs. If the AUDL franchises were owned by middle age midwest car dealers from the 1950’s running a minor league baseball team could it really be any less imaginative?

    And as Parinella points out, virtually all these officiating complaints could be solved with tweaks to the Observer system. And until the AUDL at least considers going down that route, they’re building a wall between the league and the sport’s national body that keeps the AUDL from tightly integrating with local communities. That’s where any truly innovative marketing has to start.

    • Andrew

      as far as the comment on the coin flip goes at least it has an actual 50/50 chance instead of the uneven percentages that the disc flip inherently has due to its shape.

      • Charles Kerr

        Shut-up. Let the home team, or the local celebrity representing the home team doing the flip, make the call and if they want the 1% edge tell them to choose “same”.

        If you want to trash something organic with the sport that broadcasts well, is fun for the crowd, and fun for the local person selected to rep the team, over a theoretical advantage it gives the home team (and allows them to make a decision that may or may, depending on weather, etc even end up being an advantage) you’ll probably want to leave the marketing of your team to someone else.

  • Warren Meech Wells

    Perinella and Colin have already made the critiques I would have (you got the pick rule wrong, observers can give out penalties for cheating, etc), so I’ll keep it short.

    First, at the risk of concern trolling (, I really would suggest that if you want to make the case for something (in this case fully refereed ultimate over self-officiated or observed ultimate), it pays to present the other side of the coin (or disc?) in the fairest light and not simply as caricature. To fail to do so is to commit a strawman fallacy (

    As Colin pointed out, your failure to mention the fact that the observer system (deeply flawed, and underfunded, though it may be) has led to significant improvements in quality of play at both the club and college level in the past decade greatly undermines your argument that we simply have to go all the way to referees.

    And here’s the thing. I understand that 3rd party officials are necessary for high level play. That is clear at this point. But anyone who compares 2016 WUGC to 2012 saw that the addition of neutral officials (ones with no officiating power) made the games vastly more pleasant to watch and still left players in control of the game. People on the pro-ref side always say that when money comes into the equation, everything will change. I’m open to that. Maybe that will indeed happen. But I don’t see why we need to give up on out (perhaps ultimately utopian) experiment *before it has actually failed* and just go the way that the other sports have.

  • Ben Van Heuvelen

    Hi Lucky,

    I would respond with a few points:

    1. I agree that the “Bias Blind Spot” is a problem in pure self-officiating. However, referees are not the only solution to it. At Worlds in London this summer, the Game Advisor system worked quite well. In almost every instance I witnessed, if a player made a call — even quite confidently — and then a neutral official gave a conflicting perspective, the player willingly reversed his or her call. In other words, the Bias Blind Spot is real, but it’s not overpowering, particularly for players who are already steeped in a culture of proactively trying to promote fair play.

    2. I agree that speed of play and game flow is a valid concern for a spectator sport. I believe it would take nothing away from our sport to put every purely objective call in the hands of observers: in/out, up/down, and travels. I also like time limits between points, and I think it’s worth experimenting with strict time limits for players to resolve disputed calls. If we did all of this, primary responsibility would still rest with the players to police themselves and try their best to play fair.

    3. On a very pragmatic level, I think third-party referees are less effective at ensuring fair play. Specifically, where referees fall short is in policing the “grey areas” of the rules. (E.g. what constitutes incidental contact versus a foul?) If we try to outsource enforcement of these rules to referees, then we risk creating a culture in which players stop proactively trying to play fair, and start playing according to what they can get away with. This has not yet been a problem in the semi-pro leagues, because so many players are steeped in a culture of SOTG. But imagine what will happen if a critical mass of players cease having exposure to self-officiated play and the competitive mindset that it promotes. The enforcement challenge will increase exponentially. (And given some of the complaints I have heard about the semi-pro league referees, they already have their hands quite full.)

    4. You seem worried that financial incentives associated with winning will cause players to cheat. I think you’re right to worry — a bit. But let’s imagine what a big-money world of self-officiated ultimate would look like. If games are played in big stadiums, there will be instant replay. If games are televised, there will be tape and critical commentary. It will be very difficult to cheat without being quickly confronted by evidence that you’ve cheated. If you do it chronically, then you will come to seem toxic to team owners, coaches, fans, and sponsors. In other words, I think you are perhaps giving too much weight to the incentives to cheat, and failing to imagine the disincentives that might appear. Also, you are neglecting to acknowledge how observers could mitigate your concerns about cheating.

    5. If ultimate uses referees at the top level, it will affect how the game is played at the amateur and youth level. Young people will always look up to the best in the world and want to emulate them. So, while you are obviously entitled to your opinion that professional ultimate should use referees, you are fooling yourself if you think that the accompanying shift in the competitive culture of the sport will not ripple outward to the amateur and youth levels.

    6. You write that the AUDL and MLU should use referees in part because that’s what fans expect. I would offer two thoughts in reply. First, the overwhelming majority of the semi-pro league’s potential audience consists of ultimate players. Few of them will be turned off by self-officiating, and at least some (including me) will be reluctant to support organizations that use referees. Second, ultimate is competing for fans in a crowded marketplace of sports. In an era when fans have more and more reasons to be disillusioned about professional athletes, ultimate can differentiate itself in large part because of the values inherent to the way we compete. Even if you look at this purely from a marketing perspective, it seems short-sighted to displace SOTG from the center of the game to the fringes of the rule book.


  • Lucky Mosola

    Thanks for the support and criticism everyone. My intention is to write a more specific comparison between referees and observers, and how observers might deal with the challenges that pro leagues face. In that I’ll address all the weaknesses and mistakes pointed out by many. Please continue with any relevant criticism. Thanks again!

  • Trent Simmons

    Spirit of the Game has an absolutely amazing potential to help teach youth all over the world a better approach to sports and from there a better approach to life.

    Refs are by far the biggest threat to Ultimate’s potential. You can make arguments about how they improve a single game, but it is simply naive to pretend they won’t have a ripple effect down through the sport.
    I’ve dedicated my life to reaching as many youth and government officials with the SotG message before they watch a youtube video which shows them a male only, refereed sport with lots of contact.
    I am the president of and we are now at the stage of teaching thousands of physical education teachers and tens of thousands of youth the principles of SotG every year. Because we focus on SotG first and the sport second, we have literally thousands of grant opportunities in front of us and we’re working with directly with Ministries of Sport and Olympic Committees, starting Ultimate development in new countries from the top down.

    If you’d like to help SotG win the race against refs, a donation would be great, but joining the organization as a volunteer would be even better. Please email to find out more about how you can help, even just 1-2 hours a week online, or donate to our fundraiser: Thank you very much.