If you spend any time reading rec.sport.disc, you quickly run into Toad Leber. Aptly nicknamed, Toad is widely reviled as one of the greatest trolls on a message board full of trolls. However, if you look through the vitriol, bad language and ad hominem attacks, you will find a genuine and solid foundation to his arguments. Not a foundation I agree with, but one that should be taken seriously and considered carefully.
My purpose here is to look at the ideas, not the man, but an examination of Toad’s career and philosophy will help shed light on the argument itself. The development of his ideology is well documented in Leonardo’s First 40 Years. What is detailed there is no different from the experiences of so many ultimate players. Players begin with a naive sense of Spirit of the Game that assumes all will accept its premise and play fairly. Then, an encounter with a team or individual who cheats, abuses/uses the rules or otherwise violates that naive sense of Spirit of the Game. Finally, a realization that it is possible (even easy) to cheat and get away with it. All ultimate players come to this crossroads. For Toad, this moment came courtesy of his hero, Kenny Dobyns. Ironically, my own denouement was thanks to UNCW and ECU as Carleton floundered to a 1-4 record against them at College Nationals (92-95). For many players, their experiences at this crossroads begets a belief in the Flawed Player, Flawed System theory of SotG. This is the foundation at the heart of Toad’s arguments.
The Flawed Player, Flawed System argument runs like this: in a self-officiated game, it is possible to cheat without penalty. Players are morally flawed and will cheat. Therefore, the system is broken and should be changed to a referee system. Each of these three statements demands a close examination both for their validity and their assumed implications.
The first of these statements does not look deeply enough. It should more accurately say “it is possible to cheat without on-field penalty.” Until you’ve experienced the snub at the tournament party, the muttered disrespect from other players and the awkward silences of your friends and teammates you should be careful about saying that there is no penalty. In a community as small as ultimate’s, these off-field penalties are a powerful force and shouldn’t be underestimated. While I was working on this post, I was reading the Krakken’s article about the differences between ultimate in the States and in Europe and struck by this comparison: “In the Netherlands there is a lot of down time at tournaments where you just hang out and watch games. This time is scarce at American tournaments. Because of all of this, there is less interaction with opponents and more focus on your own team.” Does this increased community time increase the strength of these off-field penalties and with them adherence to SotG? Does this partially help explain why SotG is so much stronger in Club ultimate where everyone knows everyone else, than in College where turnover is so fast? But realistically, there are people who are unmoved by these pressures.
Let’s look at the second statement. Sure, people are flawed. I don’t think is a new idea. But they aren’t flawed all the time. Time and time again in ultimate, you will see players in intense and difficult situations doing the right thing. I’m not talking about the things you notice, like receivers retracting a call made in the heat of the moment. I’m talking about all the catches, throws, d-blocks and goals that pass by without any call or drama. Even when calls are made, it is easy to forget the marker graciously accepting the foul call from the thrower or a handler laughing at a travel call because they know how bad they walked. Even when we notice, we forget these things. If you are trying to evaluate how flawed people are, you can’t look only at the bad.
I’m not sure where to start with the third statement. The leap of logic is amazingly magnificent and unjustified. There are hidden assumptions here that need discussion. The first is the idea that since SotG is flawed, it must be replaced. Refereeing is not a perfect system either. In the Flawed Player, Flawed System argument, there is no attempt to consider the relative benefits and drawbacks of each system. No attempt to weigh each system side-by-side. It is simply, Spirit is flawed and must go. The other hidden assumption is that officiating is the only issue of importance to ultimate and all decisions about officiating should be made within this framework. Growth? Juniors? Image? Community? Legitimacy? These are not small, unimportant details to be brushed aside. The effect of SotG and refereeing on these and other issues is essential to the debate about the future.
To be fair, the initial premises of the Flawed Player, Flawed System theory have real validity. As a critique of SotG, they really get to the heart of the issues. It is possible to cheat. People do cheat. A robust Spirit of the Game would address those issues head on. For the most part, we have avoided those issues, preferring to be reactive rather than proactive. What does proactive mean? What does proactive look like? A final thought, without a home elsewhere in this essay is that the Flawed Player, Flawed System theory can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a corrosive cycle, it becomes a rationale and justification for the very behavior it decries.