A couple of hours ago I flipped to the Iowa State-Oklahoma State basketball game just in time to see Tyrus McGee get called for a taunting technical for pumping his fist and screaming after drawing an ‘and-one.’ In the Auburn-Alabama game, just hours later, both Kenny Gabriel and Chris Denson were given technicals for hanging on the rim “excessively.” To me, they both looked like pretty innocent slam-dunks. It just looked as if the player was simply regaining his balance before dropping from the 10-foot high rim, which is perfectly legal and in the rules. Earlier in the season, Markel Brown of Oklahoma State received technicals for celebrating in a way deemed to be “taunting” behavior and was ejected after making two of the best plays of the college season. The neutral zone between normal and excessive got a lot smaller a couple weeks ago when the NCAA issued a memorandum to its officials citing a need to crack down on this sort of thing in order to prevent tensions building and exploding like in the Cincinnati-Xavier brawl earlier in the season. The NCAA and the Officials Coordinator John Adams are trying to cover their backsides after the nasty, widely televised fight, and the sport is suffering because of it. I watched that game and that brawl, and there were no over-the-top celebrations or increased trash talking after dunks. What I saw was 40 minutes of intense play with above average physicality and competitiveness in a rivalry game that was not well handled by the refs. In other words, the celebrations and the taunting after dunks weren’t the problem. The biggest issue that contributed to the blowup was the general combative and immature attitude of the players, showcased on the defensive end for either team when someone lashed out in frustration after failing to make a play. Somehow the higher-ups missed that, and the players are now suffering for having fun playing a sport and doing it with some passion. Honestly, it’s shameful. Let the kids play the game.
This got me thinking about taunting and the nature of celebration in sports. To give you my honest opinion, I love celebrations in sports and I’m one of those people who thinks that so long as it doesn’t delay the game or harm or personally attack anyone, why not? If a guy wants to hang on the rim for 10 minutes let him. His team will be a man down at the other end, and when they get scored on and come back up the court he’ll be called for basket interference. People, specifically administrators, seem to think that athletes can’t understand or maintain sportsmanship for themselves. I’ve never heard a player complain after the game that he felt taunted, and I guarantee you what bothered him more than the thunderous dunk was the excessive elbowing. He probably regrets being posterized, but if he hates the dunking player or attacks him later in the game, that’s a lack of mental toughness on his part.
Anyway, as I was writing this, my thoughts wandered to Ultimate and the ever-controversial subject of spiking the disc. Even as someone who has never spiked once, I am still a huge fan of it. Unless an opponent is throwing it at me or tearing up the disc, go wild. I think it’s funny and entertaining to anyone watching, and it gets the team fired up. I believe that spiking has to become an understood and respected part of the sport. Players need to accept that the spike or celebration may happen and is allowed, and if it doesn’t negatively affect another person or impair the pace or livelihood of the match, you must let it go. Especially at higher levels teams will use spikes as a way to fire up their team, and the opponent walking to the other end of the field should also see it as motivation, not a direct slight. Like any other aspect of Ultimate or any other sport, celebration must be done with respect for the opponent and without expressed malice. Referees don’t regulate self-officiated Ultimate, the athletes do, and that puts an extra responsibility on the shoulders of the players in a fashion unlike any other sport. It is up to them to understand the rules and the reasons that they are in place. The TMF and PMF rules are available in the Observer’s Manual, and the Misconduct section is something that every player should read. In particular, the Misconduct System notes the importance of regulating with awareness of the intensity of the game, and the perceived intent of the player. For example, there is a crucial difference in swearing at someone as opposed to simply swearing, or spiking the disc at someone instead of a spike happening to land near an opponent.
Regardless of the intent, it’s the perception that matters in sports. In Ultimate it doesn’t matter whether you were trying to foul the player or not: if he or she feels like you did, he/she is going to call it. In basketball it matters whether the ref thinks you fouled someone, and, regardless of your intent, you may indeed have acted inappropriately. So there are rules to define what this inappropriate behavior is, and in Ultimate spiking is in a grey zone. ‘Legally’ according to the rulebook it isn’t banned. However, many players feel like it is ruining the essence of Ultimate, and spikes can certainly create problems on and off the field. I think that most would agree spiking doesn’t have a place when Ultimate is played as a “game.” However, at a higher level or in more competitive games, spiking is definitely a part of Ultimate the “sport.” Sports are competitive and games are not, and Ultimate can be played as either.
The big question comes down to this: is spiking spirited? The answer is absolutely yes – if done correctly. Is it a violation of the “Spirit of the Game?” Anyone who has played Ultimate for years can tell you the spirit of Ultimate is changing, just as the rules and expectations of sportsmanship have been tweaked in pretty much any other sport or athletic event over the years. Sportsmanship is hard to define but attempts typically include the phrases ‘graciousness in winning or losing’ and ‘respect for an opponent.’ In Ari Weitzman’s Skyd article on the controversy of spiking, he said that spiking in a serious match is good spirit and a sign of respect for an opponent. I very much agree that a spike is spirited in that it celebrates the intensity of the athletes and of the competition itself. However, I think Weitzman may overemphasize the principles and miss the real-time implications of a spike, which are potentially far more problematic. I believe that in the moment most players spike, the feeling inside them is not an overwhelming amount of respect for the guy they just skyed. That respect comes across most sincerely through one’s hard play during the game and after the game as they think about how fun, talented and/or spirited the opponent was, perhaps capped by going over to give a handshake or have a brief conversation about how well an opponent played. Spiking, in principle, is a celebration of competition and love of the sport, your team, your ability, etc. However, the positive principles of spiking only matter so much if the application of those principles is botched through poor individual spirit or attitude.
I said earlier that perception is crucial in sports, and I believe this primarily applies to better understanding or managing the way the other guy handles the situation, not just the one spiking it or the guy shouting after the dunk. Profanity or any personal attacks or offensive gestures are clearly inappropriate (which I’ll get to later), and if you can’t understand that you probably shouldn’t be around people, much less playing a sport. Weitzman’s article argues that whenever an opponent spikes the disc, even at him, he feels that it is not really directed at him, but more of a celebration of the opponent’s achievement. I find that hard to believe. You’re kidding yourself if you think people spike only because they are pleased with themselves. In Ultimate, like any other sport, your success relies on you besting an opponent: that’s ultimately what you are celebrating. You have done something great, and perhaps more importantly you have done it in spite of your opponents’ efforts. No one spikes during a game of toss, no matter how great the catch is; you spike because you caught it over a crowd of defenders. The implication of dominance or besting an opponent is unfortunately inherent to the act, and is an essential part of competition.
When a celebration crosses into the unacceptable is when it becomes a personal, inappropriate, or hurtful act. A “f**k you!” or throwing the disc at an opponent is wrong. Saying “let’s f**king go!” or spiking the disc at the ground is perfectly fine. It is the type of spike or the utterance that comes with it that makes all the difference. Players have to come to understand that the spike or celebration may come and is allowed, and if it doesn’t affect another person or the game, you must let it go. You should be more worried about giving up that break or when you got beat deep, not this kid’s celebration that has nothing to do with you. Now, if he/she spikes the disc on the edge there is a problem, unless the owner of the disc has consented to their disc potentially being ruined. And that is not something that is automatically consented to when someone volunteers a game disc without the teams discussing it before the game; everyone should understand that. It seems to me that everyone on either team should decry the spike on the edge because it delays the game and no one likes playing with a taco-ed disc.
The question of personal attacks, or “taunting” seems to have an obvious answer: simply inappropriate and unquestionably illegal. The TMF and PMF have come to Ultimate with the addition of observers and I fully approve of the ability to punish players for celebrating in a way that denigrates another player, team, or anything affiliated with them. That is my definition of taunting. Both the Observer’s Manual and the new NCAA regulations site a need to punish taunting and other aggressive acts. Clearly, the difficulty here arises in determining the aggression of the celebration as opposed to pure emotion or a player reveling in their success. Personally, I feel like making eye contact with an opponent and nodding, maybe jawing a little and saying something like “let’s go” or “I’m great” is fine. Saying “you can’t stop me,” “suck it,” or using other foul language in a derogatory context or clearly directed at another person is not okay. However, the NCAA has taken it a step further and expanded taunting to include ill-defined glances, gestures, and even wordless shouts. NCAA Referees are now required to police these situations, instead of letting players decide for themselves whether the gray areas are sportsmanlike or not. I think that the natural looseness and understanding necessary in what is still largely self-regulated Ultimate and the comparatively well-defined Observer’s Manual will prevent questionable spiking TMF or PMF calls. Keeping in mind that any personal or derogatory comments or actions are explicitly inappropriate, the burden once again falls on the defender to exhibit spirit and mental stoutness, using the spike as motivation, not as a grudge.
Like it or not spiking has become part of Ultimate and part of its spirit and it is here to stay. Along with self-officiated Ultimate players finding a way to maintain acceptable spiking (ie no taco-ing) under fear of penalty, I believe that the responsibility weighs heavy on the defender to understand that spiking is a part of the game and to not get upset. Any mentally tough athlete at any level knows you shouldn’t get mad at another player if he beats you deep, you should focus on yourself, and spiking should be the same way. Both the offensive and defensive player must eventually assume that spiking is part of Ultimate and equate these codes of conduct with their knowledge and beliefs about any other rules.
Getting back to basketball and thinking about Markel Brown getting ejected, I can’t help but feel that the young man got cheated. Yes, he stared at the guy he dunked over and he roared, but did he taunt him? Absolutely not. If he said anything directly to the player like “you suck” then there would be a problem. But a little jawing and a prolonged stare? Even if the defender felt taunted, he should understand that competition is what he signed up for and shouldn’t feel any need to retaliate or escalate. The NCAA cited a need to crack down on this stuff to prevent tensions building and exploding like in the Cincinnati-Xavier brawl earlier in the season. What they have done is clamp down on players’ ability to play with passion, discouraging team-motivating highlight reel plays and any celebration or outburst, regardless of whether it is offensive or not. Don’t get me wrong, a player can go overboard, but the new insistence on closely regulating the issue is infuriating to players and coaches and is eroding the heart of the game. That type of competitive intensity is what makes good players great and what exhilarates audiences and teammates as they observe their player’s achievement. Don’t punish an athlete for being excited, and don’t try to regulate passion out of sports.
Feature photo by Brian Canniff (UltiPhotos.com)