The Forfeit Conundrum

by | April 12, 2012, 3:34pm 0

Like everyone else, I’ve been following the discussion around the rankings algorithm, bid allocation, and the Whitman forfeits.  I had not planned on writing anything but was compelled after reading the viewpoints in the article Skyd Staff Poll: Whitman Forfeits.

It is clear that this discussion has been captivating to a great many people.  It has regularly generated a high frequency of comments and has strong viewpoints on either side.  In many ways the “Forfeit Conundrum” sits at multiple pivotal intersection of the sport.  It’s a situation distinctly tied to USA Ultimate’s college restructuring and new bid allocation model.  This restructuring is highly watched as the college division is the most followed, best promoted division in the sport and the restructuring is the highest profile outcome of USA Ultimate’s first five year plan*.

But, most importantly, the Forfeit Conundrum seems to be a litmus test about spirit of the game, written and unwritten rules, and who, ultimately, is most responsible for making Ultimate the sport that we want it to be.

This is what I want to address, but to start with we need to discuss the actual rules.  There are actually rules that govern the College Regular Season.

While none of the rules specifically govern forfeits there is a rule which may be applicable to this situation.  II.A.4.E reads “Teams that are found to have violated the letter or spirit of these rules or whose behavior undermines the competition structure may be subject to ramifications as outlined in the USA Ultimate College Season Guidelines section, Violations and Sanctions.”

One could make the case that forfeiting games is behavior that undermines the competition structure.  It would be a rather broad interpretation but I believe it would be supportable.  This is the essence though, of the conundrum: how can you write rules that govern every possible situation and what should happen in situations where there is a gap between the rules as written and the standards of our community?

As far as the rules themselves go, I agree that efforts should be made to reduce the incentives to violate the unspoken standards we have of not forfeiting games.  I believe the commenter “ACKO” is on the right track of applying a penalty to team’s after final rankings are tallied.  While I’m no mathmagician, I don’t think this specific issue requires an algorithm tweak.  I’d suggest something like not including the game in the original ranking but once after the algorithm has been run applying the minimum possible ranking score received from the forfeited game to the team that forfeited.  This way the forfeit would only impact the team forfeiting and should remove most of the incentive of forfeiting.

But, while adjusting the rule here might prevent this specific issue from happening again, it doesn’t address the root issue and conflict that has driven this conversation.

Many of the original opinion pieces in the article as well as some commentors  have said that as long as there is no explicit rule against forfeiting than it’s fine.  The argument is essentially that there is no specific moral value associated with acts outside of whether or not that act helps you to achieve your goal of winning.  Here are some of the quotes:

Trotter: “What is the goal of the college series? If it’s to win the College Championships then according the the USA Ultimate system, Whitman acted exactly how they should act.”

Beehner: “Getting to nationals is every team’s mission. This is a symptom of a broken system.”

Restad: “No, Whitman acted complete within the rules. Am I right in saying that there is no written rule stating a team cannot forfeit games?”

Brink: “As long as there is no rule against it, there is nothing wrong with strategic forfeits.”

Lerman: “I don’t think it’s fair to criticize them for doing what they thought was best for their team.”

Ian Fisher: “Fix the system, make it reward the right outcomes. Don’t fault teams and players that are choosing actions that will help them realize their dream of playing at Nationals.”

As I’ve said, I do believe it’s arguable that Whitman violated the broad catch-all rules of the regular season.  But, even if that were not the case, I believe there are fundamental problems with the line of thinking:

While the bid allocation structure can continue to be tweaked, there is simply no way to completely align the algorithm and all the other rules that govern the game and the structure that we play in completely with the norms by which we’ve all agreed to play by.  Teams that choose to take an amoral approach to the game and the rules that govern it will always be able to find a way to play by the letter of the rules while managing to break the unwritten rules.  I believe this is why USAU has written in the broad rule regarding “undermining the competition structure.”

Perhaps even more at the crux of this discussion is one commenter, Ian Fisher’s, statement:  “Our culture values winning”

No one would argue that our culture doesn’t value winning.  If we didn’t value winning we wouldn’t keep score, no one would train to be better, and we wouldn’t admire the sport’s top players and teams.  But the question is where does our culture value winning against other values that our sport has like honor and respect for your opponents?  Based on the discussion this far on Skyd, I’d argue that our culture values respecting your opponents by not forfeiting over doing whatever it takes to advance as far as possible in the series.  Part of the beauty of Skyd giving this forum for discussion is that everyone gets to help decide what the culture values.

While I am a proponent of writing the rules (both of actual game play and the structure around id) to align incentives to the values and behaviors we want teams and players to model.  I think we also have to realize that we will never be able to align them one-to-one (regardless of penalties for forfeiting, refs for games, foul limits for players, suspensions for cheating, etc.).  The overall system is too complex and the variability in situations is far too great.  So, while we should continue to tweak the rules to achieve this goal we should also encourage teams and players to understand that the rules can never be comprehensive and that there is value and honor in following the unwritten norms and rules.  We should hold teams up for respect and admiration when they are able to achieve that (particularly when they do so at the possible expense of other things we value like winning) and we should call players and teams out for clear violations of those rules and norms.  And in situations like this that are potentially more grey (it’s a somewhat new situation created by new rules) we have a discussion to establish the norms and improve the rules.

This is what Spirit of the Game is: understanding that rules can’t cover every possible situation comprehensively and, when faced with situations where there are no clear rules and a conflict over winning and respect, valuing respect for your opponent and the sport over simply winning.  And the concept of Spirit, combined with as tight a set of rules as possible where we constantly tweak it to align incentives as closely as possible with how we want to the sport to be played, is how we make Ultimate a sport that people want to play, enjoy playing, and are proud to play…or, in this case, a sport where teams just play.

* Disclosure: I was on USA Ultimate’s College Restructuring Committee.

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