It’s good to be back; it’s sad that my Nationals break is over. Even after a lot of years and a lot of trips, Nationals never ceases to amaze me. I’ve been before and hopefully I’ll get to go again, but I’m not lying when I say it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Every single Nationals is different and it is definitely worth the work it takes to get there. So much of what makes it wonderful are little moments and relationships and intensity and joy and grief – the highs are so high and the lows are harrowing. You should definitely go.
It wasn’t really my intention to rave about Nationals, but once I got rolling it was hard to stop. Sorry; I’ll get on track. I skimmed the old rerun Win the Fields that were posted during my Nationals sabbatical and was struck by how different the climate is today from what was going on when I wrote the Cheat to Win series. In 2010, Spirit of the Game was in really bad shape in the Open division in college and the club series was only marginally better. (Like always, women’s was in pretty good shape, so the first half of this article will deal solely with the Open division.) I believe that today Spirit of the Game is healthier than it has ever been. Ever.
You have to cast way, way back to find a time were games were less influenced by cheat-to-win tactics and where fewer teams walked away from games filled with resentment. The tone about Spirit of the Game has changed a lot in the last few years; in the run-up to 2010 it was widely believed and professed (particularly in the college ranks) that SotG was a failed system. This is no longer the case.
Spirit of the Game is actually healthier now than it was back at the dawn of the sport because it is no longer reliant on the naiveté and innocence of the participants. College players are so much more experienced, so much wiser, so much more savvy than they’ve ever been. They are keeping Spirit of the Game healthy with knowledge, not ignorance.
There’s no single reason for this shift. Spirit of the Game operates in a pretty complex social setting and it would be very, very surprising if there was a single factor. Instead, there are many possibilities:
- Teams and players are much more experiences. Inexperience makes you vulnerable to cheat-to-win tactics and makes you more likely to overreact to garden variety bad calls.
- People got tired of the bullshit. For two decades, there was always at least one really, really good team that was willing to make a deal with the devil. As bad as dealing with these teams can be, it’s almost worse being these teams. Teams built on negativity eventually implode.
- The teams at the top have chosen to play Spirited ultimate. Since the 2010 finals, the very best teams have chosen to minimize call games and drama. These teams set the tone for the sport – we are fortunate that it has been positive.
- NexGen, U-19 and U-23 have made personal connections among the most talented players in college ultimate. It is hard to spend two months on a bus with someone and then be a complete ass when you play them. Spirit of the Game is dependent on relationship between players. Teammates have established relationships that help navigate and diffuse difficult situations.
- The observers have taken a much, much stronger position in the games at Nationals and other high-level tournaments. The 2010 finals was the last time we saw observers sit back and let the game come to them. The subsequent Nationals in Boulder was the beginning of TMFs for cussing and encroachment. The observers began taking a much more interventionist approach; a proactive one that sought to prevent bad situations rather than the traditional reactive style.
The Oregon women (who I coach) earned seven TMFs at Nationals – all were on defense. I don’t really want to get into a discussion of the merits of the various calls, so I’ll just own all seven of them. We earned them. (Good Spirit requires you to be hard on yourself and forgiving of others.) There are a couple larger issues that our situation illuminates – it is these issues I want to draw out.
As far as I know, there were no calls made by offensive players on any of our TMFs. No ‘fast count’, no ‘double team’, no ‘foul’. In each case, the observer took it upon themselves to make that call. This is reffing and we should acknowledge it as such. This presents a real philosophical and practical dilemma. From the philosophical end, reffing is in direct contradiction to the values of Spirit of the Game. It doesn’t matter if they’re in orange or in stripes – if they are initiating calls that directly affect play, they are refs. On the practical end of things, reffing takes the decision about how the game should be played out of the hands of the players and places in the grip of a couple individuals. When two teams are in agreement with each other and in disagreement with the observer, weird things happen. I am not so naive as to think that there aren’t positives here. Why should a team get an advantage by playing illegally? Shouldn’t the observers step in to protect a team from unfair tactics? I thought that the observers were slow to TMF Revolver in last year’s final against Sockeye (I know I’m biased); by the time they got around to it, Revolver was sitting on an insurmountable lead. What if they’d ‘reffed’ the situation instead? Would the Fish be fitting a fourth ring?
Another issue is the vast difference in physicality and aggression between men’s and women’s ultimate. The Alika Johnston-Dre Fontenot matchup from our quarterfinals against Virginia was spectacular: intense and physical. There was a moment where they got double TMFed for physicality. I watched the observer give the Ts and then looked up and across at the UNC-Wisconsin men’s quarterfinal. Two guys were literally shoving each other while a third swooped in to get the D. This was far more physical than what had just happened in our game. No one reacted at all. No blink, no complaint from the sideline, no calls, no TMFs – just business as usual. Men’s ultimate is (mostly) happy with the level of physicality in their games. Women’s ultimate is (mostly) happy with the level of physicality in their games. They are playing under the same rules. The expectations of what is legal, fair and acceptable are really, really different.
Here is where we start having some real problems. Who decides who’s right? Teams? Players? Observers? USAU? What if a team decides to adopt a style of play that is outside the acceptable boundaries? Who decides where these boundaries are? What if a women’s team started playing like a men’s team? Are they cheating? Under one interpretation of the rules, this kind of play is completely legal, but under another it isn’t.
Spirit of the Game is a democratic institution and dependent on the community to maintain it. These issues are not new – for years there have always been discrepancies between what different parts of the ultimate community find acceptable and legal. The rules aren’t black and white – they require interpretation to function. The important part is that people talk and discuss, whether chatting privately, over email, in Spirit circles, however.