Field Deposits and Encouraging Better Behavior

by | September 17, 2014, 10:00am 0

Recently, Sludge Output brought to light that DiscNY, the host of the Metro New York Sectionals, charged teams a $150 refundable field cleaning deposit, due with registration. If a team failed to appropriately clean their sideline, the deposit wouldn’t be refunded to them.

When @sludgebrown posted this, I responded incredulously. That tweet got me into a bit of a conversation and I had a few people disagree with me. I’m all for having clean fields, and teams should clean up after themselves; this isn’t a discussion on who should clean them. However, I think DiscNY is going about it the wrong way, but Twitter isn’t a great place to fully articulate the reasons why.

Let me start by saying that apparently there is an issue at some tournaments or with some teams not keeping the fields clean. Otherwise, DiscNY wouldn’t have resorted to a deposit. It sounds like they’ve had issues with field cleanliness in the past, so they’re trying to find a solution. That’s admirable. It’s even possible that the field owners said “Fix this or you can’t come back next year.” I don’t know the back story.

But I think there is a better way—one that cultivates and improves the culture in our sport.

There are several arguments I have against the “cleaning deposit” method: it attempts to change behavior based on punishment rather than reward, it assumes teams will do the wrong thing, the punishment is overly severe, and it fails to foster a better societal culture.

Before getting to these arguments, let’s clarify something: the term “field deposit” was used by DiscNY, but it can hardly be called that as the money doesn’t go into field restoration or paying a cleaning staff, but to support youth ultimate. This, then, is actually a fine; a euphemism hiding behind a good, but unrelated, cause. Youth ultimate is great, and our sport’s future, but fines are not a good way to garner support or encourage donations. Fines breed ill-will.

Behavioral psychology has an area of study called operant conditioning. Distilled down, think of it as punishing bad behavior or rewarding good behavior. There is a lot of debate on which works better, and in which scenarios. However, I am of the opinion that rewarding teams for on-field cleanliness is a better solution in the long run. A reward can be used to teach what is socially acceptable and build positive connections with the other party.

When my housemate got a dog last year, we learned that it’s better to ignore bad behavior (jumping on us to say hello) and reward good behavior (Fido, come!). We occasionally punish him for jumping into the neighbor’s yard by putting him in his crate. But he’s learned this pattern and now won’t come when called back from their yard because he knows there will be a punishment. When we reward him for good behavior, he is more than happy to comply. This is also part of why abused dogs, those that are only punished, show aggressive, anti-social behaviors.

Of course, we’re not dogs, but it shows how rewards can be a powerful tool in affecting behavior. Several tournaments I’ve been to use this same method: bring your bag of trash and recycling to tournament central and you will receive your party bracelet. This is how DiscNW runs Potlatch, and as my team’s captain last year I found it very effective. They provided us with trash bags and asked us to help keep the fields clean. We wouldn’t get Friday’s pizza or Saturday’s party bracelets without a full trash bag. This does two things: it appeals to our sense of community (which is strong in Ultimate) by encouraging us to be good stewards of our shared fields, and it generates positive feelings towards the TDs because they are giving us something we want. Conversely, if we were to be fined for not cleaning the fields, I myself would feel negatively towards the TDs even though it is something I was supposed to do. Sectionals, sadly, don’t usually have official parties. But there are other incentives that could be used: return a full trash bag to have your game results submitted, for instance.

Another problem with preemptively charging a deposit is that the TDs are assuming that teams won’t respect a request to keep fields clean. There is no innocent until proven guilty in this scenario. No trust is built; quite the opposite in fact. They are suggesting that the teams are irresponsible and disrespectful, and the power of suggestion is strong.

I also find the fine to be very severe compared to the severity of the infraction. I’m curious where the amount of $150 came from. The tournament was $350 to $375 depending on your team. The deposit is roughly 40% of the tournament fee. That’s a lot.

I’ve been a TD and volunteered at tournaments and had to clean up fields. In Portland, our spring league tournament is 16 teams (plus ~6 skills league teams). Walking the sidelines of that many fields and putting a few things in a trash bag probably took me 20 minutes. (Granted, this is Oregon where you’re either born with a recycling bag in your hand, or are handed one when you move here.) If I had to deal with trash on even 6 of the 22 sidelines (I believe we had 11 fields setup), that would be $900. Doing the math, that means my cleanup was worth $2700 per hour. That’s… ridiculous. We’re not talking about destroyed fields due to cleats, just picking up some trash. If teams are to be fined for not cleaning up after themselves, it should at least be closer to a reasonable amount.

A field deposit also unnecessarily burdens teams with an extra fee in addition to the tournament fee (remember, this is being paid up front). It also creates more work for the TDs because they still have to walk the fields and be sure they reimburse the right teams.

Lastly, and I think most importantly, leveling a fee against a team for failing to clean up degrades the culture we strive to build in this community. Teams, and their individual members, should absolutely clean up after themselves. It’s common courtesy, it’s decent, it’s socially responsible. “Pack it in, pack it out” as the mantra of backpackers goes. We should all care for each other, for the earth, and for those coming after us to use the fields. Rather than threatening me, exhort me at the captain’s meeting by saying that we need to take care of the space so we can use it in the future and because the TDs work so, so hard to make the tournament happen. Then give me a couple trash bags. Now, not only do I feel apart of something larger than myself, I’m responsible along with the rest of the teams.

I know that this is a long argument for a pretty small thing. People I’ve talked to think what DiscNY did was a good idea. But I write this because I care about preserving and fostering the culture we have as a community. I bet the field deposit worked, but I think there are better ways to exhort people to take care of the fields, ways that build goodwill rather than fostering fear. I want to keep playing a sport I love in a community that I trust—and one that trusts me.

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