AUDL Referees Are Not Going Away, Nor Should They

by | November 15, 2016, 10:23am 0

I am an AUDL player for the Austin Sol. I spent the first 6 years of my frisbee career playing self officiated ultimate (both USAU and WFDF) before playing AUDL for the first time in 2016. Having played both, I personally much prefer refereed ultimate. Nonetheless I think that outside of professional leagues self officiating should remain the standard and here’s why.

The Weaknesses of Self Officiation vs Referees in Professional Play.

Ultimate as a sport is expanding far beyond the circumstances and limitations that existed at its more formalized inception under the UPA. The sport’s increasing popularity and the transition into professional leagues introduces a number of elements that force the sport to shift away from its counterculture roots. The more successful and mainstream ultimate becomes, the less effective self officiation will be. Presently the professional leagues have no intentions of changing away from referees. However there has been much pushback in the community that I have experienced personally and observed through online media. I write this to make clear that if there are going to be professional leagues, referees are a necessity.

Players can’t be as objective as referees, regardless of circumstance, and that disparity becomes greater the more competitive the sport becomes. Everyone is subject to unconscious biases.

In the case of self officiation the emotional investment in the outcome of the game has a bias effect on every player. SOTG is the ideal we hold up to try and mitigate this bias, but the history of ultimate shows the difficulty of that. The Bias Blind Spot is a bias that pushes us to believe we are less biased than others in our decision making under identical circumstances. This bias remains even when we are aware of, or are faced with the evidence of, our own bias[footnote number=1]Scopelliti, Irene, Carey K. Morewedge, Erin Mccormick, H. Lauren Min, Sophie Lebrecht, and Karim S. Kassam. “Bias Blind Spot: Structure, Measurement, and Consequences.” Management Science 61.10 (2015): 2468-486. Web.[/footnote].

The greater the emotional investment of a player, the more that unconscious bias will affect their decisions, even if they are attempting to compensate for it. As ultimate became more competitive the UPA included observers at the highest level tournaments to mitigate an emergent problem of extreme competitiveness undermining SOTG. This was exemplified in the 1989 club nationals final between NY New York and San Francisco Tsunami. The game was marred by excessive calls and extended on field arguments, leading to disgruntled fans heckling both teams. It made for an experience that wasn’t enjoyable for the players or the fans. While observers existed, they were primarily line judges and had little on field involvement. The fallout from the game prompted the UPA to formalize the observer program and make them more involved on field. All this happened at the club level, which is an amateur competition. Strong player bias and the willingness of some to abuse play calling pushed the governing body to make a change.

The same reasons that pushed the UPA to include observers are amplified at the professional level. SOTG is an ideal that is increasingly difficult to live up to the more competitive and emotionally invested the players become. That same emotion that drives their competitiveness and investment works against their ability to effectively self officiate. Referees should have no direct investment in which team wins, and the effect of unconscious bias on their decision making is drastically reduced.

Prioritizing Flow

An argument against referees that is often made is that self officiating empowers players to make calls that referees would otherwise be unaware of. In The Philosophy of Officiating (an extremely relevant thesis written by a former ultimate player) it is explained that it is the duty of a referee not to simply make calls when rules are violated, but do so in a way that prioritizes the flow of the game[footnote number=2]Davies, Robert L. Jr., “The Philosophy of Officiating” (2012). University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects.[/footnote]
. The idea being that the referee can choose not to call infractions that do not impede play or result in an advantage for the player responsible.

In a very close game between competitive teams it can be extremely beneficial to call all infractions that occur (which is absolutely within the rules) whether or not it affects the play. Defenses can use calls to slow the pace of the game and eliminate advantages gained from dynamic movement. Offenses can use calls to reset their offensive play. A prime example for defense is a pick call in the stack between uninvolved players before a huck is thrown to an open receiver. The disc is forced to go back, giving the defense another chance (now aware of the deep threat) even though the pick didn’t affect the play. A completely literal application of the rules can be detrimental to good play, and how literally players apply the rules is affected by their bias. Referees will miss things and make fewer calls, however they are more consistent in the types and frequency of calls they do make.

It is very apparent in competitive play that the more crucial the game situation is, the more beneficial it is for players to call minor infractions that they could otherwise ignore. My argument is that more consistent play calling that prioritizes the flow of the game is better than more literal play calling that is strongly affected by the bias of the players and game situation. This is especially true from the spectator’s point of view.

The Corrupting Power of Money in a For-Profit League.

Money corrupts, and the more successful the AUDL becomes the more that money will influence those that play it. Though many players will resist, the influence of money creates a direct incentive to cheat and abuse any officiating power given to players. While the financial stakes for players are very minor at the moment, as the league becomes more successful that will change. In the previous section I assumed that players are doing their best to be objective arbiters, but what about when they aren’t?

The point at which I believe any amount of self officiating ultimately collapses is when the AUDL is successful enough for ultimate to be a career, not just an endeavor. The bias caused by competitiveness and emotional investment is already incredibly strong. Now imagine if a player’s income was determined by the outcome of a game, the ability to support themselves and those they care about. Imagine if they stood to become richer and more famous the more they contributed to their team winning. It would put adherence to SOTG in direct opposition to personal and financial gain.

Undermining SOTG doesn’t necessitate cheating, intentionally using minor infraction calls as a way to influence the speed of the game violates SOTG but not the rules themselves. SOTG rests on mutual trust that all players will strive to play and call fairly, with so much to gain by abusing that trust, it is difficult to imagine none would.

Ultimately the leagues are the deciders. The leagues see referees as being necessary (both the AUDL and MLU employ them) and it is understandable why. Referees are a ubiquitous aspect of organized team sports, and to a culture so accustomed to it, professional self officiating is an alien concept. USAU is a player oriented organization, but professional leagues are not. Leagues stand to make the most money by appealing to as many fans as possible, and referees are a part of that. They want to make ultimate a spectator sport, where more people watch it than play it. Referees help make ultimate a better spectator sport, especially for those who don’t, and never will, play it. The leagues see referees and appealing to a broader base as the way towards long term financial success, and I agree.

Teaching SOTG

I want to reiterate that all this applies to professional leagues. SOTG is absolutely the way to teach people to play ultimate, and how the game should be played in nonprofit environments. It is the particular circumstances of spectator first, for-profit leagues that make referees a necessity. For many though it seems to signal a shift away from the community of ultimate and the origins of the sport. The integrity rule is a clear sign that SOTG will always be a part of ultimate, it empowers players to correct the calls of the referee when it is to their detriment to do so. To display true sportsmanship in a way other sports don’t allow. I’ve also heard that removing the responsibility to self officiate leads players to cheat and play dangerously. Presently it is overwhelmingly the same group of people that play elite club and professional ultimate. But I’ve seen no more cheating or dangerous play in professional leagues than in elite club. And when it has happened in professional leagues players have been ejected as a consequence, something which rarely, if ever, happens in a self officiated game. Ultimate is changing and resistance to such change is only natural, but in this case I don’t think it is necessary. Referees are a small price to pay for all that professional leagues can do for the sport. That includes making the highest level of the sport far more accessible, I have never played USAU club because I couldn’t (or didn’t want my parents to) pay the cost of playing on a Nationals level team. Elite club is overwhelmingly composed of people who can afford to pay thousands of dollars a year or have parents who can. A professional league’s ability to pay players both makes referees necessary and opens elite competition to those that otherwise could not afford it. Even if you absolutely hate referees, that seems a very small price indeed.

P.S. The most direct counter-position to my argument is that for-profit professional leagues do not necessitate referees to be successful. Or that for-profit leagues are stupid and ultimate would be better off without them. Please make these, or any other, argument in the comments, it’s always good to hear both sides.

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