Monday, January 24, 2011

If It Aint Broke or Why Refs are a Bad Idea

This year at College and Club Nationals there were ~330 games played across six divisions. Of those games 4 or 5 were marred by bad spirit. Four in college open and one in masters. None in women's. None in mixed. None in club open. That's a mere 1.5% of all games played at the National level.

There is an undercurrent in discussion about referees and spirit of the game that somehow spirit of the game doesn't actually work. That somehow we are all sputtering along in a broken system. Look around! Game after game after game is played under SotG successfully.

As watchers and followers of the game, we are naturally drawn to the big and the exciting and the interesting. A consequence of this is that we overemphasize big events and undervalue all the accumulated small events. When a game breaks down and spirit breaks down, that game and those teams become the talk of the tournament. When that game happens at Nationals or in the finals of Nationals, it becomes all that anyone can see.

I don't think we should ignore the importance of these games. They have a huge impact on the quality of people's experience playing ultimate and sometimes a huge impact on the competitive outcome of a tournament. There are some wise adjustments that can be made to the process of spirit of the game and observing that will make a big difference in reducing the occurrence of these games.

Looking at the numbers more deeply, the story gets quite interesting. Five of the divisions (women's, college women's, mixed, club open and masters) had a 100% or 98% (1 of 39) success rate. College open is where teams are struggling. If four of those games were failures, that makes for an almost 7% failure rate. Why? How do you fix it? We know SotG works (if it works in club open, it'll work anywhere) so how do we get this one division back on track?


  1. Yeah, statistics are like that. Your argument is like the NFL saying that pass interference was only called in X% of games and only affected Y% of the outcomes, so we decided we just don't need that rule anymore. Its not really a problem.

    In any case, I don't see that refs would have a big impact on spirit scores for games - if this is the stick with which you wish to measure. I think you are muddying the waters a bit. Do people in other sports with referees have that much more love and respect for opponents and sometimes bitter rivals just because they have a third party making calls? Would referees have made Kenny Dobyns loved and revered by his opponents? Did governed games help Ty Cobb and Bill Lambeer with 'spirit'? Do they reduce the number of hissy fits thrown by players and coaches in football and basketball, to name two sports in particular? Would they have lowered the intensity that Sockeye had in the mid-90s?

    I don't buy it.

    I believe what people are looking for when discussing referees in ultimate is more objectively called games. As you yourself have stated in posts on this blog: this is really tough to do when self-policing in the heat of the moment or when you think a teammate may be wrong at a critical moment.

  2. For the sake of discussion, can you list those 4 or 5 games and why you are pointing to them as opposed to other? Thanks

  3. Paul,

    The measuring stick I used was not spirit scores (which are notoriously fickle), but a more subjective idea of games where spirit broke down. I wasn't looking for games where teams weren't all hippy-dippy and loving, but games where spirit collapsed to the point where objectivity gave way to one sided and biased calls. To answer Stephen's question here - I don't know all five of the games. I used my own observations from College Nationals, plus a source who was at both events and in a position to know in which games spirit collapsed. My instinct and experience told me the number would be pretty low, but I was surprised at how low. The two I know of are the men's CUT-FL final and the Jojah-Pranksters game.

    Numbers aside, my argument here is simply that in the overwhelming majority of games SotG works to ensure an objectively called game where play, not calls, determines the outcome. It'd be pretty easy to pick apart my statistics or my sampling method (as a mathematician, I aware they're both flawed) but instead I'd encourage you to use your own experience. Think back to all the tournaments you've played and try to look at the whole thing. Try to let go of that one frustrating game. How many games did you play where SotG worked? Where it didn't?

    In my opening post, I tried to make the point that we should be careful in what we wish for. Switching to referees will not cure all problems. All it will do is swap one set of problems for another. As I go forward, I am going to try to pull all these pieces apart. Most likely I will look at accuracy and fairness next.

    Thanks for reading,

  4. I do see your point about the majority of Ultimate games proceed with good SotG.

    But what about the argument that Ultimate needs refs to appeal to a broader audience specifically, the olympics.

  5. The Wisconsin Colorado game was boring to watch because of all the stoppages. I don't care about absolute Referees, but active observers who make quick rulings are a necessity for cleaner games.

  6. I look forward to future posts.

    I think you are going to have a hard time if what you have is the "refs don't help in the few instances where, completely subjectively, 'spirit broke down'" I'll grant you that point immediately and pehaps save you some trouble. As I said, I think the larger point is that referees would help bring more objectively called games, which would be true. Or at least more true than the current situation. Probably.
    More consistently called anyway. Within each individual game. (think baseball strike zones)

    I think it is important to keep in mind that just because people are not screaming at each other or calling tit-for-tat it cannot be taken as a given that the game has been called fairly or consistently.

  7. I think Alyantis hits on a very astute point, that active observers will speed the game. It's always a pain to be stuck arguing in/out calls, standing around and repeating yourself while the opponents do the exact same thing. Same holds for up/down.

    That said, I think you, Lou, are probably correct that on-field play, rather than poor calling, wins the majority of games, especially at high level (since everybody remembers some game in a local league where a pick was called from about 40 feet or a travel call magically appeared at universe). However, I'm not sure I agree that that's the point. There are definitely teams with a rep for poor spirit and they didn't get that by playing clean games. Each other team will see them once (perhaps twice) a tournament and so will have played perhaps 5 spirited games to 1 unspirited. However, that team will have played in 6 unspirited games. It seems that spirit has broken down in this type of situation, whether or not the winner was the more skilled team.

  8. Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone.

    To Bigley: marketability and promotion is an important part of the discussion and will be the focus of a future post.

    To alyantis: the same is true of watchability and I will look at it more specifically in the future. But in short, I think watchability has more to do with pace of game and less to do with reffed v. self-offitiated. I did some experimenting with speeding up games one of the years I ran Solstice and it was really quite successful. The main elements were decreasing time between points (to 60), decreasing stoppages and shortening them when they happened.

    #28: Your point is very interesting and a cool way to look at the problem. I think it is very telling for the situation in College Open today. There are a few teams whose approach to SotG and self-officiation is problematic. Unfortunately, many of those teams are at the top of the game. Once a team gets this reputation, they are more likely to have a bad game because their opponents are so quick to pull the trigger themselves. This is certainly what happened in the men's final as CUT set out not to get jobbed by Florida. I see a couple of ways to fix this: teams take responsibility on themselves to correct this behavior. There are several teams that have done this recently, often at the insistence of a coach. They can be forced into it by an outside force. I think we will see the USAU take a much less charitable stance toward this type of behavior and I think we'll see it earlier in the season. Get ready to talk about ejections; they're coming. Lastly, I think coaches have a huge responsibility for their team's behavior and should be censured accordingly.

    To Paul: I think my next post will address a lot of your concerns.