Thursday, February 3, 2011

If You Had One More Eye...or Why Refs are a Bad Idea'd be a cyclops. Refs make mistakes. Always. All the time, every game, no matter how good they are. When you ask one person to completely police a game, they are going to mess up. Our current system of self-officiation plus observers is incredibly accurate. Even the worst games are called more accurately than the best reffed games.

Let me define 'accurate.' In this situation, what I mean is whether or not the outcome of an individual call is correct. Is the 'travel' a travel? Is a 'foul' a foul? In ultimate, the answer is yes and yes and yes. In reffed sports, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no.

Accuracy hides a much bigger issue: fairness. Each individual call may be correct, but if one team is systematically calling a lot of stuff that the other team isn't, you end up with an unbalanced and unfair game. This happens all the time in reffed games. The difference in ultimate is that it is the competitors themselves manufacturing the advantage. This issue of fairness and the ability of one team to create an advantage for themselves is the strongest argument for refs.

A few thoughts on this. First, adding refs won't increase accuracy - it will decrease it. It won't increase fairness, either. It will actually create more games that are decided unfairly. All it will do is remove the control of that unfairness from the players. Finally, don't be confused into thinking that adding refs will keep people from working the rules to their advantage. On the contrary, adding refs will greatly increase the amount of cheating and gamesmanship as players and coaches learn to really take advantage of the rules, enforcement and the officials.


  1. wouldn't you be a triclops?

    interesting points. i've never played a field/ref sport before so i can't really comment on bending the rules. i wonder how refs compare with judges though.

  2. @ Anna: Triclops. Ha. That's funny. I based these conclusions on variety of playing and watching experiences, but I strongly leaned on my experiences of playing reffed ultimate. When I played with MLU, no one really cared about the outcome and there was no real change in the game. When I played reffed ultimate with Sockeye against other club teams, it took about three games and the play in and around the stack (away from the mark) got really nasty - shirt pulling, arm hooking, name it. When you say judges, do you mean observers or judges like in diving?

  3. As someone who was staunchly pro-ref for the majority of my playing, I'm beginning to see the light. However, that doesn't mean the current observer system is anywhere near perfect. I have two suggestions that no one seems to be talking about.

    1) Active travel calls by observers and an objective stall count by observers, imho would take away the majority of sketchy related calls.

    2) This one is sort of tangent to this discussion (but probably not). I've been playing for nearly seven years and still for the life of me can't distinguish Good Sportsmanship from SotG. Other than in spirit of the game you run on "ultimate time" and get plastered sometimes before, during, and after games. Am I the one on crazy pills or is every one else sipping too much of the Kool-aid?

    I'd like to add, Thanks for writing. I enjoy reading it.

  4. The example that came to mind was gymnastics, but diving works as well. I can't think of a way you could bend the rules or play dirty in either of those two sports (unless you're watching too much Stick It). Nevertheless, the fact that the final outcome is so dependent on this outside source (who, like you said, is human and inconsistent and makes mistakes) leads to plenty of unfair scoring situations. When it works, and I agree that most of the time it does, it's a huge testament to the type of athlete who plays ultimate--to be able to buy in and be personally responsible and accountable is not an easy feat.

  5. I am confused by your claim that referees would call a less accurate game than players when the only job of a referee is to call a game compared to the players currently who have to both play and make calls.

    How would adding referees make the game less fair? The referees would establish what they are going to call early in the game (similar to strike/ball calls in Baseball or charging/blocking in Basketball) and that is how the game would be called.

    Lastly, I am also confused about your claim that people and teams would cheat more if there were referees. I believe that there is less room to manipulate the system of referees than room to manipulate the system of self-officiating.

  6. @bigley: I just watched the Ego-Rhino scrimmage in Eugene yesterday, during which there were active travel calls. There was a call about every three passes. It really slowed down the game and made it extremely difficult to watch since most of the calls occurred during a stagnant offense when the thrower wasn't even doing anything (except travelling, apparently). That's not to say that I don't like the idea of active travel calls, but in the best interest of view-ability, perhaps just on throws or blatant travels that affect the play. In addition, a stoppage called by the observer during a stagnant offense actually gave the thrower time to set up a play, and why would you want to give a team an advantage because of a call against it?

    @Doobs: Having played reffed sports for most of my life, I can attest to two things: First, that there is WAY more cheating in reffed sports. In both soccer and basketball, women are constantly pulling jerseys, elbowing, hip checking, and I have even herd of cases of kidney-punching. I can only imagine what happens in mens' games. Second, just because referees are present does not mean a game will be called consistently from start to finish. Referees are humans, and therefore may make unintentionally biased decisions during stressful situations like close games. I have seen referees change their call strategy in ways that resulted in an obvious bias. Sometimes it changed the outcome of the game.

  7. @Doobs: A referee is just one person, so while their entire focus is on officiating, they cannot see everything. A player has a front row seat for the plays that involve them and are paying 100% of their attention to those plays. Also, a player has all kinds of kinesthetic information to augment the visual information. A referee has only what they see, which is often incomplete or obscured. @Shannon said pretty much what I was going to say about your other two concerns, but I did want to expand a point I tried to make in the original article. Perhaps if we judge officiating by three criteria: accuracy, fairness and bias issues around reffing will become clearer. Accuracy is simply: is a given call correct. Fairness is are the calls made (or not made) distributed evenly across both teams. Bias is whether or not calls are made with favoritism to one team or another. The point I tried to make is that right now our system is very accurate, mostly fair but unfortunately, prone to bias. A reffed system would be less accurate, less fair but also less biased. The removal of bias is the best argument for refs, but not the only argument that matters.

    @bigley: There is no real difference between sportsmanship and SotG except in its application. In a reffed sport, sportsmanship is a nicety. In a self-officiated sport like ultimate, SotG is a necessity. Spirit is where the sportsmanship rubber meets the officiating road. (With a hippy-dippy name we should all love. It's our heritage, after all.)

    @Shannon makes a nice point about active travels: refs can make a game as unwatchable as players. I agree with you that travel calls are some of the most irritating in the world, but for sheer number of fouls/violations, it is the mark that needs cleaning up. I've given a lot of thought to how the rules might be adjusted to clean it up (or at least clear up what is and isn't a foul) without a real good solution. I am going to discuss a number of different rules possibilities when I talk a bout watchability in a later post.