Wednesday, February 16, 2011

That's the Worst Game I Ever Saw! or Why Refs are a Bad Idea

Actually, when it comes to watchability, refs and SotG are about the same. What determines watchability is the execution. We can all remember ultimate games that were awful and painful to watch and we can all remember basketball/football/soccer games that were awful and painful to watch. There are certain things that make a game more watchable and more exciting and things that detract from that, but reffing and SotG don't really have anything to do with those.

First off, no one likes to watch a blow out. The other day I went to watch the (evil) Cardinal play the Lady Ducks and it sucked. Other than Nia Jackson's valiant drives it was a depressing display. There's only so many uncontested offensive rebounds followed by uncontested lay-ups you can watch. There's only so much interest in wondering if the Ducks can hold the lead under 20...30...40... But refs and SotG don't have anything to do with that. Blow outs happen.

No one like to watch a game with a ton of stoppages. I mildly follow high school basketball here in western Oregon and twice recently, teams have used the hold-the-ball technique to eat the clock. There isn't a shot clock, so if you are undefended, you can hold it indefinitely. In the recent Mapleton-Triangle Lake game, Mapleton held the ball (literally held it) for 2 minutes of the 4th quarter while clinging to a four-point lead. A handful of years ago, Siuslaw held the ball the entire first quarter, before putting up a three at the buzzer. First quarter score? 0-0. There are always nooks and crannies in the rules for teams to exploit - if they are willing.

While there is no difference here between a reffed and SotG in theory, although there are some much needed changes that need to be made to the observing system to effect the necessary speeding up of the game. A couple of years ago at Solstice, I implemented an observing system designed to speed the game up and make it more watchable. I went through a ton of uncut game footage and timed and categorized all the stoppages. Here were the biggest issues: time between points, bricks, arguments, calls. Most frequent call resulting in stoppages? Foul on the mark. Traveling was not a major issue. (Footage was from club nationals.) Here are the important changes to remedy these issues.
1. Less time between points. The NFL runs 40 seconds. Surely we can get to 60. It will be an adjustment, but not nearly the adjustment going to 90 seconds was. In the 90s, Schwa (masters of eating the clock) once were timed at 5 minutes between points!
2. Brick at midfield. A brick almost doubles the time between points as Joe Handler swaggers off to get the disc, survey the field, check it in....yawn. Defenders hated this rule, but the number of bricks dropped precipitously when we tried this at Solstice.
3. Quick observer rulings. The current policy of time for players discussion of calls achieves two bad things, while failing to achieve its stated goal of allowing for player determination of a call. First of all, letting the players discuss means any call that needs discussion takes 2 or 3 or more minutes to resolve before play can get going again. Also, it creates an opportunity for drama. When observers step in quickly, the opportunity for players to argue and carry on is snuffed out. The supposed goal of observers waiting is for the players to have time to resolve the call, but that only happens maybe 5% of the time and the remaining 95% of calls result in argument, drama and an observer ruling. At Solstice, we used a simple "walk-to" rule. When a call was made, we (the observers) started walking to the play. When we got there, we asked the players, "do you have a call?" If they said yes, they made it. If they were still arguing, we made the call.
4. TMFs for bad calls. The object of this policy is to prevent teams from controlling the game by making lots and lots of calls. Once it is clear that a team is going to make lots and lots of calls, they should be held to a high standard of accuracy and punished if they don't reach it. Also, players should get TMFs for cheating even if it isn't called. At the club level, only about 10% of marking fouls are called because it is such a disadvantage to stop play. These uncalled fouls should generate TMFs even if the thrower isn't calling them.


  1. Just wanted to drop a quick note to say how much I'm enjoying this refs series, your "cheat to win" series, and just your thoughts on Ultimate in general. Easily my favorite Ultimate weblog. Strong work!

  2. Lou, your post made me think of a girl's basketball game that was played in Delaware in the mid-1990's. Final score at end of regulation, 0-0. Final score in overtime, 4-2. One coach felt the only chance to win would be hold the ball for one possession before the end of each quarter. The other coach was unwilling to play one-on-one defense. Could not find a link to post, but I bet it was not very exciting to watch. Probably some good heckling.

  3. Yes, yes, a million times YES!

    My devils advocate (because i agree with you actually)quibble: how can an uncalled foul generate a TMF? I know that the Observer Manual allows for stopping play to assign misconduct penalties, but isn't self officiation the right of the teams to decide amongst themselves the level of physicality they deem appropriate? Isn't it very "ref like" to stop play even though the players havent made a call?

  4. I don't think Stephen's playing devil's advocate on the uncalled foul thing. I think he's dead right. I would be uncomfortable with observers actively determining the level of contact which is appropriate for any given game. Not only does it come disturbingly close to being referees, it overrides player wishes if they're interested in playing a heavily physical game. Why you would want to get sucked into such a pissing contest is beyond me, but it isn't unbelievable that it could happen.

    The obvious, and strong, argument, which you alluded to, is that the rules/game incentivizes letting fouls slide and so you could be forced to accept a level of physicality you don't want to. However, wouldn't it be a better/more player oriented solution if we asked players to take the lead on TMFs? What if it was possible to go to observers and say that you had to accept contact without a call? If you do it two or three times, maybe then observers start handing out TMFs (or PMFs). But only when prompted to start controlling things by the players.

  5. Agree on the mid-field brick. I have often wondered why people who can hit a teammate in a flat sprint 60 yards away cannot get a disc anywhere on a 40-yard-wide field.

    The walk-to observer thing is nice too. Keeps everyone aware of what is going to happen and the observers can always walk slowly and converge on the way if they need to think about it themselves.

  6. Maybe we should have rules about ryules,or metarules. Like, keep the game moving, or don't promote drama.

    Also, on the brick, maybe you can pull from 10 or 20 yards up with bricks in the middle. Should work for rec league. In the series, pull from the goal line.

  7. @Hubbard and @#28 I think that #28 is right in catching me on the ref side of the ref-SotG line on this one. It is a gray line, but one way to make a clear distinction is to look at who is initiating the call. If it is the player, it's SotG, if it's the observer, it's reffing.

    There are some clear and long established places where observers make the call because they are the ones who have the best position to do so: in/out being the best example. Up/down is in this category, but I would put active travels into the reffing category.

    #28 is correct to call it reffing when an observer gives a TMF without a foul being called. What I am reacting to (and what proponents of active travels are reacting to) is a persistent, well-established pattern of abusing the rules. In places where the interpretation of the rules is grayer (like physicality away from the disc) there would be no mandate for the observers to step in.

    @Dave C: We have meta-rules already. Where we run into trouble is when those meta-rules disagree, are vague or encourage cheating.


    @Hubbard - sorry we didn't get to chat - maybe next tourney our downtime will coincide better.

  8. Can you tell me what a TMF is? something an observer dishes out, right?

    Any thoughts on the WFDF 'contact' rule as a way of dealing with physical marks without stopping the game?