Self-Officiation and Ultimate Gameplay

Posted by: on Sep 3, 2013 | 2 Comments

(This is part 1 of a 3 part series on self-officiation in ultimate. I decided to break one long incoherent post into three shorter incoherent posts)Лев

We came to this game for many possible combinations of reasons:

1) Hotties of the opposite sex

2) Hotties of the same sex

3) I couldn’t make my college team in my preferred sport.

4) I needed a new sport after quitting my old one.

5) I am so not an athlete, but ultimate players will let me play.

6) Hotties!

7) Ultimate is a sport I can play drunk/stoned.

8) Ultimate players are often drunk or stoned so it’s easy to steal their stuff (I’ll find you).

9) Ultimate is an fast, three-dimensional game which is amazing to play and to watch.

10) Spirit of the Game: Everyone should be nice to each other and stuff.

11) Spirit of the Game: Self-Officiation.

Self-officiation, the ways in which ultimate players are asked to resolve disagreements on their own without referees or other arbiters, has been a primary reason for playing ultimate, an additional benefit of the game, and/or a distraction for all of us at different times. As my reasons for playing were a combination of 1,4,6 and 9, self-officiation came as an extra surprise side dish. For me, I have my issues with self-officiation, but they might be slightly different from yours.

A Sport that Boos Players for Trying to Win

The teaching of Ultimate Frisbee in schools internationally has spread massively over the last decades. PE teachers recognize not only the fitness, coordination and teamwork required to play, but also have seen self-officiation in sport as promoting the development of the skills needed for self-officiation in life. I think that’s rad. I do believe that self-officiation has taught not only children how to understand other peoples’ points of views, but many adults as well.

I don’t think you will hear many say that referees are necessary or desired in recreational or youth ultimate. Spirit of the Game still reigns, most of the time, and if it doesn’t, social pressure usually rights the ship. Where self-officiation meets its match is in the “important” games, the ones where winning becomes a strong foe to a system that want us all to just get along.

The US national championships are a very good example. Men’s ultimate at this tournament is a very slow game (other divisions as well, but it’s worse in men’s). Not the players. Not the discs. Those all travel very quickly. Gameplay is slow. Calls and discussion have contributed to a game that resembles American football in it’s stopping and starting more than the fast game I got excited to play so many years ago. Call, contest. Or call, bring the observers out. Not all the discussions and violation resolutions are slow, but the volume takes its toll on the game. And the boos that come from the sidelines during these discussions reflect the painful slowing down of an exciting, fast sport.

Compare the speed of high level men’s games at US Nationals to the US’s refereed semi-pro ultimate leagues, Major League Ultimate and the American Ultimate Disc League (videos available on youtube and elsewhere). The refereed leagues display much more ultimate fun packed into a similar amount of time. No discussions or arguments, just play.

For athletes and sports fans in general, moving towards refereed play would seem to be a very attractive proposition. But wait a minute. One of the reasons that many came to this game, and one of the reasons that the game is spreading into schools throughout the world (including Siem Reap, Cambodia. Go Meghan!) is self-officiation. In playing ultimate, and sorting our own disputes, we are doing something greater than just playing some sport. We are participating in a community whose members have sacrificed part of their pursuit of victory in order create a greater athletic experience for all. That should outweigh our need for a faster game with less “discussion.”

The obvious solution is a tiered system where the “important” games have observers and maybe referees and the more recreational levels continue to have self-officiation and Spirit of the Game as central the game experience. And that is what pretty much exists in the US. To some degree that happens in most sports. Parks throughout the world host unrefereed sporting events in which it is up to the competitors to officiate their own games. Usually these work out fine. So ultimate, in their tiered system of officiation is not that different from every other sport. Woohoo! Mainstream. Olympics here we come!

But wait a minute. It’s easy to be spirited if games don’t matter. Just like it’s easy to follow speed limits if I’m not in a rush and eat healthy if there’s not a McDonald’s staring me in the face. Man, I could use a Big Mac. Just gotta wait until Spirits. Anyway, how can we say that spirit of the game actually is important in the sport of ultimate if we don’t ask our top athletes in the most important competitions to follow it? It’s in the games that are the most important to win, that Spirit asks  players to continue to de-prioritize winning behind “mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, [and] the basic joy of play.” ( How does Spirit of the Game mean anything if we allow it to be shoved aside when games begin to “mean something?”

In Asia, self-officiation will remain the norm for a while. Even at the Asian-Oceanic Ultimate Club Championships last month, one of the more competitive tournaments in the region, self-officiation ran relatively smoothly and game pauses were not severe. Gameplay in both divisions’ finals were played at a high level and had minimal foul/violation stoppages.

In the future, though, we may have some decisions to make. How do you feel about observers and/or referees taking over some of the officiating in Asian ultimate?

(Soon: Part 2 in my series on self-officiation will look at one obvious reason that self-officiation is not as easy as it sounds.)

(if you want to get Twitterized when another post goes up follow @AsianUltyBlog)



  1. Pat Reed
    September 4, 2013


    This is awesome and well written. It speaks to exactly how I feel about Spirit of the Game. Thanks for writing it.

    • Jared
      September 4, 2013

      Thanks man.


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