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Refs, spirit, and the like

November 11, 2009

UVA just played in Mike G’s (ok, the UOA’s) Wilmington 8s. Win/loss-wise, we had a rough weekend, but in the big picture, it was a good weekend for teaching, learning, and expanding what the team can do. I was happy with the results. If you haven’t heard, the tournament consisted of eight teams playing eight games, all of them observed. Active travel and up/down calls were made, immediate referral was used, and Mike pushed his proactive and clearly-in-control style on his observer recruits. Oh, and there were lots of hand signals, even in the parking lot.

A few weeks back, The Huddle put out an issue on Spirit of the Game, allowing a few high profile players to discuss their views on Spirit and its role in the sport. RSD posts and blog entries have continued to raise the subject, and while I’ve only got a few years’ worth of perspective on things, it seems to me that dialogue on the subject is both growing and diversifying at a greater rate than ever.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but the way our sport is governed on the field, even at the highest levels, is categorically different from most others. While a lot of people equate Spirit and sportsmanship, I don’t think it’s that simple. Sportsmanship, while critical to quality competition, does not define any sport. Spirit, on the other hand, is ingrained in the rules, and thereby the definition, of Ultimate. Without sportsmanship, basketball may be lame, but it’s still basketball. Without Spirit, Ultimate is inherently different.

There are obviously a lot of blurry lines here. As The Huddle put it, Spirit is a “Big Idea.” Whether or not Spirit even has a place in the game, and the pros and cons of the presumed alternative of a more mainstream form of rules management, is even bigger. For one, all it would take to make this conversation moot is a revision of the rules that removed the Spirit of the Game clause. Also, there are lots of teams at all levels, most of them filled with good natured people who in some way value Spirit, that bend and break rules to their advantage. After all, when every other team does it, it’s hard to compete without following suit.

So yeah, how we make sure that Ultimate’s rules are followed while allowing for high competition is a complex issue. Add in different people’s notions of legitimacy and marketability (and, more interesting to me but less discussed, whether these two things even matter), and the roles of observers, referees, and even in a world without Toad, the discussion can get pretty heated.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, other than to say that it’s an issue that I think about a lot. On one hand, I get annoyed with random league players that take offense to any and all contact because I see such a reaction as an ignorance of what can sometimes come of trying really hard to win. At the same time, how maddening is it when people simple disregard the rules because there’s nobody there to stop them? It’s a thin line that we all know plenty about, and people are only going to keep talking about how to toe it.

For now, though, Ultimate is a pretty special sport because it puts at least some stock in the idealistic notion that people can successfully police themselves even when they have a stake in the outcome. I see a lot of value in that.

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