Self-Refereeing: What Sets Ultimate and Its Players Apart?

self refereeing Ultimate Frisbee

We’ve all done it. Doesn’t matter if you’re sitting on the couch at home, standing in the 70,000-seater stadium or on pitch yourself during your Sunday league match; when the referee blows his whistle and you don’t agree with the call, you let him know. And often you’ll let him know with more than a few profanities and indignant gestures…

The fact is, refs aren’t infallible and if you see something differently from them, it doesn’t really matter. Their decision is final. This is great because, in theory at least, it prevents petty disputes between players. Sadly it can also lead to play-acting where athletes will try and con the referee in to making a decision. Can you imagine if games like soccer and basketball were played without refs?

Many of our readers will have heard of ultimate frisbee but might be unaware of one of its most unique attractions: we don’t use referees. Ultimate employs a code of conduct known as Spirit of the Game (SOTG) on pitch which essentially means that players should compete with absolute respect, honesty and fairness. As soon as you step on to the field you become at once the referee and the player: you call your own fouls and infractions, settle any disputes through discussion and then restart the game in the proper fashion depending on the outcome.

It’s easy to see the benefits of this system: players command an excellent understanding of the rules and their intricacies and have a mutual interest in not intentionally fouling or playing with excessive aggression. When tête-à-tête with another player – and not the faceless referee – play-acting is usually pointless and just plain embarrassing. I’ve seen players make bad calls on pitch – usually during a tense game – only to retract it once a team-mate points out that they’re in the wrong. It’s actually pretty commonplace and a great indicator of sportsmanship.Join this recreational sports community to network with friends and learn more about what it takes to be a competitive player.

“That’s all good and well, but it would never work at the highest level, right?”

Anyone who has ever competed in an intense match in any sport knows that when the adrenaline is pumping, you’re on your last legs and the match hangs in the balance, your rationality just isn’t at 100%. The tunnel vision can set in and what you see or feel isn’t always what actually transpires: without any intent of deceit, we can all make crucial misjudgments.

This is the main reason why refs in high-level ultimate are being suggested. I’m proud to say I’ve never heard “players will cheat when it’s all on the line” as an argument for refs, but almost entirely the level-headed – and accurate – conviction that “players cannot be completely impartial” when it’s a win/loss decision. Many can be, but not all and not every time.

A Suitable Compromise

These concerns have been heard by the ultimate community and “game advisers” have been introduced at the highest level. These aren’t referees and they cannot make active calls (ie, stop play for a perceived foul or infraction) but rather if the players cannot settle a dispute, they can choose to consult with the adviser. Both players must agree to go to the adviser and then are obliged accept his or her verdict and play on accordingly.

It’s generally considered a fair compromise: the players retain responsibility for observing the rules and playing with mutual respect, but have a backup option for those high-pressure situations where an impartial set of eyes can be invaluable. Ultimate is admired by many for its attempts to maintain SOTG at every level of the sport, but it is particularly praised for the morals it instills in younger players at school level where young children’s’ core ideas about sport are centered on enjoyment and sportsmanship.

The results of this at youth level – impeccable sportsmanship and honest competition – make me wonder what might happen if more sports went down the ultimate route of self-refereeing and putting the responsibility of sportsmanship back in the players’ hands.

Written by
Former athlete, family man, self-proclaimed blogger, award winning event owner, and champion of all things sports.

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