Thursday, March 5, 2009

Baseball and Ultimate, Steroids and SOTG

Several times on this blog I have discussed how Ultimate and Basketball are similar but this time I would like to draw some parallels to Baseball.

For a few years now there has been a lot of discussion regarding spirit of the game, referees, observers, etc.. and despite the fact that this topic has inherent worth, things have gotten fairly diluted and now every time I see a SOTG or Refserver titled post on RSD, I just role my eyes. With that in mind I thought I'd try to put a slightly different spin on the topic as well as discuss Ultimate in a way I haven't before.

One of the ways I like to analyze Ultimate is to correlate it with sports that have much more scrutiny associated with them and recently I discovered a parallel between the steroid issues in Baseball and SOTG/Ref issues in Ultimate. I read this article on and not only did it reinforce some opinions regarding the Great American Pastime, but some connections to Ultimate began to emerge. The opinion I am referring to is this "self-righteous/above the influence" thought process that some people in some sports have. In essence, the idea that a person can perform or compete in a sport and not fall victim to the temptations and short comings that "lesser" sportsmen succumb too in the absence of rigorous rule enforcement. Despite what many may believe is true, in my opinion, this is a complete fallacy. We are all human and given the opportunity and lack of vigilant authority we can and will buckle under pressure, it is just a matter of circumstance.

Baseball and Ultimate
In my mind, SOTG abuse in Ultimate and steroid abuse in Baseball are quite analogous. In the case of steroids and Baseball, the issue first began to surface when some very suspect characters came forward or were accused/tested positive for performance enhancing substances. Not surprisingly, the stereotypes associated with muscle bound roid-raged jocks was prominent with some of the first steroid casualties. Players like Jose Cansaeco, Ken Caminiti, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were the first to be scrutinized because they were either too big, too good, too shady or some combination of each. In this case, the steroid debate was easy to articulate but sadly, one could stuff it in a drawer because these characters represented extreme cases of substance abuse and most people assumed they were outliers.

Much like this, abuse with regard to SOTG in Ultimate was very easy to identify and write off early on. I'm not going to name names, but I'm sure over the years we can all think of opponents or fellow team mates that had suspect or sloppy playing practices and despite the fact that we either hated what they did and/or wouldn't play in a similar manner, we could disregard them as being poor sportsmen. Perhaps they were inexperienced players or bitter old "has beens", but in either case, their transgressions were ignored because they either didn't matter as players or would snap out of it eventually. We were comfortable with the system and assumed the general body of competitive players weren't abusing the rules.

However, in Baseball, as home run records were being eclipsed and free agency became more and more prominent, the expectations and money associated with players drastically increased. Players were breaking records and signing $252 million dollar contracts, but such things came at a price, one's integrity. Steroid use started to show up (or always was) amongst Baseball's most treasured players and because the business is so valuable, pharmaceuticals like Balco began generating/distributing performance enhancing substances that didn't have obvious side effects and/or weren't easily detectable, such as HGH. Then, because there wasn't a rigorous system of testing, the temptation to exploit the system was massive. Pressure came from all sides: fans, competitors, owners, the press etc... and even players like Alex Rodriguez, Rafeal Palmero, Miguel Tejada, and Andy Pettite were abusing. These weren't jacked out monsters or ego maniacs. They were just ball players trying to compete, but just like Canseaco, Bonds, Caminiti, and Clemens, they broke the rules.

I'd like to say that Ultimate is different, but it isn't. There was once a day when the game moved at a snail's pace relative to today and with a fraction of the teams and commitment level, SOTG was probably all that was necessary to keep the game clean. There may have been a few outliers here and there that took a few liberties in order to win, but they were in the margins, at least I hope so. But just like Baseball, things change. With constant pressure to expand and expand, the number of teams competing has ballooned to several hundred in every division, a number that dwarfs team totals as recently as my first year playing.

In addition, with things like Ultivillage and Cultimate, the importance of the game has exploded. Not only are players hitting the gym 5-7 times a week and competing year round, but we as followers are watching highlight clips and discussing the game world wide. A sport that had a small following of hippies some 30 years ago has now become a lifestyle and everyone from students to professionals to families are involved.

But just like free agency and money, these kinds of benefits come at a cost. With so many people emotionally invested in this game, with so much pride and glory on the line, the level of scrutiny has not kept up and it is now clear (to me at least) that liberties are being taken at the highest levels by the best players. Maybe this comes as no surprise, but much like the steroid issue, the integrity of the game is at stake. With players sacrificing so much to succeed in a game that has become so competitive, rule enforcement is of the utmost importance. However, despite our efforts to maintain a self-officiated systems, National Champions, Gold Medalists, and Callahan winners are getting away with rule breaking and much like steroids in Baseball, continued neglect of this issue is the worst possible insult to the game.

An Ugly Realization
Before I went to Boulder last year I wanted to re-watch the College Finals from 2006 because I figured Florida and Wisconsin would meet again in the Finals and I wanted to see the '06 game again. This was a great contest between two of the best teams in the history of our sport but the piece of footage that jumped out at me had little to do with the actual rivalry between Wisconsin and Florida, and more to do with just how apparent rule breaking in this game is.

For those of you without the patience to sit through the 45 minute video, take a look at the final goal of the game, or better yet the replay at 42:10. Tim Gehret hits Kurt Gibson with a beautiful 30 yard hammer in the back of the endzone for the game winner. The Cinderella Story is complete, Florida is a first time National champ and not only are they National champs, they went something like 55-1 and Tim Gehret got himself the Callahan Award in the process.

But hold the phone, take a closer look at TG's feet. Look at his pivot foot, travel! Such an infraction may seem trivial but given the stakes of this particular game and the fact that this was the game winning assist, I couldn't help but think, "What if Ben Rothlisberger had stepped over the line of scrimmage when he hit Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl?" Maybe it doesn't affect Ben's throw but I bet you anything a yellow flag comes out and voids the touchdown. The same could be said for Tim's hammer, but it wasn't because it really wasn't anyone's job to look.

The biggest goal of the entire year and he traveled and not only did he travel, he took a huge step to get a difficult throw off, i.e. the travel DID affect the play. To make matters worse, he was the best player on the best team and he broke the rules and got away with it. Maybe not on purpose, maybe he would have had no problem taking it back or apologizing or admitting it, but he did it none the less and reaped the benefits. But because our system of self-officiating has holes in it, much like the steroid policy (or lack thereof) in Baseball, players can and will take advantage.

Now one could make the argument that Wisconsin simply blew the call, but blaming the Hodags for missing this does not give me any solace and it just highlights the idea that future abuse like this can, and probably will, occur. I actually commend Wisconsin's defensive focus and given the gruelling conditions in Columbus that day, asking a player to play and remain so vigilant at the same time is unfair. A foul call, a strip, a stall count, these are situations where players interact directly and therefore spirit plays a factor, but in a situation like this, the simple lack of observation is abused and I believe the integrity of the game suffers.

In addition, one could also argue that steroid abuse in Baseball is an active choice and it appears that Tim's travel was unintentional, making him the source of unfair criticism. However, it is a slippery slope to plead ignorance and I believe Tim's culpability lies with the fact that he was attempting such a difficult throw. A breakside hammer is devastating in a man to man defense setting and keeping a sturdy pivot foot is one of the only restrictions a player must follow in a windless situation. Tim benefitted from sloppy execution and rather than being taken back, the goal was recorded and the game was over. Perhaps if it had been a slight toe drag on a back/forehand huck or not an assist (much less a game winning assist), the situation would be different. Never the less, the circumstances of the play speak for themselves and at a moment where scrutiny should have been at its peak, the integrity of the game was tarnished. What's funny is that despite the fact that this may seem like a meticulous critique, I am confident that a player of Tim Gehret's caliber would rather have had a whistle blown and had to score legitimately than win because of a lack of vigilance.

And what is paramount regarding this play is that this was the game that made it to TV. This was the game we used to showcase Ultimate to the rest of the World and the last play, the game winner, was a text book example of just how antiquated self-officiating in Ultimate is. How can we inspire people to pick up a disc when the very best that play it are able to take advantage of a flawed system? This wasn't a pickup game or a contest involving inexperienced players. This was one of the biggest games in our sport's history with two of the best college teams ever, facing off in the National Finals. Yet when the stakes were this high, when so many people were watching, when so much was on the line, the rules were broken and what's worse is that no one even noticed. When I saw this, I was embarassed to be an Ultimate player.

What is also worth mentioning is that I do not blame Tim Gehret or anyone else that commits a violation here or there, nor do I blame players for making suspect calls in tense game situations, I am guilty of both. Actions like these are simply an affirmation of one's humanity, their lack of perfection, it would be unreasonable for me to expect anything else. However, what I can expect, for both Baseball and Ultimate, is a rigorous system of rule enforcement that keeps a watchful eye on all of it's participants. What is the point of a rule if record breakers, MVP's, and National Champions break it? What kind of example, as a country that invented each sport, are we setting by tip toeing around such a blatantly obvious problem? MLB and the UPA have their work cut out for them, and it is up to the leadership of each sport to fortify the integrity of each game.

Action Taken
To address the steroid situation, MLB investigated performance enhancement abuse in Baseball with the Mitchell Report. Much to their dismay, not only were steroids abused in Baseball, the problem was everywhere. More players were using than anyone could have imagined and what was even more alarming was that if you could get a player to answer a question honestly, they'd tell you that steroid abuse wasn't all that rare or uncommon. What a black eye for the sport.

The equivalent to the Mitchell Report in Ultimate seems to be the Ultimate Revolution, a rigorous investigation on the UPA’s part with the purpose of evaluating the game and seeing where it could be improved. Topics from regional lines, to College Nationals bid allocation, to a more active role for observers, were discussed and there are plans through 2012 to utilize the information uncovered. I’ve already discussed a 20 team College Nationals format on this blog and am more interested in active observers.

To begin the implementation process, the UPA scheduled several experimental tournaments that will allow players to get a feel for what active travel and up/down calls from an observer will be like. Ultimately, there will be a vote sometime before Nationals involving qualified teams to determine whether or not they want this sort of role for observer at College Nationals. The vote will require a 60% supermajority, which could prove to be a sizeable percentage, leaving me with the fear that despite all the information available, there is still a chance that nothing will be done with regard to these sorts of rule abuses.

Much like with steroids in Baseball, despite the evidence and work being done, the power of the data has yet to actually be utilized. Alex Rodriguez has tested positive for steroids and self-officiating has been abused by the game's best, but neither MLB nor the UPA has proven to their constituents that one day things like this will not occur, or at least given us any confidence that such a goal is even possible. A vote seems like another bureaucratic hurdle against a more fair and strict system, but hopefully, the UPA members that are privileged enough to vote on this matter will see things my way.

With this in mind, I am posting this article on the eve of The Stanford Invite, one of the the most prestigious tournaments in our sport, and one of the tournaments on the experimental schedule. Considering the fact that most, if not all, of the 2009 National Qualifiers will be at this tournament, this is one of the most important weekends of the year. Their exposure to the possibility of active observers can and should give them the knowledge they will need in a few months when voting on this issue occurs. I for one hope each and every player is paying attention, because much like the Conference 1 issue, this is a vastly important decision that will be made by some of our sports youngest and most inexperienced participants.

Personally, I think, much like the instant replay issue in Baseball, a vote is simply unneeded, just implement active observers. Democracy is a great system but it isn't always necessary and can sometimes be inhibitory, especially when the voting population doesn't have the best interest of the sport in mind. Perhaps some, even most players (Ultimate and Baseball) want change, but I get the feeling that some may not. I doubt most players want to be guinea pigs and while they care about the sport at large, they care more about their own personal agenda. Once again, this is simply an articulation of their humanity and self-interest but such things present problems when objective and enlightened decisions need to be made. Luckily for us flatballers, the opinion regarding active observers seems generally favorable so I am optimistic about this vote and unlike baseball, I believe change can and will happen.

Closing Thoughts
I have a lot more to say with regard to this topic but it is difficult to articulate objectively and in a professional way. What I will say is that on practice fields and sports complexes across the country and world, we teach and play a game that is self-officiated. We all see the difficulties associated with this sort of approach, but we try and work around them. However, the paradox of our sport continues to rear it's ugly head. We cannot ignore the fact that this game has evolved into a lifestyle and as such we need to modulate our way of playing it. Without strict rules, abuse will occur and neglecting it just shows a complete lack of respect for the game. Our situation is no different than the issues with Steroids in Baseball, or even the current economic crisis. When so much is on the line, when there is so much to be won or lost, 3rd party observation and regulation is imperative, otherwise how can we trust the end result? How can we be sure our reality is strong and stable? Anyone's illegitimate success will ultimately lead to everyone's legitimate sacrifice.

I also believe that as we move in this direction, the distance between self-officiating and just plain officiating continues to shrink. It appears that the dam maintaining Ultimate's historic roots, preventing it from becoming mainstream, springs a leak once in a while and the bottle neck pressure has shifted once again. I remember a time when eligibility was a huge concern and now it is active observers. What will be next? And despite all our intelligence is there any way we can make progress without sacrifice or struggle? Probably not, but hey, remember it's just a game.

just my thoughts

match diesel


Seth said...

I watched a soccer game the other day, and there was a foul called in the middle of the field. Seeing an opportunity Michael Ballack, one of the best in the game, immediately kicked the ball while it was still moving, a few feet from where the foul occurred, with defenders right next to him.

The rules state (somewhere I'm sure) that the ball must be placed at the spot of the foul, that no defenders are allowed within 10 yards, and only after the ref tells the offensive team he is ready may play continue.

Did Michael Ballack disrespect the game? Is he a cheater? Is the system of officiation broken? Do we need to have every single rule followed exactly as its worded in the rulebook? Or rather, like in soccer, do we simply need a common understanding of what the rules mean, versus what they say?

I think we all agree on that last one. Everyone would (does?) hate the player that calls every single traveling violation, as worded in the rules, just as everyone would hate the ref in soccer that would make every restart of play wait for the ball to be in the proper place, stationary, and away from defenders. But we know also know that had Ballack moved the ball 15 yards up field before restarting play, the ref would have sent him back, just as we know that a player with the disc who crow hops before throwing should be called for a travel. There is a line between what is and isn't a violation, and I agree that we need to better clarify it, so as to standardize its application. Doing so would prevent and/or lessen many of the arguments and frustrations people have playing Ultimate Frisbee. Where the arbiter draws the line is the question on which we need more clarification. This is not at all related to the question of who the arbiter is.

AMW said...

Match, this is by far the most interesting and readable blog post you've made, and it actually adds something to what was becoming a stale discussion. I think this kind of analysis is more up your alley than "reporting" on games you haven't seen and teams you know nothing about. Keep it up.

Katie said...

I was at the Stanford invite this weekend and I really liked having active travel and up/down calls by the Observers. If nothing else, it prevents certain animosity between teams for little calls like in/out, up/down and traveling.