Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ultimately Arbitrary

Wayne Norman, a philosopher at Duke, has developed very quickly a very interesting blog--thinking about sports in ways that have shifted my perspective quite a bit.   He has pondered classic questions like: when is a sport a sport? What's wrong with soccer broadcasting?  He has compared soccer to American sports to understand why soccer has not yet become as popular in the US  (and Canada?)* as it is elsewhere. 

In his latest post, he posits something quite striking,
The “essence” of a game or a sport, again, is bound up in the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. The participants must embrace rules that prohibit efficient means in favor of inefficient means to achieving the goal of the game. In many cases, the most basic rules are, for all intents and purposes, arbitrary.
Of course, given my own obsession, I immediately started to ponder about Ultimate.  Because Ultimate was invented by a bunch of over-educated types long after other sports and is a semi-conscious imitation of some sports (football, soccer, basketball), it makes sense to focus on a few aspects that fit Norman's idea of arbitrary obstacles to efficiency.  Three come to mind:
  1. You cannot run with the disk.  The frisbee is advanced forwards and backwards (moving it backwards is not a big deal and can be a good idea, as it moving the ball backwards in soccer, to create space and keep posession).  But only by throwing.  The most efficient means of getting the disk into the endzone would be perhaps to run it in like in football, rugby and similar sports, especially when it is windy or when one is already close.  But nope, you can only run with the disk if you pass it within a couple of steps or for a couple of steps as one stops running.  You cannot change direction while slowing down and you cannot take more steps than is necessary to stop.  Otherwise, you can be called for a travel. 
    1. An implication of this rule is that once you have stopped, one foot becomes the pivot a la basketball, and then you can only move one foot as you pivot with the other.  It would be more "efficient" to step around someone guarding you to pass the disk, but the rules prohibit that.
  2.  You cannot tackle anyone.  In football or soccer, you can bring down a ball carrier.  In ultimate, you cannot pull down a receiver or a thrower.  Indeed, unlike basketball, you cannot set a pick or box out in ultimate.  Well, you are not supposed to.  Boxing out does happen when one person establishes a position and does not let the other person get closer to the likely destination of the disk, but if it is obvious, it can be called a foul.  In ultimate, contact is supposed to be avoided entirely, although it happens when two or more people chase after the disk.  Last week, I got bruised all over as I kept chasing disks down without looking for teammates who sought the same disk.  If an offensive and defensive player make contact, the question then is whether it makes a difference on the play.  If so, then the player whose path was interrupted or whose hand was hit or whatever can call a foul.  The other player can choose to contest this or not.  Which leads to the most "arbitrary" and "inefficient" rule that really distinguishes ultimate from all other sports.
  3. It is self-refereed.  The rules are enforced almost entirely by the players on the field (see exceptions below).  The folks on the sideline are not supposed to make calls.  Players are supposed to call fouls on themselves if they commit a foul/rules violation.  If they do not, others can.  If the person accused of a violation disagrees, then they can contest the call.  If a call is contested, the disk goes back to before the foul and the players do as well. It may or may not impact the stall count (ah, another inefficiency--each thrower has about ten seconds to throw the disk**  This can be really inefficient if players do not know the rules (most of the rules are pretty obvious and clear, some a bit less so) or if players do not follow the spirit of the game: competition with good intent, essentially.  You can see more arguments at higher levels sometimes.  I have witnessed only one fight and a few confrontations in my career (each one of these incidents involved only one of the many teams on which I have played).  Sports with referees/umpires/judges seem to have far more fights/riots/brawls.  If folks respect calls, or at least start the do over process when a call is contested, this is not so inefficient.
    1. There has been a change over the past decade or two--observers at the highest levels.  At the recent Canadian Nationals tourney (where Montreal based teams did very, very well), observers made calls of in or out of bounds or the endzone and were consulted when there was a contested call.  I watched one of the finals games online for nearly the entire game (the mixed or coed game of RIP vs Onyx), and saw the observers get involved maybe ten times in a game that took about 90 minutes.  Most of the calls were still handled by the players.  I have never played in a game with observers, but can see how they may be handy when the competitive juices are flowing. 
 Each sport is an accumulation of rules that together may not make sense---that in soccer one cannot pick up the ball and run with it.  And as Norman argues, we now have amazing plays because people have refined their ability to kick the ball.  Same for ultimate: the constraints have led to innovation--a variety of throws so that the disk can move in three dimensions--arcing the disk from left to right or right to left, or throwing it low but in a way that pops it up (an air bounce), and so on.  The self-refereed component has led to points for spirit (cheers, teasing, costumes) and for players learning to compete with respect.
Oh, and there is another distinction between ultimate and most sports--the mixed format where there are four men and three women on the field or three men and four women is a blast and widely popular.  I would guess that most summer leagues around North America are coed.  Of the other sports, only softball comes close, I think, to having a coed type format.  You don't see men and women on the same football or basketball team.  Are their coed soccer leagues?  I don't think so. 

Is coed ultimate inefficient?  Um, it depends on the utility you are maximizing.  And I will leave it at that for now.

*  I think the Canada question is pretty easy.  If it does not have skates involved, it is not going to get much attention.
**  I say about (or aboot) as the person marking the thrower will count to ten, usually by saying stall one two three or one Mississippi, two Mississippi, or one steamboat, two steamboat (if Canadian/Anglophone) or un bateaux, deux bateaux (if Francophone), and so on.  So, approximately ten seconds--there is no shot clock.

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