Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Lessons from the Arena

For about the last 10 years or so, I've been involved with a sport known as Ultimate. Never heard of it? Well, that's a damn shame. It's a fantastic sport that never seems to get the attention it deserves. It's exciting and fast-paced, requires a tremendous amount of conditioning and athleticism, and doesn't require $500 worth of equipment to get in the game -- all you really need is a pair of cleats. Over the years, I've played this sport that all different levels -- from the sloppiest weekend pickup games to the intense National Club Series tournaments. Once, I even traveled to Italy just to play in the Paganello Beach Ultimate tournament. So, it's fair to say that I've been around the block, Ultimate-wise.

You're probably asking yourself why I'm talking about this. Hang on -- we're getting to it.

One of the things that makes Ultimate unique (besides the fact that no one has ever heard of it) is the following. From Ultimate in 10 Simple Rules:
9. Self-Officiating: Players all responsible for their own foul and line calls. Players resolve their own disputes.

10. Spirit of the Game: Ultimate stresses sportsmanship and fair play. Competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of respect between players, adherence to the rules, and the basic joy of play.
Because of these two rules, Ultimate is played without independent officiating. No umpires, refs, or zebras of any kind. The participants make their own calls and resolve disputes using a system not unlike the "do-over" of your childhood. And, believe it or not, it works incredibly well. In all the time that I've played the game, there have been but a handful of occasions where the system failed to resolve disputes in a manner amicable to all involved parties. Moreover, because of the so-called Spirit of the Game ethic, the inter-competitor animosity so common in other sports rarely materializes during Ultimate competitions. I have never witnessed a physical altercation on the Ultimate field. I can't say the same for any other sport that I have been involved with.

However, while I'm a good player, I'm not great. Therefore, I've never played on a team that had a reasonable shot at the national championship. In fact, I've never even qualified to play in the regional tournaments. But, I've been a spectator on several occasions and I can tell you that things start to change once the stakes go up. I wouldn't say that players start to cheat, but it does begin to get complicated. The number of disputes increases dramatically and each one takes much longer to resolve, necessitating a tremendous number of the aforementioned "do-overs." The system still works, but the games can get really bogged down.

To handle this problem, these tournaments have begun to employ impartial "observers" who are responsible for making line calls (i.e. calling a player in or out of bounds) and for acting as a tie-breaking vote in other dispute situations. These observers aren't able to resolve every conflict, but they definitely help to move the game along.

Now, let's shift gears slightly. Of all the major American sports, pro basketball is unquestionably my favorite. Though it is definitely a contestable point, I believe that the greatest athletes on earth are found out on the hardwood. For me, there are few things more exciting than a playoff basketball game. If you doubt me, just ask my wife who must gracefully endure my obsession at the end of each season.

That said, I understand many of the criticisms that are leveled against the game. Leaving aside the complaints about off-court shenanigans, the issue most frequently raised is that of poor sportsmanship. And it's true, NBA basketball players do whatever they can to gain an advantage, no holds barred. They push and shove each other, throw elbows, and deliberately trip opposing players as they run down the court. They do these things with the intent of getting away with it. No need to be charitable about it -- it's cheating, plain and simple. And even some of the things that are legal are ethically questionable. Sure, you're allowed six fouls in a game, but does that really mean that it's OK to deliberately foul someone just to prevent an easy layup. Yet, such play is de rigueur during the playoffs.

In these three examples, we see three different manifestations of, for lack of a better term, sportsmanship. At one end, low-stakes Ultimate, we find high levels of sportsmanship and rule adherence. At the other, pro basketball, we find low levels of sportsmanship, with the rule adherence maintained through direct coercion. Clearly, behavior is starkly different in each situation.

To explain this, people generally propose one of two theories. One is that the people playing low-level ultimate are simply morally superior individuals compared to those playing pro basketball. The other is that the environment that these athletes experience pushes them to behave the ways that they do. If this sounds like the old nature/nurture debate -- you're right. It is.

Of course, to a certain degree, both answers are correct. Here's the thing though.

It doesn't matter!

We often like to sit in judgment and point out the failings in other situations or in other people. In this context, people like to bash pro basketball for creating and coddling bad apples. The thing is, though, it doesn't get you anywhere. You can demand that these athletes behave better, or that we choose to only promote those of a certain character, or that the pro manifestation of the game was somehow different and didn't encourage such play. However, unless the structure of the game is dramatically changed -- to something akin to low-stakes Ultimate -- it won't make any difference at all. And, if you did somehow make those changes, you would lose a fair amount of the game's essence. It's a good bet that it wouldn't be the event that it is today. For those of us who enjoy the game the way it is, that's a bad thing.

If you actually want to improve rule adherence, without wrecking the game itself, there's really only one option: enforcement. You add more refs and/or video technology so that it's harder for players to break the rules without getting caught. Of course, players will adapt and identify new extralegal opportunities to gain an advantage, which will require a new adaptation from the officials. And so on. It's a never ending battle, but a battle that must be waged if you care about the rules.

OK -- let's bring this discussion back to the political sphere.

A lot of people, on both sides of the political spectrum, like to point fingers at the other side and call foul. This has been especially true with respect to the last two presidential elections. The left, having been on the losing side in both of these contests, have certainly been more vocal in making these accusations. And, of course, a lot of these accusations are completely legitimate.

But, too often, I think, the accusations revolve around the bad character of the involved actors. Karl Rove is accused of playing dirty (and he does). Katherine Harris illegitimately ended the Florida recounts (agreed). The Swift Boat Veterans were a bunch of stinking liars (testify, my brother!). I could go on (and on, and on...).

However, there comes a point in time went you actually want to do something about it. Demonizing the opposition may serve to solidify your coalition, but it persuades few new voters to take your side -- even when the accusations are undeniably true. It just doesn't work that way.

Rove may be an unscrupulous character, but he is so only because of the nature of the game. If the game were different, he would be different or he would be replaced by someone who was. It's that simple.

And like pro basketball, you can't change the stakes of the game. As long as it's about power, the players are going to reach for every advantage that they can get away with -- no holds barred. There's only one solution -- empowering the refs.

This is the strategy that I would like to see employed much more than it currently is. Pelosi, Reid, and any other representatives of the Democratic Party should make this a central theme of every major address that they give. Not labeling Republicans as cheaters. Not identifying specific instances of wrongdoing. Simply hammering home again and again the need to empower independent enforcement of the rules. And where the rules fail to prohibit counterproductive behavior, the need to enhance the rules themselves.

Honestly, I would love to see any politician take a stand against such changes. If the changes truly reflect a nonpartisan attempt to stiffen lax enforcement, who could stand against them. It's a winning strategy, productive strategy, and, most importantly, it would actually make a difference.

PostScript: This is it for me at TIA. Let me just once again say thank you to Eric for allowing me to stand on his platform. It has been a real privilege. And, I'd like to thank everyone out there who has put up with me in Eric's absence. I'll be back over at my traditional haunt starting tomorrow and (shameless plug)you will all be welcome there(/shameless plug).

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