Monday, August 06, 2007


Open up the paper on any given day and there are a plethora of current scandals in professional sports that titillate our moral core. Doping, corrupt refs, labor holdouts, and, perhaps the most egregious of all, a punter offing another punter for a starting spot. I am sure that you will be beguiled by the powers of my observation when I saw that that it all comes down to money. When one starts to consider the incentives and potential rewards in the current pro sports world, can we really be that surprised? If not surprised, then at least we have to be cynical. Maybe both reactions are unfair. Pro athletes are expected to be role models and it does seem a bit disappointing when we learn that they are not all nice guys (and gals? There doesn't really seem to be equivalent scandals in women's pro sports). While it is pretty easy, from the comfort of the daily drudgery of our office veal pens, to claim that we wouldn't be seduced by the money, are we really that sure? This post will take a speculative look at the impact of money on our precious little amateur sport.

I was at PT the other day and, during my exercises, an interesting conversation happened between two of the PT's. They were talking about a third PT, a common friend of theirs. It turns out that he was hired by Pedro the year he barely made it through the year due to his shoulder problems. Pedro's contract was structured such that he would receive bonuses after 20, 25, and 30 starts that year. In total, my numbers might not be totally accurate, he would receive a $500K bonus for 30 starts. Apparently, Pedro is pretty savvy when it comes to money, so he hired this PT to get him through the year. Their contract was also incentive based and, I believe, he would not be compensated unless Pedro got over 25 starts. This PT basically worked only for Pedro for the year. He would give treatments before and after Pedro warmed up. He would be working on Pedro's shoulder while Pedro was going through the business of his day. In the end, Pedro got his 30 starts and wrote a check to this PT for $165K.

The large contracts that pro athletes receive is pretty much in our face on a daily basis, but, speaking for myself, I have pretty much no clue about the details of the incentives that the athletes have as part of their contracts. I wouldn't call the above story "eye opening", but it did make me think about the impact of money, specifically incentives, would have upon Ultimate.

If one looks at the incentives for performance we have in Ultimate today, I think we can confidentially say that they wouldn't be enough reason to get out of bed for even the sponsored "amateur" Olympic athlete, let alone the pro athlete. Let's look at one pinnacle of our sport: winning the UPA's. The reward: your team name goes on the trophy and in the UPA Hall of Champs website. I think I can argue that Ultimate players are pretty ignorant of their history. How many folks can name the teams that won Nats in 1988? I can't. So the reward for winning Nationals is that no one will remember that you did. Perhaps an incentive with some actual meat on it is winning Nats in a WUC qualifying year. I do think that representing one's country is an honor, but in the context of monetary incentives, it still isn't on the radar. You get the cool gear, but you pay for everything else.

Of course, any sort of competition can get our juices flowing, but I am going to argue, for the purposes of this post, that, when comparing the financial incentives of current pro contracts with the incentives of today's Ultimate, there is very little reason to cheat, take steroids, or off someone because they get called to receive the pull more than you do.

So, I started to think about the potential impact of money on our sport. Let's imagine professional Ultimate with incentive-based contracts. Supposing, for example, that, like other sports, that every player on the UPA champ team received a monetary reward for winning Nationals. Or that a player would earn extra money for scoring x number of goals during the season. Or that a defensive specialist would get a bonus for a certain number of blocks at Nationals. How confident are we that the tenets of SOTG can withstand the pressures of performance-based financial rewards? If your answer is "not confident", it seems to me that we are talking about refs making binding calls. No more calling your own fouls and, at the minimum, getting a do-over. Another possible answer is "Not Confident, but SOTG (and self-officiating) is a necessary component of Ultimate". In this case, I think what is really being said is that Ultimate MUST remain a true amateur sport.

This post is, obviously, highly speculative, but it is not a doom and gloom scenario. It is simply offering my opinion that injecting money into Ultimate could offer a big challenge to the viability of self-officiating. However, if one agrees that adhering to self-officiating is a necessary component of Ultimate and that this adherence leads us down a path of permanent amateur status, does this not, to some small degree, inform our approach today?

I guess one could consider this post to be commentary on our ability to be honest. I do think I am a bit cynical in this regard, but there is at least one example of competitors doing the right thing in the face of huge financial reward and it is golf. I just finished reading John Feinstein's "Lessons of Q School" and it documents golfers navigating the rigors of qualifying for the PGA tour. At stake is literally the ability to play pro golf for the next year and hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was an example of a player letting the ball bounce while putting it back on the his spot for a putt. After he sank the putt, he was not convinced that he had replaced the ball to the correct spot before the putt. He reported this to the official at the end of the round and was disqualified. So this is an impressive act and maybe even testimony that self-officiating can withstand the pressures of potential financial reward, but I am skeptical, obviously.

I understand that the concerns of this post feel far way and that there are more pressing concerns like developing youth Ultimate. I agree with this, but are we not laying down the foundation for our Youth players? Are we being fully responsible to our youth players by avoiding thinking about whether the sport will remain an amateur experience for them? Or whether they will need to learn how to play at the highest level with refs? This be premature, but, it seems to me, at least worthy of a bit of thought and discussion.


gapoole said...

I'm in the same boat, and I think any reasonable person is at least riding the same train of thought. I have no illusions about playing this sport at the professional level (although I confess to dreams of playing at College and Club Nationals). SOTG is integral to my experience of the sport. It comes up at every tournament, and I would not want to play Ultimate without self-officiation.

The bottom line is that I care deeply about personal responsibility and integrity; taking calls out of the players' hands is not only inconsistent with these principles, it in fact opposes them. We see the evidence in soccer, American football, hockey, lacrosee, etc. Some people will cheat, given incentive and opportunity. I can admit that, but I am not particularly obliged to tolerate it, and I refuse to encourage it by endorsing refs at this early stage.

That being said, I am totally open to the exploration of active calls, increased regulation, and the like. Would I play pro Ultimate, given the chance? Yes--it would be too good an opportunity to pass up. Do I think we are ready for it? Definitely not. I hope that doesn't make me a hyprocrite--I like to think I would be able to influence the system from within.

And yes, this is the perfect time to be discussing these issues.

Chuck said...

Hey G,

Thanks for the post. I personally would love to play a sport that I couldn't train as little as I do and still be near the top. Why aren't the players on the top men's teams WAY better than me? Because there's no money in it? Yeah, I think so.

On refs, I share your cynicism about self-officiating at the top of the game. I would love to have referees so that in the heat of the moment, I don't have to think about how to be diplomatic and level-headed. It's like asking every player on the field to act as captain or something. Some of us are just bad captains and the majority of what is going through my head in the game starts with F and rhymes with my name. I wish I could discuss bad calls in a calm fashion, but I really struggle with that, and there are a LOT of us that make bad calls in the heat of the moment. I have made many.

As for SOTG transcending the money and the competition, I think it's denying our humanity to expect us to be that clean and accurate with calls in big games, while enduring physical exhaustion/provocation, and possibly adding in money too. We're human. We'll mess up in that scenario most of the time. There's nothing wrong with that because that's how humans are. We can't even see that decision clearly, let alone make it.

The last thing I wanted to mention is that getting pros and refs and even changing rules to get Ultimate into the public eye is fine in my mind. I would bust my ass to tryout for a pro team, even on a 30x40 field with two-pointers and baskets in each endzone. I would also still play pick-up and introduce people to the game until the day that I die because there's no conflict between those two for me. Giving this game away is the best way to make it more real for me, and what is going on at the top is not going to have any effect whatsoever on Wilcox Park pick-up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is where I got my start.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Good luck with PT. Hope to meet you some day.

gcooke said...

Glenn and Chuck,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think there are very similar themes in both of these comments, and, Glenn, I don't think you are a hypocrite.

I do think that the comments about our humanity/human nature are interesting, and, in that context, the self-officiated calls that those golf guys made are remarkable.

I don't find it surprising that both of you have an interest in participating in pro Ultimate. I think, as Chuck, says that embracing it all in a non-mutually exclusive manner is perhaps the way to go.


sometallskinnykid said...


So my team has won $1000 twice. Not necessarily the type of $$ you are talking about, but still $1000 to an ultimate team is not too bad. Both times were at "Shampoo-Banana" a tourney with, obviuosly, prize money-

in 99, we formed a coed team with a mix of magnUM and Truck dudes as well as Clutch chicks. Not really any other good teams there besides a St. Louis type team we played in the finals. The game was somewhat heated, but not nearly better/worse than many other games. Especially involving some of the dudes that were on the field from St. Louis.

in 00, when Truck was reforming, we went as an open team. Again, not a great tourney in terms of teams. We did have to beat a KC team. This game was chippy, but again anytime I have played the old KC guard, it turns ugly. So I would not blame the $$$$. We played a Chicago based team and that was a pretty good game.

Anyway, this does not really relate to your post b/c there are a couple of decimals points missing, but the winner of the tourney basically paid for the travel/etc for the tourney. So there was some incentive, and really the games were not ugly in terms of "spirit"...

I just think people make too big of leap to say that fair play will go down the tubes (not that I am trying to accuse you of that).


Mackey said...

I concur with Tim here--I don't think that fair play will necessarily go down the tubes, though there will always be those looking to gain an edge somehow.

I don't know that you necessarily need to go all the way to full-out refereeing, though. I could definitely see something where we have a "pro"/"amateur" dichotomy in the sport, with refs and self-officiated--you see this manifest itself in all sports whenever a group of guys get together to play pickup basketball and have to self-ref. I don't think you'd see any complaints from the pros or the amateurs with that kind of split, perhaps some general lamentation of the state of the sport but there's always somebody who will do so.

I could also see something where you have a "sliding scale" of sorts for observer power. Maybe players still call their own fouls but the observer instantly upholds or rejects the call, rather than a 30-second discussion, at the pro level. Maybe you choose to impose basketball-like foul limits, or a card system for egregious fouls...

The other option would be to eliminate or reduce the incentive-based component of play. You know, as much as Pedro might have cared about the 5k start incentive, that's a drop in the bucket compared to a $13M guaranteed contract, pitch or sit, you know? But that's getting waaaaaaay too far ahead of where we are now.

Kyle Weisbrod said...

I'd like to echo Tim's sentiments as well. I just played at a "money" tourney a week ago (Heat Out) where my team won $1800. We played Doublewide in the finals and the game was no more contentious than a typical game at that level. Certainly some contested/debated calls - but I think, had we had observers, it would have been a very smooth game.

Once again, this is not the kind of financial reward that you are talking about, but I think it is at least a small experiment with monetary incentives for winning.

I think with a concerted focus on fair play as the sport continues to grow we *may* be able to introduce those incentives while maintaining what is a very important part of the sport to many, many players. I think it is certainly worth trying.

gcooke said...

Hey guys,

Thanks for that perspective. Just a quick clarification for was 500k, not 5k.

I probably understated the importance of golf's ability to self-officiate, and I agree with the general sentiment of all the posts that there are many non-mutually exclusive options.

I think a part of what I was saying was that there are, from certain perspectives, basically no incentives to cheat right now in Ultimate (compared to "real" financial rewards) hopefully folks conduct themselves that way.


bl said...

In response to a couple of the comments above:
Any time you want to balance the professional drive for money with 'honor' or anything like need to not imagine yourself and what you would do.
Rather, imagine yourself poor, with bills to pay and kids that need new clothes. Seriously, it sounds dramatic...but it's true. Would I choose honor over my own money? Sure.

But would you choose your own honor over a better chance at getting health insurance for your kid?


Frank Huguenard said...

Fair play? Last time I saw Sockeye play Jam a couple of months ago, they committed 213 traveling violations.

It's amusing how so many posts over the years begin and end with '...saving our poor little sport....' from the evils of money, corruption, cheating, referees....

How about saving the little sport of Ultimate from the zealots that continue to maintain it's obscurity.


gcooke said...

Hi Frank,

Thanks for your comments.

Are you refering to the comments or my post? I don't think the intention of my post was to "save our poor little sport" from the evils of the world.

The post speculated some changes that might need to occur if a lot of money were injected into the sport. If anything, I think the post was a pretty non-judgemental look at some different scenarios.


jdr said...

The funny thing for me is that one of the arguments for officials is that they will stop 'cheating'.

But watch any sport with referees and you'll still see players trying and often succeeding at cheating. The incentive and willingness to cheat is there too.

Worse, there's a view that when "your" player gets away with it because the ref didn't see it or made the wrong call, then you've done the right thing for "your team". Teams and supporters celebrate wins that come from cheating and bad calls from referees, and those who lose blame the cheaters and the refs.

Keeping self-officiating keeps this crap out of our sport. 'Cheaters' in Ultimate bear the full ethical responsibility for that, rather that leaving it to a supposedly omniscient umpire.