What Cincinnati did is not a question of whether or not it's allowed; it's one of whether or not it's right.
March 27, 2015 by Kyle Weisbrod and Sean Childers in Opinion with 170 comments
Both in sports and in life, there’s a big difference between “understandable” and “supportable,” between “rational” and “right,” and between “spirited” and “unfair.”
We don’t think this is a especially tricky case — we believe what Cincinnati did is unfair. We feel relatively comfortable holding that judgment while also acknowledging an imperfect system enabled the behavior, and made it rational in the strictest sense. And we hope that many in the community share some sense of dismay and disappointment.
As the weekly ranking kept coming down this spring, the reality became apparent: some teams’ self-interest was going to been pitted against the overall system’s fairness. And that tension has produced a lot of divided opinion online. Mostly, those views have broken along some false line of individual integrity versus systemic integrity, as if only one or the other is necessary for the process to work correctly. Many people are giving Cincinnati a pass on their decision and believe that it’s USAU’s responsibility to create a system where individual self-interest is perfectly aligned to the community’s interest.
While improvements can be made to the system, ultimately, perfect alignment between self-interest and our community’s best interests is impossible. There must be a layer on top our system that helps hold individuals and teams to a higher standard. Cincinnati should be judged as having failed to meet that standard.
Ultimate Is Unique? It’s Not, Except Sort Of
The truth is, the concept of spirit of the game, sportsmanship, integrity, or whatever you want to call it, is not unique to ultimate. All sports, regardless of rules or officiating, place a level of responsibility on the players to act in accordance with a “spirit of the game;” this is doubly true with competition at amateur and collegiate levels. No matter how much you invest in making the rules or officiating perfect, there is always some extra-legal area where players have to judge winning against how they are perceived by others and how they perceive themselves.
In basketball and soccer players routinely flop to take advantage of the human element of officiating. In baseball and cycling we’ve dealt with PED and blood doping scandals. The NFL has a litany of issues from pushing the limits on the in-game rules and bounty schemes. Big money NCAA sports have recruiting issues and academic eligibility issues. The olympics has faced tanking due to formatting issues. These are all areas where the rules and fair and comprehensive oversight of the rules don’t align with individuals’ and teams’ best interests. Yet in all of these sports we respect sportsmanship and integrity. In fact, we often times celebrate great acts of sportsmanship. And the existence of borderline issues (like the debate in the NBA over “tanking” or tossing games for playoff matchups) doesn’t eliminate the moral content of acts that exist at the extremes.
It goes beyond sports. In our lives from the mundane to the consequential, we are constantly forced to make decisions between our integrity and what is best for us. We revere the anonymous donor who, without witness, donates their money to worthy causes and judge the banker who makes risky investments with other people’s money, begs for government bailouts, and takes home multi-million dollar bonuses. One of our society’s underappreciated achievements is that we’ve built up both systems and cultural norms that balance self-interest with the golden rule; communities that fail to balance tend to fail.
We aren’t all that different. But we are in some ways: we name our integrity. We call it Spirit of the Game, and (at least for now) we still see it when our sport is played at its highest level, on the grandest stages, and by our most-respected stars. Our highest individual awards in the sport, like the Callahan, explicitly call us to consider integrity. We take integrity into account when choosing our national teams. We score our opponents on their integrity after games and, for many of us, those scores matter.
We also play in a system that acknowledges that the rules can’t always perfectly align our self-interest with doing the right thing and they appeal to our better judgement to play fair and avoid “win-at-all-costs” behavior.
On The System
The attacks on USA Ultimate largely miss the point. Our sport, like all sports, is open to gaming on many levels. The fact that it can be gamed is, for many, part of the point. Displays of integrity and experiences that create these moral grey areas are only possible if a negative outcome like this is possible.
We look at Cincinnati choosing to not play in a game and we think “oh the shame, won’t someone fix it all?” But then we look at the Minnesota men, the Clemson women, the Tulane men (and others) who are honoring their commitments and risking bids to nationals and showing integrity. Their integrity stands in stark contrast to Cincinnati; those teams’ choice to play should be held up as an example of what is possible and right. It also shows their love for playing the game.
If we absolve Cincinnati, consider Minnesota and Clemson’s choices to be one’s of naïveté, and point to the lack of a perfect system while claiming “there is no right and wrong; only self-interest,” we will be taking the low road to wherever we go. Eventually, teams who originally wanted to stand tall will feel more and more pressure to cave to their own interests. Celebrating those teams that chose a path of integrity while calling out teams that don’t provides us a layer beyond rules that protects the integrity of the game as a whole. We need to acknowledge that integrity is easy to lose, and that spirals are easy to enter.
Of course, USAU should tighten up the ranking system and, yes, they should find ways to discourage behavior like this, but we all must acknowledge that a perfect system is unattainable. Many online are holding USAU to an unreasonable, omnipresent standard. Ranking presents a classic whack-a-mole problem: Solve one problem (like requiring more games, or forcing teams to play in the last two weeks) and you create another (more costs, reduced opportunity, more weather-dependency).
Learning From Our Sport
Despite the dichotomies discussed at the start, the truth is that we all struggle in the grey areas. The line of integrity each of us draws is sometimes a few steps past the one drawn by others, and both may be reasonable. But it’s exactly this standard and the discussion around this standard that makes the ultimate community special. The sport, and the people in it, provide a reminder to act with integrity, not just on the field, but in everyday life. And sometimes, we maybe make better, more thoughtful, or less selfish decisions in our lives because of the ethos around the sport.
In the grand scheme of life, this decision by Cincinnati is a small and inconsequential one made my a handful of young men still forming their own sense of integrity. How they feel about their decision and how the community feels about them will not only inform them as they make these decisions in the larger world, but all of us as we make our decisions.
We are disappointed in Cincinnati. And in awe of Minnesota and Clemson. We hope tournament directors will keep all this behavior in mind when doling out invitations next year, and think about inputting forfeits for teams who act selfishly, without consideration as to how their actions impact other teams, and undermine our well-intentioned systems.
But more than anything, we’re disappointed by those in the community that believe that the lack of an explicit rule not allowing this behavior justifies the decision and absolves Cincinnati of any guilt that they should feel over manipulating the bid situation. That reaction justifies every act of self-interest in the grey area of our sport and beyond. It is dangerous because it pulls at the threads of social contract both within our game and beyond.
We should be living up to a higher moral code than “is it allowed?”