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Ben Van Heuvelen Tweetstorm On Jacksonville Incident

Ben Van Heuvelen, a long-time player and the assistant coach for the USA Men’s National Team at Worlds this year, went on a Tweetstorm yesterday about the Jacksonville Cannons ejection and response from the team. He shares some thoughts on the bigger picture that the incident suggests. We have copied the tweets into text for ease of reading.

Van Heuvelen wrote a very influential article about similar issues three years ago.

Some thoughts on self-officiating and ultimate that are too large for 140 characters…

At its heart, SOTG is an ultimatum: “play fair or the game falls apart.”

A daunting proposition: with self-officiation, every player has the power to ruin a game.

The flip side is: any functioning game is the product of everyone making a good faith effort to play fair.

With self-officiating, sportsmanship isn’t just “encouraged”; it’s a precondition. Without it, competition isn’t possible.

To teach the game - to hold a rudimentary scrimmage in practice - I need to coach sportsmanship.

To coach mental toughness - so my team doesn’t fall apart when we disagree on a call - I need to teach fair-mindedness.

This is a fundamental difference from a refereed sport. With SOTG, sportsmanship is foundational, not a bonus feature.

The ethos of ultimate is a product of the values we’ve put at the center of our sport, baked into the rules.

You cannot displace sportsmanship from its foundational position in the rules without also altering the ethos.

So, referees alter the psychology of competition directly, and they also symbolize a shift in priorities and values.

In AUDL/MLU, “integrity” is no longer a cornerstone present in every successful game; it’s a clause that can be invoked (or ignored).

The ripple effects aren’t visible overnight. AUDL/MLU players still exist in a broader community built on SOTG.

Most pro players don’t cheat, even though inexperienced refs probably wouldn’t catch it; they’re still used to the ethos of club.

This ethos is at the heart of collective outrage now voiced over dangerous plays + “win at all costs” mentality.

So no, the AUDL obviously hasn’t killed sportsmanship. But that’s not the question.

The question is: where are the pro leagues pushing the ethos of the sport?

What happens 5-10 years from now if AUDL franchises are the highest-profile embodiment of high-level play?

One indicator: an AUDL franchise now officially defends a dangerous play, and ignores a pattern of misbehavior.

(This stands in sharp contrast to the self-critique Furious/Canada undertook after the previous Worlds, for example.)

Worth emphasizing: Cannons aren’t a rogue actor in the heat of the moment. They’re an arm of the league making a policy decision.

And their disappointing statements should not come as a surprise.

The same ethos that relegates “integrity” to the fine print of the rules makes space for “win at all costs” apologists.

Pro leagues didn’t create dangerous plays or cheaters, but their ecosystem is evidently making new space for them.

Some argue that better refs + tougher punishments can solve the problem. But that’s wishful thinking based on a misdiagnosis.

Their implicit message is: “This problem was the result of poor policing.”

And by extension: “Players cannot - and should not - be entrusted with trying to uphold the rules.”

In contrast, with self-officiating, you gain a powerful tool for incentivizing fair play.

Namely, SOTG articulates an ideal of competition that gives players positive inspiration. (While referees only wield negative incentives.)

SOTG also establishes core values for a community, which in turn helps provide accountability.

Cheating still exists; but it exists mainly at the margins. Cheaters are outliers, pariahs.

In conclusion, glib as my initial tweet on this subject was, I’m not saying Cannons made a dangerous play because refs.

I’m saying this whole incident - the dangerous plays, the franchise defending it - is an alarm bell.

Or, it’s a glacier crashing into the ocean: shows us climate change is real, even if your city isn’t underwater today.

Originally published at: http://ultiworld.com/livewire/ben-van-heuvelen-jacksonville-situation/

1 Like

“The question is: where are the pro leagues pushing the ethos of the sport?” I agree with Ben that this is the crucial question. His argument (both premises and connections) leaves a concerning and convincing answer for the taking: the pro leagues, as they are now, are structually different than the ultimate that many of us know and love, and it is just a matter of time, if the structural differences remain, before pro ultimate looks like a wholly distinct phenomenon (perhaps with the ability to drastically influence what we know as ultimate today). Extreme gender inequity and refereed (and league executive) officiating have the power to create a new sport and make us grieve for the loss of an old one.

I’m curious if a straw poll here in this forum could provide any useful insight into how the players feel USAU should try to resolve this problem. First off, if anyone has any thoughts or ideas about that, please speak up, here is a fine place to do so. But then just to take the temperature of the few folks who might be reading this. Please answer the following question: Should USAU be actively working towards getting the semi-pro leagues to include women and use observers?

  • Yes
  • No

0 voters

(Full disclosure: I am a USAU Board member)

I want the semi-pro leagues to include women and to use observers but I’m not sure why USAU would be the ones pushing them to do it so I voted no. I’m also not sure what exactly USAU actively working towards the goal would mean. What are some ways that could happen?

(also shout out to Ultiworld twitter which is what led me to the poll)


I would love the pro leagues to include women, but I don’t think they should implement observers. Having refs has allowed the AUDL and MLU to be creative with rules that create a greatly improved fan experience compared to USAU.

Jeff - can you be specific about which rules improve the experience? Which changes are effective? (Legitimately just asking - this isn’t targeted)

Not enough time to succinctly put this together, when I get time I’ll work on that, but here’s the laundry list method (Note, I’m not exactly sure of the differences between MLU and AUDL rules so this is coming from the MLU perspective, but they are similar).

The fans and announcers are much better informed with the use of refs.

Player calls can often times not be heard in the stands, and the same goes for ensuing discussions about the call. Fans are left wondering what’s happening. New fans of the sport find it especially hard to understand what’s going on.

Refs use whistles to indicate a call, inform the announcer and crowd with hand signals, and there is immediate action on the field, usually in the form of yardage penalties. While these yardage penalties are being marked off players can still move, and set up the next play, no advantage is given away by having to freeze for a discussion. Eliminating these stoppages allows for much better flow of play and less downtime.

(side note: I found MLU fans were very into the game, and largely positive. During the latest US Open semi-final I played in, the loudest fan reaction was a chorus of Boo’s over repeated pick calls). In general, fans don’t like stoppages.

Shorter stall counts encourage quicker disc movement and likely more challenging situations for the offense. Challenging “O” can be more exciting than “boring” and “safe” O.

Much shorter time between points yields less down time. Also eliminates teams rushing the field every point, which in my mind is a plus.

Keeping teams in bench areas allows for better views for fans.

The following are debatable, but I found these additions to the rules exciting, and most fans I spoke with did to (completely anecdotal).

Legal double teams allow for an additional defensive strategy. Again, an O in tough situations allows for players to show of skills, whether it be throws, catches or generally athletic plays

Timed quarters. Another strategic element. How do you play your O point when receiving with 45 seconds remaining, slow it down and try for a last second score? How do you play it on D?

Timeout rules. Can sub players if call time out. (and I think MLU only) - can pull from midfield if call timeout after a score. I loved this strategic element to timeout calling. The half field pull was always exciting. A great challenge for the O, but so rewarding to still punch it in. (Also note: if the pull rolls out the back in MLU you have to take it from the back line - also love that rule)

To be honest, and this is total personal opinion, I think more pressure needs to be put on the offense at the highest level. I’m an advocate for 7 second stall counts, and would love to see some experimentation with 5 seconds. I think it would improve the pace of the game, and allow players to show off more of their skills, or expose those that don’t have them.

Henry, this is the right idea and your comment highlights the issues I addressed in the recent article: usau doesn’t know what the membership wants. Any data collected here is insufficient to make any decisions. To address the issue, USAU should commit to an intensive strategic planning to fully understand where the membership wants the sport to go (obviously including pro leagues, refs, and gender equity). This would help inform the right position to take with regards to the pro leagues and reestablish USAU’s authority with the players to take what may be a controversial decision (meaning USAU has greater influence and impact). To do that though does mean risking getting answers you (and I) may not want to hear.


I appreciate the gesture, but the question is very poorly framed. How do I vote if I think they should do one, but not the other? What does include women mean, mixed play or something else? An “other” option should be included in just about any poll question.

Separately, would “actively working towards…” necessitate USAU establish a new policy wrt the semi-pro leagues given that their/our current policy is one of non-recognition?

Hey there,
Mario from RISE UP here. Great experience this past month for me… played WUGC (game advisors), then US Open (observers), then AUDL (refs) in consecutive weekends.

As a player and, maybe more importantly, a community member who’s actively engaged on a personal and business level of growing/strengthening the community, I think something closest to the current USAU system is best, BUT I don’t think we have it quite right yet and I DO think that we (elite players) in north america have a very ethnocentric view of what the ‘right’ system or way forward is.

I think my underlying values/biases color my preference for what I think is best for the community. Here are a few.

  1. I’m not interested in ultimate growing so fast it loses sight of it’s core values.
  2. I do think self officiation should be the foundation used at all levels of ultimate, and that our community will always be working towards this, we’ll never just ‘arrive at the end’ of the journey.
  3. I do think ultimate and SOTG are ‘unique’ in the sports landscape.
  4. I’m 33 and played the majority of my ultimate (including my formative years) with only self officiation as an option.

Here’s some quick hitters from each league.
WFDF - clearly moving towards observers with the ‘game advisor’ system. This is a good thing. 3rd party involvement can be beneficial in championship settings (and others). I hope they continue to evolve based on world perspectives and don’t just default to ‘doing what USAU is doing.’

USAU - it works… based on what the north american context believes and how game is played. and it’s getting better. the spirit at the top of the game in these games is the best i’ve experienced overall (at least from my North American bias), and much improved in the last 10 years. Yes there are tough convos and moments in games. Yes people ride the line. Yes it’s the best ultimate in the world. Yes I think it’s worth it overall for the community to continue with this.

Semi-pro - love what they’re doing w/regard to experimentation. agree with lots of what jeff g is saying, I think lots of things USAU can learn, experiment with, and implement. BUT just not enough player control and self officiation in there for me. I don’t think refs and their effect on watchability of the game will be the tipping point that affects major growth, and therefore I don’t think it’s worth it to have in the semi-pro game.

I wish the pro-leagues would have just started with mixed league. Missed opportunity. Ugh.

I wish USAU could find a way to work collaboratively the pro leagues, BUT I totally get why it doesn’t work that easy and I applaud USAU for standing up for the values it defends.

I appreciate you (and others) getting involved publicly in these conversations.

I hope conversations happen on a regular basis between the pro leagues and USAU and would be interested to know how those conversations look/feel.


To clarify, I know there are numerous logistical challenges to this idea, but my ideal scenario would be a double header men’s and women’s game every time two cities compete. Pro leagues could shorten games (you don’t need 45 points to decide a winner) and play two, showcasing the best their city has to offer for both women and men each game night. Personally I think the skill and athleticism of the elite female players are better showcased in women’s games than mixed.

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Thanks for the info Mario. I watched you play at the US Open.

Your perspective completely echoes mine. Thanks for writing it so clearly.

And thank you to those who replied to my informal poll. There are enough of you that I want to get a little more specific:

Would you like USAU to ask the semi-pro leagues to try a single home game 4-3 next season, test for attendance, if it increases agree to increase the number of 4-3 games the following year?

  • yes
  • no

0 voters

Would you like USAU to ask the semi-pro leagues to try a game with observers next season, test for attendance, if it increases agree to increase the number of observed games the following year?

  • yes
  • no

0 voters

Would you like USAU to agree to collaborate with the semi=pro leagues if they agreed to both of the above?

  • yes
  • no

0 voters

Because USAU is the governing body for the sport in the US and is responsible for its future.

An act of congress.

Not trying to be obstinate here, but I’m not connecting the dots between USAU and the pro leagues. How is it that you think you have domain over them, and/or the ability to dictate anything to them?

Short of having authority over them, you’ll have to sweet-talk them into your agenda, and so far, I haven’t seen a lot of sugar being thrown in their direction. Additionally, whatever sugar you’re willing to give is going to come under heavy scrutiny from the membership, for no better reason than they’ve bought into the shade you’ve been throwing on the pro leagues.

And overall, I just don’t understand why you keep pushing this issue. You think they should go coed and do away with referees, and clearly the pro leagues think that is a non-starter, as they well should. USAU can have its little sandbox, and the pro leagues can have theirs…what’s wrong with this picture?

Trying to resolve the problem BVH described.

You are perfectly capable of understanding that your answer to the second question is moot without addressing the first question, and it’s telling that you didn’t bother with it.

I feel like this thread has gotten off topic but it’s a lively debate so I’ll throw my two cents in …

First off - it’s a total misconception that the pro leagues do not permit women to play. If females want to be on the team, be like everyone else and go to the tryouts. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; when I watch the pro league games, I’m not here to see the 7 best men or the 7 best ladies, or the best 4/3, or whatever other combinations are out there; I’m here to see the 7 best players . To force a certain gender ratio defeats the purpose drawing on the best 7 person combination.

(I’m not going to get into the M v F debate)

As for the ref v observers, you can find merit on both systems. Having participated in both programs, however the observer system just would not work in the pro league because the goals are not the same. Pro leagues ultimately are looking to professionalize the sport and the use of observers is detrimental to that goal.

1 - Games are near unwatchable given the endless debate that happens on fouls. These calls only come in greater amount when the game is coming to a close and the score is tight. Stoppages would grind the game to a standstill. If everyone had perfect spirit, maybe the discussion period would be shorten but clearly reality has shown differently.

2 - To continue on with the previous point, assuming every player was impartial (which they are not), even the perception that a player could be partial would de-legitimize the sport. Assuming one day players could be professional players (ie as a career) where $$$ was involved, every call would be contested straight to the observer anyway. It’s the same reason why players don’t call their own balls and strikes; you need that impartial 3rd party to make the call and make the call in a timely manner.

Maybe USAU feels that the pro leagues are encroaching onto their turf; I don’t know, I’m not on privy to the inner workings, but I agree with garrettd. Why try to regulate a private entity? You brought up the AASA, but as far as I know neither pro leagues are interested in establishing a USA Olympic bid or anything to do with the Olympics for that matter. If their model is detrimental to the sport of ultimate, players will see it and they’ll collapse by themselves.