During my last semester at NC State I had to take a philosophy class to satisfy a requirement, so I registered for The Philosophy of Religion. After all, I thought, what better place to take such a class than in a Bible Belt state?
Generally, the class was a bit of a disappointment. It might have been because, generally speaking, devout people are a tad too serious about religion to really delve into some of the more intriguing examinations of faith and its underpinnings. It also might have been that, in my final semester, I was already a little burned out on what might best be described as academic pontification. Much of the content of the class has long since faded from memory, but I can still remember the assignment for the first paper. Answer the following question: “Is it reasonable to believe in miracles?”
I cannot remember what my answer was, but I do remember that I received an A on the paper, largely because I started by doing something that most of the other students in the class never did. I started by defining both “reasonable” and “miracles.”
In truth, I did it to take up space, because I really didn’t think there was any way I could fill up enough pages with my meager argument, but it turned out to have been a stroke of genius. Yea, me!
I was reminded of this recently when I reflected on the ongoing HoF/Cheater discussion and realized that while there have been many accusations and counter accusations of cheating flying about, we have yet to establish a consensus on precisely what constitutes cheating. I think it’s high time we did, so I’m going to take a stab at it. Feel free to amplify at your leisure.
I suppose we can start with a failure to abide by the rules of the game. It seems logical to add the element of intent, similar to the way the legal system works. Homicide is the killing of a person, while murder is the criminal killing of a person, which generally includes the element of intent, among others. So it seems that we should start our definition of cheating with the intentional failure to abide by the rules of the game.
Somehow that phrase, failure to abide by, needs more oomph. Let’s make it an act, as opposed to a failure to act, which is somehow less oomphy than acting. I think an intentional violation of the rules sounds better. But does a single instance of intentional rule violation rise to the height of cheating? Or, more to the point, is a player who intentionally violates the rules one time a cheater? Or does there have to be a pattern, a repetitive and systematic intentional violation of the rules? I would say so. I mean, somebody who is otherwise assumed to be a well-mannered player might one day ignite the most shameful brawl in the history of the National Championship tournament by striking an unsuspecting opponent in the head without provocation. We surely wouldn’t want to keep that player out of the Hall of Fame (or even delay his induction) over such an isolated incident, no matter how shameful and embarrassing it was to everyone who has ever played the game. So I think we have to go with repetitive and systematic intentional violation of the rules. Yeah. That’s cheating.
OK, so now that we have a working definition, let’s put it to work and see how it goes. I think we should start with one of the most common types of rule violations, the defensive foul. So what we have established is that while we can look the other was for one intentional foul, any more than that rises to the height of cheating. So that means that most all of the fouls committed in ultimate must be unintentional, because otherwise the sport would be full of cheaters. So when a guy goes up on defense, and the receiver has better position and times his leap better, and the guy on D goes ahead and takes a big swipe at the disc anyway even though it’s pretty clear that he probably can’t make the play and will certainly hit the receiver, that’s still an unintentional act, because if it were intentional then that player, and all the other players who make plays like that, are cheaters.
OK, we’re getting somewhere. Now let’s look at the mark, namely traveling, fast counts, and marker/thrower contact.
OK, traveling is an easy one. I mean, anyone who would deliberately travel is definitely a cheater. So if you have traveled more than once, then it must be true that you couldn’t help yourself, because holding your feet in place is hard, and nobody would ever attempt a throw, like say a break mark throw, that they knew they couldn’t complete without moving their pivot foot. Therefore, all travels must be unintentional, otherwise pretty much everybody in the sport would be a cheater, and that can’t be true.
Fast count. Now we’re moving. Everybody knows how long a second is, and the rules say you get ten seconds to attempt a throw. So nobody would deliberately count off seconds that are less than actual seconds, and surely nobody would ever speed up at the end of the count, making those last few seconds even shorter. And yet fast count is a pretty common call, so we have to assume that every person who has ever counted fast or sped up near the end of the count did so by mistake. If not, then any player who did it knowingly more than once would have to be described as a cheater.
OK, disc space. The rules state the marker must not take a marking position with a disc’s diameter of the thrower, and to do so is a disc space violation. Clearly no marker would ever intentionally take up a position that he knew was inside the disc space limit, and no marker would ever bump a thrower while marking. Any marker who repeatedly marked inside disc space or caused contact with a thrower would be intentionally violating the rules and would therefore be a cheater.
Finally, let’s look at line calls. Surely no ultimate player would ever call himself in when in fact he was out. And surely no player, when presented with a small army of people telling him that they had a better perspective and he was definitely out, would ever say, “I think I was in so back to the throw.” Any player who ever did that would have to be a cheater.
I think you get the point. Basically speaking, the rules of the game are violated repeatedly during the course of play, and it would not be a stretch in any way to say that the vast majority of ultimate players have committed repeated violations of the rules of ultimate. So we’re in a bit of a quandary here.
Either all of those violations are unintentional, or there are a hell of a lot of cheaters in ultimate. And you know what the worst part is? There’s no possible way for us to know.
Fundamentally speaking, since we all recognize that rules violations occur in ultimate with great frequency, and that pretty much everyone who has played the game at the elite level has committed rules violations on numerous occasions, the only way we can determine whether or not a player is a cheater is by knowing whether or not the violations in question were intentional. And there is simply no way we can ever know that.
Now if a player were to admit, “Hey, I’m a cheater,” that’s a different story. But in the absence of a confession, we must rely on our ability to judge intent in order to distinguish between the cheaters and the non-cheaters out there. And guess what? We have no ability to judge intent with any degree of certainty.
The plain truth is that outside of a certain drug-addled former player from Boston and some old-school carnival charlatans, humans lack the ability to read each other’s minds, and therefore cannot know another person's intent. In a court of law, attorneys argue, witnesses testify, evidence is presented, and still jurors go into the jury room and use their gut instincts to decide whether or not a defendant committed an act with intent. Ultimately they may render a verdict, but they will never know for sure.
On an ultimate field, we have no testimony, no attorneys, and the evidence is being presented before us at high speed in the context of a game in which we often have a vested interest. Can we really believe ourselves capable of not only being certain of exactly what happened on a given play, but also of knowing what the intent of the various participants was? The idea is absolutely ludicrous. But that doesn’t stop us from judging. So the default position in the ultimate community at large is that players who are generally good-natured and likeable don’t cheat but occasionally make bad calls. Conversely, players who generally aren’t good-natured and likeable, and who don’t seem intent on making friends when they compete, well those players are cheaters who generally make really bad calls. What a joke.
I played for many years, and I can tell you that I have seen a bunch of questionable calls, obvious fouls, super fast counts, and fouling marks, but I have never looked at anyone and said, “That player is a cheater.” Over the years I have played against at least two full team’s worth of defenders who extended their arms to slow down cuts, grabbed shirts when they were caught going the wrong way, stuck out their knees to create contact, and generally did whatever they could to slow me down. And I understood. Often it was a relative newcomer or a defensive specialist who had been given the assignment of guarding one of the most prolific goal scorers in the game. They came into the match up knowing I was on a mission to score goals and they would have to do everything they possibly could to contain me, and sometimes everything possible includes certain behaviors that are outside the boundaries of the acceptable norms as defined by the rules. But did that make them cheaters? Hell no. They were good, tough, physical defenders, and so long as they would accept the same kind of play when they had the disc, then play on.
And now we’re right back at square one, the same place we found ourselves when we were discussing belligerent intimidation. In a self-officiated sport every single player on the field has an interpretation of the rules, and it is on the basis of that interpretation that they play the game. One man’s foul in another man’s tough D. One man’s travel is another man’s foot watcher. One man’s double team is another man’s tight cup. And if everyone who violates the rules is a cheater, then we’re all cheaters.
Welcome to my world.