Friday, March 19, 2010

I’m a Cheater, You’re a Cheater, He’s a Cheater, She’s a Cheater. Wouldn’t You Like To Be a Cheater, Too?

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.


Nathan said...


Another great post. Keep 'em coming, please!

Do you think that HOF election should take into account player conduct?

From reading this post, one might guess that you do that so?

If it _should_ be taken into account, do you have a suggestion for how to do so?

I think that it should somehow be taken into account, but I have not heard of nor thought of a fair way to do so.


DH said...

Thinking about this entire thing (the shameful failure to admit the sports arguably greatest player into the Hall on a first ballot; the subsequent call for "feedback" from HT on his decision; Ken's often funny and certainly painstaking salvos launched from all available angles; the ridiculousness of JP's false "honesty" as he burns the candle at both ends; my own often [but not currently] suppressed urge to enter the fray; &etc.) reminds me suddenly of the OJ Simpson trial. How so? Glad you asked.

There was a preponderance of evidence suggesting Simpson's guilt. But his attorneys (wisely) leveraged the Glove That Would Not Fit into an acquittal. Jurists fell victim to the Defense Fallacy, whereby a single piece of contrary evidence overrides all evidence affirming a certain version or versions of events. Put simply, even with the dismissal of the bloody glove as prosecutorial lynchpin, Simpson was still guilty ten different ways. Had he even not worn the glove at all (as opposed to putting on a silly little show of it not fitting in court), there was still enough evidence to remove any reasonable doubt and convict him ten times over.

Henry's use of Ken's "poor spirit" as justification for his vote of Nay, similarly allows one piece of contrary evidence to overrride an otherwise airtight case demanding a single verdict. Henry has made "spirit" a quarter of his overall scoring procedure (or maybe it was a fifth? no fucking way am I going back and reading that entire absurd string again), allowing it enormous power to affect the outcome of this procedure. But if you break down all the ways in which KD excelled at this sport, all the "evidence" in favor of his admission, and even all the ways in which his "spirit" -- even conceding (which I do not concede one fucking bit) the idea that he
"cheated" to win -- was stellar, respectful of opponents who played with the same effort and accountability as he himself played, if you took ALL the evidence into account, there is simply no way that KD's bloody glove is enough to nullify a conviction (i.e, Admission -- I know this metaphor has gotten out of control).

I want to make further points about logical fallacies here, but I know it will only result in some of Ultimate's finest minds nitpicking my language. I played with Ken for several years. I won many games standing -- like a lot of other guys -- on his coat tails. I respected (and respect) him more than any other player, and those who would suggest he "cheated" likely lost to him a lot. Guess what? Sometimes you lose to a player (and a team) that want to win more than you (and your team) do. Sorry Boston, but you never got cheated. Not in Madison in '93 or San Antonio in '94 or any other of the myriad times you were psychologically crushed by a team that wanted it more. It's all right, you became the team that wanted it more, and bad calls and bloody gloves aside, the teams you beat also did not get cheated.

If the Hall of Fame isn't going to give far greater weight to athletic excellence and desire than it is to other "intangibles," the whole thing is a farce and all inductees should turn in their certificates, or whatever the fuck they give you for excelling at our little fringe sport. Oh -- and shame on you all for letting Simpson walk the street... I'm sure the UPA had something to do with that. The blood of his victims is on your hands.

dj said...

I think you're right. Calling someone a cheater based on a bevy of bad calls (or calls that you don't like) is a dangerous habit because we're all living in the same glass house. I have been on both sides as is wont to happen when playing a self-refereed game like ours but does that mean that there's no situation where we could identify someone having cheated? Or that we just cannot identify someone as a cheater as you've defined it or in the examples you use?

There were accusations last year in one of the mixed regional finals of blatant cheating by one team, with intentional fouling to prevent hucks listed as one of the transgressions. Now, when I play pickup basketball, I am a firm believer in the old Riley/Knicks rule, no easy layups. And on NY playgrounds, I dont think anyone is going to take offense to this or call me a cheater (unless I almost hurt them in which case they or their friends will just kick my ass). I am also aware that this rule is not legal in ultimate. So is intentional fouling cheating?

"We have no ability to judge intent with any degree of certainty." Yeah that may be true but it's also somewhat of a cop-out on this issue. I agree that it can be a fine line and it is difficult to judge but that does not mean that there aren't instances when it can rise to the level of cheating. And I don't mean just hard marks and physical defense.

And there are definitely people that have a history of making awful calls routinely. These are the people that will call a travel on a score more often than not or call a foul when they turf an open throw. We all know them, they do exist. Are they cheaters? Maybe that's too strong a word, maybe just douche bags would suffice...

parinella said...

When did this blog become a late-night dorm session? Do we really know whether a shooter actually meant to kill someone or if he just meant to scare him and then squeezed the trigger 12 times by mistake?

If a defender routinely uses his arms and hands to stop my cuts, then yes, I feel comfortable calling him a cheating D hack, teammate or opponent. I'm not going to call out a teammate publicly, but I would say something in practice, and I have gotten into arguments about this at practice. In today's specialized O/D environment, that guy is not going to have a chance to show whether he can take it like he gives. But there are also aggressive defenders who use their body to establish position and who make you fight for ever inch, and they are NOT cheaters. Arnold Sanchez and Jay Dono (though Jay isn't as physical) are two such positive examples. Playing against Billy R in practice, I never remember him using his arms or hands to stop me from cutting.

We can never judge intent with 100% certainty, but juries sent people to jail (and definitely award large sums of money) on less than 100% certainty. And here, we're not dealing with isolated incidents, but repeated patterns. Could someone really accidentally grab my arm 86 times, or foul me 95% of the time when I try to break the mark (and I'm not one of those guys who ever looks to establish contact on a break)?

There are indeed some things too tough to judge "cheating". If you have video and need to review it frame by frame, I wouldn't call that event cheating. Any close strip call, same deal. But there is a body of work associated with each of us that we form our opinions on. Hopefully, those opinions aren't based too often on one play. Your own "damning admission", while an egregious offense by itself, sounded more like an admission of a youthful indiscretion saying, "Yeah, I was an ass once." Cheating once or a handful of times doesn't make a person a "cheater" (though I would say killing once makes one a murderer). And if a player went offsides every single time, that offense wouldn't be major enough to add up to enough.

So yeah, in your little bull session, everyone's an equal cheater, but some are more equal than others.

Kyle Weisbrod said...

Can't get too far into this, but I think there's a difference between "ordinary" cheating (the small travels, fast counts, tight marks etc.) and the "gross" cheating (intentional fouls, phantom foul calls, contesting obvious calls etc.).

Sure, we're all cheaters. But if everyone is tacitly agreeing to some amount of cheating or it is customary/widely accepted to cheat in certain ways, it's still possible for someone who cheats in "ordinary" ways to call someone a cheater who cheats in "gross" ways.

Anonymous said...

I think you draw a false dichotomy that we are either all cheaters or none of us are cheaters. I think its at least a little more nuanced. Just because cheating is difficult to define doesn't meant it doesn't happen or that we are all cheaters. It just means that the rules of ultimate, without a third party arbitration system, require more from those playing to be both judged and judges. It’s a responsibility that is above and beyond what is required in other sports. That's just the way it is, and as a supporter of more active observers/refs, I'm not sure it’s the best way to go. But until then, we still have the obligation to judge our own play against the established rules even as we judge others. The alternative is a race to the bottom and that really isn’t an alternative at all.

Anonymous said...

The importance of a high spirit, as I understand it, is to keep one's level of cheating to a low level.

For me, I will very rarely intentionally foul in any circumstance. If someone is trying to break my mark, I will move in such a way that I MAY foul them, but my intent is to come to a stop in front of their arm, not to slap their hand. Nevertheless, much of the time, I will slap their hand because I was not quick enough.

There are others who will hit me when i break them. They will not go for the disc, they will go for my arm. And then they contest my foul call. This is cheating.

A high level of spirit is what we use to combat this cheating. I minimize my cheating because my sport lays the responsibility to not cheat on my shoulders, not on the shoulders of a referee. I am my own referee, as are you, as we all are. Those who purposefully fail to referee themselves, are cheating the system.

I also am highly competitive, but it is not just my integrity that suffers when I cheat, it is all of ultimate that suffers when I cheat.

A Hall of Famer is more than a good player. He is one who acts as a role model to future generations. Barry Bonds was one of the best Baseball players ever, but because he cheated, he may very well not get into the hall of fame.

In a sport without referees, it is even more important to not glorify those who abused the system. KD was exceptionally talented player, but he should not be rewarded for taking advantage of the system.

Anonymous said...

This is why normal AND SANE sports protect and guard the integtity of their competition with referees. How is that not the ultimate conclusion and solution that is being made here by you people??????? whats up with that?
uuuuuuuuhhhhhh weeeeeeeeeeeeeee, what up wit dat? what up wit dat?

Anonymous said...

#44 writes: 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.

jurors also get instructions on the law to guide in their deliberations. here's applicable law for the majority of the dobyns career (9th ed upa rules):

Spirit of the Game Ultimate has traditionally relied upon a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate adverse conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting of opposing players, dangerous aggression, intentional fouling, or other "win-at-all-costs" behavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players.

of course this was also the law:

Captain's Clause A game may be played under any variations of the rules agreed upon by the captains of the two teams. In tournament play, such variations are subject to the approval of the tournament director. Such things as length of game, dimensions of the field, and stalling count can easily be altered to suit the level of play.

did the hof "jurors" receive proper instruction on the law? did they abuse their discretion in denying #44 a first ballot entry into the ultimate hof? is there an appeal process? should there be?

Anonymous said...

"KD was an exceptionally talented player, but he should not be rewarded for taking advantage of the system."

Hasn't he already received major rewards, in terms of championship trophies and trips to Worlds and writeups in the UPA newsletter etc etc.

And also, perhaps most importantly (or maybe not, it depends on the individual) hasn't he been rewarded by having his opponents respect his abilities on the field, when they game planned for him and lined up top defenders to try to stop him.

He has maybe hauled away more rewards of all these different kinds than most players ... but that doesn't NECESSARILY mean he's deserving of HOF membership. It looks like the hall is aspiring to hold a high standard across MULTIPLE criteria, and that includes sportsmanship too. Somebody knows whether he has cheated or not and if so, how many times and in how many important instances etc, but not me. But, it seems like there are a lot more people who were there and know about his sportsmanship, and you don't hear many supporters raving about what a good sportsman he was. Given the importance in our sport for taking responsibility for your own actions, self-officiating, treating opponents with respect, and not trying to take advantage of an evolving set of rules, well the great, but very unsportsmanlike, player probably doesn't deserve to get recognized by a HOF that wants more well rounded members. Save the hall as a reward for players who are both great players AND good sportsmen to look up to.

KD earned the rewards he wanted, and did it his way at the time, but it would be disrespectful to all the other players who chose to follow their conscience and try to live by the spirit of the game during their playing careers to now give yet another reward of HOF membership to someone who seems to actual revel in his rebel ways, thumbing his nose at what many others view as important self guidelines to follow.