Viewpoint: Make Kids Referee Their Own Sports Games

If we want to stop violent assaults in youth sports, we need to change the rules of the game

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It’s often said that team sports serve as a proxy for actual violence. But last week, the metaphor became tragically real when soccer referee, Ricardo Portillo, died a week after receiving a punch to the face from an enraged 17 year-old who had just been issued a “yellow card” warning from the referee. The student now faces possible murder charges. We’ve grown accustomed to violent assaults at kids’ sporting events perpetrated by parents, coaches, players, and other spectators. Scenes like this pile-on from a crowd of parents at a Texas Pee-Wee football game have become a staple of local news reports and YouTube. According to Barry Mano, the president of the National Association of Sports Officials, assaults against referees in youth sport leagues have become increasingly common.

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But there might be a way to reduce these explosive episodes at school sporting events: give high school players themselves, not referees, more responsibility for the game. One team sport that seems immune to the brawls and attacks is the increasingly popular Ultimate (formerly Ultimate Frisbee). Played with a flying disk, and containing elements of football, rugby, and soccer, Ultimate is known for its commitment to fair play and “spirit of the game.” A key feature is self-officiating: there are no referees to keep score or make on-the-fly calls and players share collective ownership of the way the game is played.

This shift in responsibility has benefits beyond reducing violent incidents. By removing the third party arbiter, players in this fast-paced, athletically demanding game learn quickly how to work together to avoid unnecessary conflicts that will affect everyone’s wellbeing. It’s not that Ultimate players lack the will to win. But because players have to look at each other face to face when there is a potential dispute, and not turn to a neutral (and often nameless) authority figure, both sides have a powerful incentive to play fairly and keep tempers under control: Just like the Cold War days of mutually assured destruction, Ultimate teams know that what goes around comes around. That awareness of a common purpose helps to limit dishonorable or unnecessarily aggressive behavior even in extraordinarily tense environments.

This approach has actually been used to further peace in the Middle East. An organization called Ultimate Peace was founded in 2009 to bring the principles of Ultimate to children in areas of the world where cooperation and understanding across ethnic groups are limited. The organization has already worked in 14 communities, with Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian youth playing – and self-refereeing – their games, side by side. The Ultimate Peace model is such a success that the organization has started a training program for youth coaches and is expanding to Columbia.

If this strategy can work in such a demanding geopolitical context, surely American high school players can give it a try too. The potential benefits might extend beyond the fields and rinks and courts. Teenagers who learn to be accountable to one another may find it easier to be accountable to themselves, too, and this ethos could extend to their academic work and personal decision-making. (Schools would save money not hiring referees too.)

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Naysayers may claim that Ultimate is an outlier and certain sports just won’t “work” if teenagers take over the adjudicating. And that may be true if by “working” we mean winning at all costs through excessive aggression, intentional fouls, harassing opponents and otherwise behaving badly. But we should give kids a chance to learn that it’s possible to play a highly competitive team sport in high school without abusing people or putting their lives at risk.

As the Ultimate USA rule book explains: “(It is) assumed that no Ultimate player will intentionally violate the rules; thus there are no harsh penalties for inadvertent infractions, but rather a method for resuming play in a manner that simulates what would most likely have occurred had there been no infraction.” This seems like a good template for life off the field, too.


@erikachristakis ----- While I certainly appreciate the content/context and intention of your message.... Having been someone who played competitive sports(Football, Baseball, Basketball, Martial Arts) from the time I was 6 years old, I just don't see that this experiment of kids self-refereeing themselves would work.

It *may* work at some point if it became universally adopted over a *long period* where our culture of *winning* at all costs is dropped from the values hierarchy so very inculcated into our society and children/teens at this point.

I am interested to see if this experiment is done somewhere here in the states, with Baseball, Football, or Basketball and see what the results are.  You never know... start now and see if it works.




its Colombia not Columbia-


Thanks so much for highlighting Ultimate's sportsmanship and the need for more fair play in mainstream (esp. youth) sports.  While the vast majority of youth sports play fair, the few Machiavellian coaches that teach "playing the ref" and think that intentional fouls are part of the game -- in other words, cheat -- should be a concern for the wider community. As a long-time Ultimate player and a middle school coach I have seen a wide range of sportsmanship, and the community has consistently "provided feedback" to individuals and teams about their "Spirit of the Game "(SOTG), including tournaments where teams rate each other's "spirit" and recognize the Spirit winners.  Supporting kids early to make good calls and "work it out themselves" really does work. Players work out what is expected incidental contact and what is too much.   

Thanks also for describing Ultimate Peace, which I think most of the Ultimate community is unaware of.

Most Ultimate play (including highly competitive club and televised college championships) in the US is governed by USA Ultimate, which does provide for Observers that are generally only used in championship or anticipated-to-be-controversial games.  Observers are mostly passive and engage if the players involved cannot resolve disagreements.  The new professional Ultimate leagues (American Ultimate Disc League, and Major League Ultimate) have reverted to referees,  not without controversy...  As Ben Van Heuvelen wrote recently, "There will be a price to pay. " [in ripple effects].  Whether Ultimate's SOTG can remain its central principle and be an example for the rest of our sports culture, or whether the demands of professional sports will co-opt it is yet to be seen.


While I see the value in your argument there are some flaws with it.

As a soccer player and ultimate player there are distinct differences between these two games, with the primary being Ultimate is a non-contact sport where soccer allows for contact.   In Ultimate, when there is any contact the offended player has a right to call a foul, in soccer you need a third-party to determine how much contact is too much.


Two more aspects of Ultimate that make the self refereeing work:

For nearly every call made there are two possible outcomes: One result if the call is uncontested and another result if the call is contested. So there is no need to have protracted arguments on the field. If you contest the call, fine. Game keeps going following the rules that fit that scenario.

Moreover, "Spirit of the Game" is central - and codified in the game's rules. 

"Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or other 'win-at-all-costs' behavior are contrary to the Spirit of the Game and must be avoided by all players."


They would have to have their own guns .