Sportsmanship and temptation (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 27 Nov 2013

Sportsmanship and temptation

A recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee, and the World Have in Common?, talked, among other things, about Sportsmanship in Ultimate Frisbee versus other sports.

Ultimate Frisbee is self-policing. It has no referee: if someone on the field thinks they've been fouled, they call it out, and the two players reach a consensus.

Why don't the players cheat and take advantage of the lax rules and the lack of a referee? Because sportsmanship and honesty is part of the culture of the game, in a way that isn't true in refereed sports like soccer, basketball, tennis or nearly any other sport played professionally. The Ultimate players they interview talk about the culture of the game, the longtime attitude that every player is "morally bound to abide by the rules. The integrity of Ultimate depends on each player’s responsibility to uphold the spirit of the game."

And that's great. But I submit that there's a more important reason: because there's not much at stake in Ultimate Frisbee, compared to football, soccer or basketball.

Ultimate is still a chiefly hobby sport which is only barely starting to get sponsorships and professional teams. I'm not up on the Ultimate scene, but I bet there aren't a lot of millionaire players yet, or a lot of poor kids practicing their frisbee throws as their way out of the ghetto.

To make my point, let me tell you a tale of two autocross classes.

Autocross, if you're not familiar with it, is miniature car racing. You race against the clock, one car at a time, on a course delimited by traffic cones on a large parking lot or airstrip.

There are lots of different classes, so cars race against similar types of cars. The classes cover different preparation levels, starting with Stock classes, where you can't make any modifications beyond tires, shocks and a few other carefully specified items. Next above stock is Street Prepared, where the cars are still more or less street legal (many are still daily drivers), but they have lower, stiffer suspensions, wider wheels, sometimes headers or high-flow mufflers or fancy intake systems. Then above that are Race Prepared, for cars prepped to road racing standards, and Modified, for purpose-built race cars like formula cars.

Autocross, when I was actively racing (and I doubt it's very different now), is almost entirely an amateur sport. There are some sponsorship programs, called "contingency programs", where you can earn a few hundred dollars if you win a big race using the right car, the right tires, the right shock absorbers. Some races throw in modest amounts of prize money, so that at a big national level event a handful of winners might be taking home a few thousand dollars over their travel expenses, maybe ten thousand at the absolute top end. Most class winners don't even make enough to pay their travel expenses.

Curiously, the best contingency money isn't in the superfast, exciting Modified classes; it's in Stock. Why? Because the money comes from manufacturers hoping that someone will see your stock Miata winning the class and say "Wow, maybe I should buy a Miata too!" or "Maybe what my Miata needs is those tires/shocks/whatever."

I ran my Fiat X1/9 in D Street Prepared. DSP is seen as a class for old clunkers -- some of the winning cars besides the X1/9 included the Mazda RX3, VW Rabbit, Datsun 510, Datsun Roaster, and CRX HF. They're all old cars, no longer on the market -- so manufacturers weren't very interested in offering contingency money for them. That was okay -- our cars were fast and fun to drive, we had great competition and a lot of fun. Everybody was friendly with each other -- sure, we were all out to win, but if someone had car trouble, you could bet that everyone would be gathered around the car trying to help. If the problem wasn't fixable, another competitor would offer a ride in another DSP car. I saw that happen even at Nationals -- everybody was intensely competitive, but in a friendly way.

That's not to say nobody ever cheats. Sure, occasionally somebody wanted to win badly enough that they'd make some illegal modification to their car. Sometimes they even got away with it for a year or two before anyone figured it out. But cheating was relatively rare ... at least until contingency money started to edge up into the thousands of dollars instead of just a few hundred. Then you started to see a lot more protests, a lot more engines and suspensions turn down, and a lot more cars found illegal and disqualified. And most of the protests happened in the stock classes.

And then one year at Nationals, I really learned how those big contingency prizes changed the sport. I was running my old Fiat in DSP as usual (actually DSPL, the parallel class for women drivers). A friend of mine was there in a stock car she'd bought just the year before. She'd worked really hard all year, was driving exceptionally well and was widely thought to have a good chance to win her class. (I'm deliberately omitting her details like name, make and class.) We were all rooting for her.

And then one morning, a day or so before her class was scheduled to run, she discovered that one of her brake lines had been cut.

Her brake line! On her daily driver car that she was going to drive 1,500 miles home after Nationals was over!

Fortunately, she found it in time, and lots of people pitched in to help her get the brake line fixed. But it was pretty terrifying to know that something like that was even possible in what I had always seen as a friendly, fun, amateur sport.

I don't know if anything else like that happened in other classes. It wasn't widely talked about; you might not have known about it happened if you didn't know someone involved. They never found out who did it, as far as I know. But there were a lot of protests in the stock classes that year, too -- nobody trusted anyone, everybody assumed their competitors were cheating, and there were engine and suspension teardowns. It all made me glad I was in unassuming (and fun!) old DSP and out of the money.

So, getting back to the Ultimate referee question. Yes, sports that have a friendly, sportsmanlike culture are terrific. But I think -- though I wish I didn't -- that the Ultimate players may find, as their professional league gets off the ground and they attract more sponsors, that the moral code they've taken for granted is partly due to not having much at stake.

Money, or the prospect of it, does something to people. And I'm not sure money and stand-up honest sportsmanship make very good bedfellows.

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[ 16:16 Nov 27, 2013    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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