A Minor Case Of Unsporting Conduct

Today Level 3 Judge Riki Hayashi shares his thoughts about Unsporting Conduct – Minor, an infraction that carries a penalty of a Warning.

(Disclaimer: This article contains vulgar content. I don’t endorse the use of such language and images but need to use them as examples of what isn’t acceptable.)

Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. No, these are not Magic players, although I suppose there could be players with those names. These are football players, more specifically NFL players—American Football or handball to those of your outside the United States. They were teammates on the Miami Dolphins until Jonathan Martin recently left the team under emotional distress, claiming that Richie Incognito had harassed him repeatedly and continuously.

This incident has stirred up a debate in the sports culture. Many people, especially players and former players, claim that this is just the warrior mentality of professional football and what happened is typical locker room hazing. They call into question Martin’s mental toughness and as an extension his physical toughness and abilities on the field. I’ve even spoken with a few fans that admit that what happened isn’t right and wouldn’t be tolerated in a regular workplace but that it can’t be helped in a professional sports locker room.

We don’t have all the facts in this case yet, so I don’t want to dwell on this incident, but it got me thinking about behavior at Magic tournaments and what is acceptable. Certainly nothing to the degree that Incognito is accused of would ever be tolerated. However, I think we do tolerate more than we should. Recently I participated in several discussions with judges about Unsporting Conduct (USC) and where the various lines are.

At its simplest, we can make a breakdown based on the penalty given: Warning, Game Loss, or Disqualification. The DQ cases aren’t that interesting to discuss because they tend to be clear cut. For example, USC – Aggressive Behavior. A player either punched his opponent or didn’t. Ditto on threats of violence. Context does matter here, and while there may be some wiggle room for a joke, generally if you say, "I’m going to beat you up in the parking lot later" to an opponent who isn’t a friend of yours, we are forced to take it seriously.

The lower levels of USC are blurrier, and as a result judges have difficulty pulling the trigger. Today I want to talk about Unsporting Conduct – Minor, an infraction that carries a penalty of a Warning. Given how many Warnings judges give for Game Rule Violations on a regular basis, it is quite surprising that the average judge has probably never given a Warning for USC – Minor.

Then again, we’ve seen judges have similar problems with other subjective infractions, namely Slow Play, because they are afraid that their calibration is wrong. They might think, "Well, I wouldn’t be personally offended by that, so . . . " or, "The opponent doesn’t seem to mind, so I’ll let it go." The opponent’s reaction can be an excellent sign that a threshold has been crossed, although it should not be the deciding factor. But even in these situations judges have trouble pulling the trigger on giving the infraction.

When I discuss matters of policy, I always like to go back and read the actual document, in this case the Magic Infraction Procedure Guide or MIPG/ IPG. Even if I have a pretty good idea of what it says, the exact words can often help clarify issues. So let’s take a look at the definition of USC – Minor:

"A player takes action that is disruptive to the tournament or its participants. It may affect the comfort level of those around the individual, but determining whether this is the case is not required. "

As I said, the definition makes it clear that the opponent’s reaction or lack thereof is not the primary driving factor here. It’s also worth noting the wording "those around the individual" broadening our scope from just the opponent to everyone around a person (although for this article I will be frequently shortcutting to "opponent"). I also like the use of the word "disruption." I have used that word when explaining why I was giving an infraction to a player who slammed their hands on the table out of frustration. That action can be very disruptive to other players at the table.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that a lack of sportsmanship is not necessarily Unsporting (dictionary definitions aside). The example that a friend brought up is not shaking your opponent’s hand at the end of a match. Tim Aten once wrote a pretty epic article on the etiquette of handshakes, "Good Game," and the like. There’s a line between rude and disruptive, and unless the denial of the handshake is accompanied by a verbal insult, it’s not going to be in USC territory.

So what is Unsporting? Here’s an example from the recent SCG Open Series in Dallas where I was the Scorekeeper for the Standard Open. In round 5, a match result slip was turned in with a drawing on the signature line. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words:

USC Slip

Some of you may not be able to make that out, but as someone who spends a lot of time around adolescent minds, I can definitely say that is a penis. When the match result slip came in, several of the judges looked at it and hemmed and hawed over whether it warranted a USC Warning. When I saw the slip, my reaction was immediate and definitive; I frowned, turned to Head Judge James Bennett, and asked him if he was going to give this guy a Warning.

Notably, one of the judges commented, "Well, I’m not personally offended by this . . . " Many of you reading this may have had a similar reaction. "Hey, it’s just a drawing of a dick. What’s the big deal?" I decided to read the above definition of USC Minor to the judge (which I just so happened to have up on my computer in order to quote in this article). It had the intended effect as the judge changed his tune, which says two things to me. First, the definition is very well written. Second, not enough judges read the definition.

I love the use of the words "comfort level" because it establishes a bar that is lower than "offended" and I noticed a definite change in attitude when I read those words. Whether something is offensive or not is such a thorny path. One person’s offense is another person’s standup comedy act. But framing something in terms of comfort level, especially for what is supposed to be a game targeted at young adults, puts things into perspective.

One reason that judges have difficulty giving USCs is because they are afraid of the player’s backlash. The player is often already upset about something, which is what led to the outburst in question. Why stir the hornet’s nest?

In the case of the above result slip, the player had also dropped from the event and may have been salty over his losing day. When James called the player up and asked about the drawing, the player admitted what he had done and explained that he had tried to obscure the drawing with his signature. Perfect. The player already realized and acknowledged that what he did was not the paragon of maturity. While the Warning had no effect on his tournament as he had already dropped, it did reinforce that we noticed what he did and we didn’t want this to happen again.

That’s exactly why I find it important to have these talks and issue said infractions. We want to impact future behavior. Next time when the player has the impulse to draw a penis, maybe he will recall the talk plus Warning and stop short before he has to try to hide it in his signature.

My philosophy is that USC penalties are a scalpel, not a hammer. The penalty is only a very small part of the goal, and focusing too much on it can lead to a delivery that is overly harsh and make you seem like the classic "power-hungry judge." The kind of person who commits a typical USC infraction isn’t inherently a bad person, but they’ve done something bad. It is important that they be penalized because they need to realize that their actions have consequences, but it is far more important that they acknowledge that their actions were unacceptable and they seek to correct the behavior in the future (usually by not repeating it). It would also be nice if they apologized for their behavior, but that’s something that I let the player decide on their own. There’s not much worse than a forced apology.

It is often the case that when called out on their behavior the player will recognize what they did and apologize immediately. Sometimes all it takes is a squint and a "really?" When I hear about these "easy" situations after the fact, I ask judges if they gave a USC Warning, and they say no because the player apologized. I’ve made it a habit to still give the Warning no matter how remorseful the player is for a few reasons. Like any infraction, it is worth it to record it in the system for tracking purposes. We want to know if a player is repeatedly casting spells on illegal targets. Why wouldn’t we also want to know if a player is repeatedly being rude or using foul language?

Another important factor in giving the penalty is as a show to the surrounding people, not to shame this player in front of them but to show that you as a judge are there to uphold certain standards and that unacceptable behavior will be penalized. Remember the clause about affecting the comfort level of others? It is so often the case that the people whose comfort level is negatively affected by bad behavior will not speak up because they are afraid to do so. They may be too intimidated by the individual, or they may not trust in judges as arbiters in matters like this. Making that show will reassure the "silent offended" and hopefully encourage them to speak to judges about situations like this in the future.

Just as it isn’t easy for a judge to issue this infraction, I can see how it isn’t easy for players to call judges over when they’ve been wronged. There is that stigma against being "that player," especially in cases like this. In fact, that attitude pervades our entire culture as there are social stigmas against being a "tattletale" or "narc." Remember that you always have the right to speak to a judge away from a table (and your opponent) so you don’t have to make the accusation directly to their face. Explain what happened and let the judge handle things from there.

If you feel that the judge isn’t addressing these issues adequately, talk to your TO/ store owner about it (if they are different people). Sometimes there are issues that go beyond the authority of a single judge in a single tournament, but a store owner has a broader picture that they have to take care of: their customer base. If a player’s behavior is impacting this, as in customers may not want to come back, the owner is going to want to know about it.

For the player standpoint, if you’re issued a USC infraction, try to think about things not just from the judge’s perspective but also that of other players in the event. The judge isn’t making a personal judgment about what you did; it isn’t "you offended me so I’m giving you a Warning." But just as judges have to defend the integrity of the event in terms of in-game actions by giving Warnings for errors, we have to protect the integrity and comfort level of the event as an overall friendly experience. The philosophy for USC Minor states, "All participants should expect a safe and enjoyable environment at a tournament, and a participant needs to be made aware if his or her behavior is unacceptable so that this environment may be maintained."

As a judge, I’ve given out USC Warnings a few times now, but it’s still "less than I should have." I’ve had to build up my courage so to speak and my technique over the years. I want to share what’s worked for me when I talk to players about their Unsporting Conduct. I lead with a description of the actions that I observed or were reported to me (in the latter case, get confirmation that the actions happened), then explain how that behavior isn’t appropriate for this environment, and finally explain the infraction and penalty. This might go something like this:

"At the end of that match, you got a little upset. I understand. You were playing for Top 8 and lost. It’s okay to be frustrated, but what wasn’t okay was when you said, ‘I hope you fucking lose in the Top 8.’ Directing that frustration at your opponent in that way is not acceptable. Now that you’ve a moment to think about it, I hope you can see why. However, what you did is an example of Unsporting Conduct Minor, an infraction that carries a penalty of a Warning."

I’ve heard from customer service fields that the words "I understand why you are upset" can have a magical effect of calming people down. It validates the person’s emotions; once the emotions are validated, we can move on to the actions that resulted from those emotions, and the subject might be more willing to acknowledge that the actions were unacceptable because you’ve validated his or her emotions.

When discussing this topic, there’s always the worry that we, both players and judges, will become too sensitive or too PC and issue too many USC Warnings. First off, I doubt that things would ever reach that point. It’s hard to fight against the inertia of letting something slide. I’ve often caught myself thinking, "I’ll give him a USC if he says anything else," when, like Slow Play, if I’m on that train of thought it probably already is USC. I’m not advocating for a complete turnaround in our thinking, just a little more awareness and politeness. The ultimate goal isn’t for judges to give out more USC infractions. It is to have a community with less Unsporting Conduct.