If you go to many high level college or club tournaments, you probably know Brian Bradburn, even if you don’t know him. He’s one of the country’s most recognizable and active observers. He also officiates in the AUDL and serves as a WFDF game advisor.
Back in April, he was named
the 2018 USA Ultimate Observer of the Year, and I figured that after winning such an award after 10 years of observing, he would be a great interview subject here on In The Zone.
Here’s Brian with some thought provoking comments on observing and the future of the observer program as we enter a new decade.
When did you get certified as an observer and how many games would you estimate that you’ve observed?
I was certified in 2010. I don’t know exactly how many games I have observed since then. I have had some years with 100 games, but have not always been able to do that consistently. So maybe a total number in the neighborhood of 500+ games with UPA/USAU.
What made you want to become an observer?
Initially, it was just curiosity. Why would this player-centric sport–that so aggressively promotes individual integrity, self-officiation, and friendly play–have any place for a third party presence out on the field? That’s a question I had going all the way back (40 years), after reading the first mention of the concept of observers in a book, Frisbee Disc Sports and Games, by Tips and Roddick, in 1979. It contained only one sentence about observers and how they might become this sport’s form of officials “to help resolve perceptual disputes.” Perceptual disputes? Wait, don’t the rules already cover how to handle disputes? How would observers add quality to games without adding even more “perceptions” to dispute?
Fast forward through the next 30 years of ultimate playing, coaching, dabbling in game oversight, and watching the sport grow: I saw so many times when a neutral entity could have helped, even if it was a mere presence. Many problems did not stem from inconsistencies in rule knowledge or improper application of the rules. Instead, they stemmed from inconsistent perception of the situation upon which the rules were to be applied. It seemed so crazy how two people could look at exactly the same play–sometimes even repeating the play on video many times in slow motion–and still come away with significantly different accounts of what they saw. I learned that’s not an “ultimate” thing, that’s an “all-of-humanity” thing. Perception is clearly influenced–consciously or not–by so many factors, including what is at stake in an ultimate game. That’s when Tips’ and Roddick’s words about observers for perceptual disputes made so much more sense. But exactly how would you implement such a role?
Then there were times I saw super-egregious misbehavior that definitely would have been better addressed by an entity less biased, less emotional, and more independent of play than by another amped up player or team. I won’t spoil it, but if you haven’t seen the ultimate documentary “Flatball” narrated by Alec Baldwin, there’s a prime example of the exact behavior I am taking about. We would like to think this can’t happen in our sport, especially at the highest echelons of play. But it can. I learned there’s nothing necessarily inherent in ultimate on-field play, itself, that makes it any less susceptible to bad behavior than any other team sport. To competitive players, fun play means pursuit of results that matter–to a point. It’s the community and “Spirit” philosophy that defines that point. But what do we do in those times when this approach fails to be enough? The major of veteran players (and ex-players) I have met can recount at least one instance, one breach of Spirit, that stuck with them, made them question their whole experience in ultimate–one even quit the sport for this reason. Who brings the game back in check rather than allowing conflict to form potentially long-lasting “bad blood”?
Over that same 30 years, a national observing standard also looked to be stabilizing, thanks to the authors of the 11th Edition, and dedicated folks who put in so much time to assist the UPA in formalizing a nationwide-implementable system with high standards. I was increasingly curious about how my experience would stack up against this latest system of quality standards. I decided to check out the Observer Certification Program (OCP) right after it was formed. Looking back, this was probably not the best reason to sign up; coming in thinking I might already know it all. Luckily, “Spirit” and tolerance were already a core value of the OCP trainers, too. What I learned is a person might know one layer, but the pursuit of observing peels back layers. Peel back one layer and you expose another layer, and another, and another. It is like a set of Russian nested dolls. The deeper you get, the more you see new intricacies of what constitutes quality play. You begin to see more of what many veterans know: at its core, quality play is not just about rules, it has as much or more to do with human nature and appreciation for individual perception beyond what can be specified in any set of rules. Consequently, observing is a huge challenge that very few appreciate. Not everyone is cut out for the challenge, and it can be very risky (more about that in a minute). But this challenge is partly what kept me coming back.
What’s the best part of being an observer? The worst?
There are so many amazing aspects to being an observer. But the best? That’s easy, the people – ultimate players, the community, other observers. For the last 10 years, observing has been my tie to amazing athletes, to the “national scene,” and to the company of some of the most intelligent, giving people on the planet. Sorry if this sounds sappy or cliché, but it is true.
Everyone should be so lucky as to get to see what I have seen in the last 10 years: amazing ultimate, examples of players respecting other players even in clutch times, caring acts between coaches and players, hard-working tournament organizers, observers, parents, and media–you know who you are. And I can’t really go into it here, but the observer community gave me some extra special support, just in the last couple of months, which helped get me through some trying times. It is something I will never forget.
I don’t know if it is the people that help make the sport or the sport that helps make the people, but I could not feel more fortunate to be around all these fun folks all while having the best seat in the house watching great players.
The worst part about observing? That’s harder. Maybe not the worst, but some things are not easy; we already talked about some, above. Another is the fact that it is hard to just “dabble” in observing. Unless you practice handling complex events that don’t happen very often, bad things can happen, like making mistakes. …not that I have made any, mind you, just from what I have heard. ;o)
You might be surprised at how bad observers feel, even if they are just a witness, when mistakes are made. They know that, to some extent, they are putting their personal reputation with peers on the line every game they observe. Not only that, they are putting the whole national observer pool’s reputation on the line. No observer wants to see the sport’s trust of observers undermined by a critical mistake they, or anyone else, made.
Problem is, experience is often what you get right after you need it. For many, it’s tough getting through the first year of observing. But once through that first year, we hope to keep veterans around for as long as possible, and use them in as many places as possible (more about this below).
Another part I find tough about observing: we bump into a lot amazing people, over and over, across the country, through the years, sometimes seeing them more than some of our own family! Yet, it is still hard remembering all their names. Not the worst, but I certainly hope to improve.
How would you like to see the observer program evolve in the coming years?
The following are my own views and do not necessarily reflect the views of…well, you know. And I make the following recommendations with the understanding that everyone has limited time and funds with which to make change. So my hopes are for progress, not miracles.
First, I would like to see the Observer Program grow as part of an overall tournament/game quality improvement system. Like no other resource, observers are a neutral party out at so many sub-Nationals college/club tournaments across the nation. We see what works and what does not–from the field level, each game. Without adding much to our job responsibilities, we can keep tabs on field conditions for safety and line visibility. We can work better with videographers to tell the story better. We are already in the best position to convey pre/mid/post-game efforts and observations to tournament hosts, USAU, and other important committees. With just a little more coordination, I believe all this could be leveraged for betterment of all tournaments in every Region, not just the National Championships.
Second, I hope the Program continues to find more ways to get the word out about observing. So few people know about what a huge opportunity observing is for getting tied into the national ultimate scene. At the same time, the pull is at an all-time high. All top teams want significant experience with quality observers before heading to national events. Lower level teams probably benefit even more as they spread key lessons learned to their communities and beyond. Yet, right now, observer training events are not advertised like other important national events. They are harder to find, don’t appear in top-level menus, and don’t come up under general search engine results. We can improve on that.
Third, we talked about how critical having experience is to observing. Therefore, I hope we continue to work on ways to retain observers. I can tell you from firsthand experience as an observer coordinator, making pay easier to get would help retention. It is not everything, but it is something. Currently, observing is on a volunteer basis for the most part. Most observer expenses are usually paid but, even then, most observers are still supplementing by donating their time and leveraging other personal resources to observe. Reimbursements can come from so many sources, all of which may require separate special paperwork.
And while USAU is leading the whole sport on so many fronts (supporting and demonstrating the best in training, coordination, and tracking), they have yet to demonstrate or support any sort an observer payment system of their own, other than for reimbursements. Is there a way USAU HQ could help support an easier environment for observers to get paid from disparate sources? I think this should at least be open for discussion. Even if we got one more season out of a seasoned observer, due to less red tape and paperwork, that would be significant to retention.
Fourth, I hope the program continues to research ways to help gain consistency (reduce variability) in the way game situations are perceived–not just for observers but for everyone to better handle concerns, not over improper application of the rules, but over inconsistent perception of the situation upon which the rules are applied. I realize this is not an easy task. It will require a very special relationship between the observer community and our amazing dedicated video folks. Even then, perceptual disputes will never go away completely. At times, helping teach someone what they should be seeing will seem, to them, a bit like you are trying to tell them what their favorite color should be. But with the skills of someone well-respected in the observer community, I believe there is a good chance we can get a lot more folks seeing things in a describable, consistent way. If so, one key layer in many disputes will be reduced.
Fifth, I hope the Observer Program continues to work with other governing sectors (AUDL, WFDF) and game oversight systems (Referees and Game Advisors, respectively) to find more synergistic ways to merge and boost best practices. In 2018, I was very thankful to be given the opportunity to officiate at USAU Nationals, the AUDL National Final, Canadian Nationals, and WFDF Worlds, all in the same year. It was very interesting to compare officiating practices at this point in history. Each form has its unique strengths. None are without challenges. But something they all have in common is that they all rely very heavily on volunteerism to fulfill their needs. Moreover, they all rely on crossover of officials from the other sectors to reach the quality and numbers they have now.
There will always be some differences due to the nature of each sector. However, working to have common standards where differences are minor would help make officiating easier for all sectors as well as making it easier for everyone who wants to follow ultimate across sectors.
What did it mean to you to be named the 2018 Observer of the Year?
In case you could not tell, observing has been important in my life and I highly regard everyone who have chosen to pursue this adventure. Observers are an amazing group: sharp, fair, resilient, dedicated, passionate, giving, and fun. USAU organizers and the skilled folks who put in weekends out on the field to prove that observers improve game quality for others are really the heroes, my heroes. They are why the system is in place today and is getting stronger. If they felt I deserved to be recognized and counted as significant part of that effort, wow, that means the world to me!