What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee, and the World Have in Common? (Ep. 145)

Listen now:

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee, and the World Have in Common?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

*      *      *

When the first roller rink opened, how did amateur skaters — with no training or prior instruction — manage to navigate it without bumping into one another? In his essay “Rinkonomics,” Professor Dan Klein of George Mason University points to the concept of “spontaneous order” — or rather, the idea that people can naturally organize and police themselves, without the aid of an authority figure.

“Spontaneous order” exists outside of the realm of roller rinks, too. Take Ultimate Frisbee for example, a sport famously known for its lack of referees. Stephen Dubner’s friend Jody Avirgan, a producer at the Brian Lehrer Show, is an Ultimate lifer. He played in college, then on high-level club teams, and has coached the U.S. under-19 national Ultimate team to a gold medal at the world championships — twice. Avirgan took Dubner out to watch an Ultimate practice, which you’ll hear about in the podcast. (Thanks to all around good-sports Chris Mazur and Mike Hennessy for letting us stick microphones on them during practice. Thanks also to Freakonomics Radio listener Andrew Francis for asking us about Ultimate in the first place.)

Also in the episode: soccer legend Alexi Lalas talks about how his sport might look with no referees, and we also ask Bill Bradley, the former U.S. Senator and N.B.A. Hall of Famer, how basketball might work without the ref:

BRADLEY: I think it’s a naïve thought, because fundamental to every game is the authority figure, is the referee. To hypothesize a sport that’s had referees from the very beginning not having referees is a different sport. I think it’s interesting that Ultimate Frisbee has developed the way it has. Maybe it’s a function of the times as much as it is a function of spontaneous order.

Bradley also helps us shift the conversation to politics and the larger world. He expresses his annoyance at those who call for a diminished government:

BRADLEY: These people, these Tea Party people that say we do not need government, well, let’s go down the list. There’s water, there’s transportation, there’s the Federal Drug Administration. Do we want pharmaceutical companies deciding? You talk to a Libertarian, they say, well yeah, if they produce a drug that kills people they’ll stop producing it. I think we can do better than that, right?

Also: you’ll find out if Steve Levitt had a poster of Friedrich Hayek on his wall growing up. And Matt Ridley, a Libertarian-leaning zoologist, writer, and new member of the U.K. House of Lords, talks about what Adam Smith and Charles Darwin have in common, and helps us try to define the boundary between spontaneous order and smart regulation.


A the very end, it donned on me that baseball somewhat works in this self policing method. Sure, refs determine balls and strikes, but what is to stop a pitcher from beaming a batter? The threat, which is sometimes acted out, of being beamed back in the bottom half of the inning, or the next game. There is always an unspoken and unwritten tally, and if you've got one coming, you're gonna get it, eventually.

Spud Fleury

I listened to your podcast on ulti, self reffing etc. Thanks for that. I've been playing since '87 here in Vancouver Canada. Most other sports slid away from me over time mostly because of the culture and "morality" you spoke of. I don't have any lifelong friends from opposing teams in other sports. With ulti it's like having another family. In all my years, at the rec, national and world levels, I haven't seen a real fight on the field, or at the parties ( which kick butt over any other sport in my thoughts). Sure there are F u's and pushes and the odd spitting incident, but these are not cheered for or welcomed. A bad call, whether by the home team or not is followed by a strong vocal "No you didn't!" Booing.

At a pro D instructor session I taught one teacher said she starts every year with ultimate and uses the Spirit of the Game as an overlay for the year. Ultimate for Peace is using ulti to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together. I had one experience while teaching 5 classes in one school where the Vice Principle couldn't believe or accept there would be no refs and the kids would govern themselves. I invited him to come watch when one class was playing. As soon as he stepped up beside me and asked "How is it going?" One kid bumped into another knocking him down. with exuberance he put up his hand and yelled out "Foul!", owning his part in the event. The VP used a 4 letter word then said to me, "You did this in 45 minutes". My reply was that the kids have been wanting to do this the whole time.

Appreciate your addressing this on your show as well as how you went about it. Kudos



This is a bit of a tangent off of the self-policing vs. refereeing concept you were discussing, but an unintended effect of having referee enforcers in many sports is the prevailing mindset that "it's only an infraction if it's called".

Holding in (American) football, fouls in basketball, cross-checks in hockey, these are examples of infractions that go on much more often than they are called, and the presence of the referees-as-enforcers effectively absolves the players from needing any moral compass on the subject.

If someone's there to enforce the rules, then players are free to attempt to cheat - in fact, they are *encouraged* to do so, especially if they can do it clandestinely. Low risk, high reward, in many cases.


Also, the diving for the foul that soccer is well known for and is in other sports shows that playing to the penalty is the for of cheating when the ref is brought in. The smart ones in the real world use the penalties of infractions to hurt their competitors whether the infraction is real or imaginary.


I take exception to some of the interviewee's assertions that Soccer, Basketball, or other sports would devolve into chaos without a referee. The idea that a handful of referee's are the only thing preventing an instant melee is misguided.

In fact, referee's are INCAPABLE of observing, and punishing all fouls or infractions. For this reason, "the code" emerges in these sports, which is a spontaneous order of sorts. Comments from "Kman" and "ConcordTom" are on the right track. I would direct those interested in this topic to the July 1, 2013 episode of EconTalk (econtalk.org) where Duke University's Mike Munger and host Russ Roberts discuss "Sports, Norms, Rules, and the Code."

Among other observations, Munger discusses how "the Code" in Baseball, Hockey, Rugby, and Football represent the players self-regulating, and producing a much safer game. For example, Munger makes the argument that eliminating fighting from Hockey would likely result in making the game MORE dangerous rather than less so.



I am curious to know what 'other things', besides going to jail, keep Lord Ripley from killing his way to the top of the heap. I certainly hope that the fear of jail time isn't the only thing prevent his murderous ways!

If I missed it along the way, I apologize, but isn't self-policing essentially the same as being ethical/having morals? Why skip this part of the discussion?

Ultimate Truth

Pickup basketball games do not have referees. Sandlot baseball games do not have umpires. Only when the benefit of winning exceeds the benefit of playing do we need officials. Organized sports, from rec leagues to park districts to schools to hard-core tournaments, require officials because there will always be people who would bend the rules (and cheat) to obtain an advantage that can result in a victory and deliver all the benefits that go with it.


Bradley uses an obvious straw man argument with regards to the Tea Party. No Tea Party platform that I have read calls to do away with all government. His statement greatly misrepresents the position.

The call is for LIMITED government, just like the Constitution does throughout the document. Most of the Constitution is about what the government cannot do!

To all Bradley to openly state such a blatant straw man misrepresentation of the Tea Party position without calling him on it is shameful.

Dmitri Pisarenko

Thanks for a great podcast!

In the part about ultimate frisbee you discussed the transition from 1 referree to no referree.

It would be interesting to discuss the opposite direction, i. e. having not one, but many referrees?

For example, at a soccer game one could allow spectators to vote for or agains a certain decision (like removal of a player, penalty etc.).

Possible advantages:

1) 100 pairs of eyes see more that 1, hence the decision of the crowd (theoretically) may be more accurate than that of a single referree (it is less likely that 100 people will not notice a foul than one person).

2) It's harder to bribe 100 people than one.

Daddy Dave

This leads to a discussion from an Engineering perspective using the PID Loop (Proportional Integral Derivative) as a model for economic or social control theories. The Rinkonomics example can be used to describe a Proportional feedback mechanism where running into someone hurts Now so we adjust our internal skating algorithm Now and no no longer run into people. On the other hand, if when steering a large ship across the ocean we notice that after 3 hours we're 1/2 mile too far to one direction, we adjust the tiller a little bit so that in another 3 hours we're back on course. That is the Integral component of this example. Finally, if the ship is heading towards a dock the captain will anticipate when and how much to reduce the throttle so that the speed of the ship reaches Zero at exactly the same time it touches the dock. This is the Derivative component.

So many points of discussion around economics involve PID principles. Spending reductions in inner cities save today's money but cause tomorrow's problems. Cut back Social Security benefits to pass the Federal Budget during the term of one President means the next President has a new set of difficult problems to address. So much of what is discussed online and on TV revolve around fixing today's issues without regard to the future, but I'm sure you'll admit that the discussion gets really deep and complicated if it extends out from what is in front of us right now.

It merits a new Freakonomics episode about what, where, and how to address economics using a PID model.



Two large differences between Ultimate and a (stock) market is the level of transparency and observability. Almost any observer of Ultimate can see the actions of play. The total amount of information required to regulate play is manageable by a single observer. Additionally, because all points of view are equally available and an observer can more to a more advantageous position to follow play, the game is transparent. Conversely, a (stock) market has a limited amount of observer viewpoints and the actions of the goods traded are not anywhere near as transparent.


Its a shame, a podcast with so much potential but fell flat. I'm still baffled how freakonomics failed to reference the works of several influential albeit obscure economists who dealt with just this subject, instead just giving uIts a shame, a podcast with so much potential but fell flat. I'm still baffled how freakonomics failed to reference the works of several influential albeit obscure economists who dealt with just this subject, instead just giving us Adam smith. Mancur Olson's theories of Collective Action deals with just this question, explainkng that the role of government is to step in when markets fail under certain conditions: monopoly, public goods (as defined), externalities, tragedy of the commons, information asymmetries, etc. other Economists like James Arrow looked at the question of asymmetries of information as barriers to completely efficient markets. And of course if you're going to talk about sports you might as well talk about Game Theory, cause that's what it's about, the theory of Games. I was hoping to learn something from these podcasts, but instead I get mind numb. Sorry Dudes, I am a regular listener, but you could do better.


Mark McCay

Basketball is the worst possible option since it is an accepted strategy to break the rules.