The issue of whether the Observer system — as used in North America at the highest levels of competition — is in fundamental conflict with the “spirit of the game” of Ultimate is an ongoing debate not only in international circles and WFDF but also still in North America itself. The issue is extremely complicated and multi-faceted, and the debate is often poorly informed as too few participants understand the long historical evolution to the current Observer system now used, impacted by a series of notable incidents over time that shaped the process.
The issue of spirit of the game was a central theme throughout the ULTIMATE–The First Four Decades, by Pasquale Anthony Leonardo and Adam Zagoria, published by Joe Seidler in 2005, which catalogued the history of Ultimate. The following selections from that book provide an overview of the key debates and events that led to the development of the Observer system as it is currently used today. I would note that, despite the level of concern about the purity of the original principles of Ultimate, the founders at Columbia High School fully expected that referees would be used if Ultimate took off. Further, while observers are now used at the top levels of competition in North America, most games are still played without any Observers and most North American Ultimate players would say spirit of the game is still alive and well.
– Robert L. “Nob” Rauch