The Case Against Phones and Smartwatches During DGPT Events

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During a live recording of the Joe’s Disc Golf Podcast (Thursdays 8:30pm EST), one viewer posed the question, “what’s your opinion on pros wearing earbuds during tournament rounds?” to summarize his opinion, he wants them banned because they impede communication between the card and officials. I expanded that beyond the communication aspect to a safety aspect. This is where my brain naturally goes as injury prevention and risk mitigation are large parts of my career as an athletic trainer.  As I started thinking more about this topic I realized I needed to expand this scope from not just safety but also include cheating.

The scenario I pose is this:

Hole three’s teeing area is about twenty-five feet off the middle of the fairway of hole one. As it currently stands, the players are allowed to wear headphones whenever they want. Whether or not they use a noise canceling feature, playing music is a distraction. A player tees off on hole one and throws a bad shot (early release, grip lock, bad tree kick) and the disc is headed towards the hole three tee. Hole one is yelling fore but the player with headphones doesn’t hear the calls and is hit. Best case scenario, besides the disc missing the player entirely, is a sore sport and a bruise. With some bad luck getting hit in the calf in just the wrong sport leads to a partial Achilles tear or a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the calf). The former at minimum needing a significant time away to recover and the latter needing blood thinners or surgery.

Now, is that scenario a little outlandish? Yes, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. The player hit on hole three can’t get mad at the player on hole one. Hole one did everything they could to alert hole three to the incoming disc.

Staying with the safety concerns not only can serious injury occur from a thrown disc, but also from hazards on the course. Playing a wooded course in windy conditions can be dangerous. I have personally witnessed several players and myself almost get hit by falling branches. Fortunately, we were all paying attention and could hear the branch snap or in one case the card yelling at another player to move and narrowly dodging a branch. Falling branches aren’t the only hazard to be concerned with either. Several local tournaments marked out areas where ground bees had made a nest and allowed for casual relief. The only reason they knew about that was because of a player landing there during a practice round. One final, and less traumatizing example, is poison ivy/oak/sumac. All of those are present across the Midwest. Some players are more allergic than others, having the ability to point out to someone what each one looks like is important. Best case scenario, minor itching and irritation. Worst case I have personally witnessed is a severe reaction requiring prescription strength medication. Those are just a few of the plausible safety concerns that most disc golfers will face. Hazardous weather is outside the scope of this article, but it is my opinion that the PDGA lightning safety policy is severely lacking. Keep an eye out for a future topic covering the lightning policy and hazardous weather as a whole.

Looking back at the original scenario I proposed, I look at this scenario differently than how the listener looked at the scenario. He saw it as the headphones being a problem. I want to point out that the headphones need to be connected to something, either a smartwatch or cellphone. Having either of those on a professional player can lead to safety and cheating problems. Information can be sent to pros on the course that give an unfair advantage.

Before we look at what should be done with disc golf, we should look at what other major sports are doing in this realm. Looking at these other sports at the professional and collegiate levels, smart watches and cellphones are severely restricted or outright banned on the playing field. I used to work, among other sports, collegiate softball, I’m most familiar with those rules. Rule 5.9.8 says, “Team personnel, including players, are prohibited from carrying or wearing any device capable of transmitting information while on the field (e.g., cell phone, smart watch, etc.).” Similarly worded rules exist in all other NCAA sports and professional sports. Even down to the high school level smart devices are banned during competitions.

Now we turn our attention to the one sport everyone loves comparing disc golf to, golf, the USGA has allowed the use of cellphones only for measuring distances and weather. Using cellphones and smartwatches to communicate is strictly prohibited. Using apps that help select clubs or calculate distance based on weather and elevation is also prohibited. Using a rangefinder can easily replace distance apps. In golf, having an error of about 10 feet with a GPS device isn’t that big of a factor when you consider hole lengths measured in hundreds of yards. In disc golf the distances are much shorter rendering the GPS app like UDisc less useful on the pro scene. A laser range finder is a better option given the shorter distances and not having a clear line of sight in the woods.

If we look back to the 2022 Champions Cup, we saw an incident with Elaine King and Paige Pierce’s caddy, and Kristin Tattar. By all accounts all actions were taken with the best intentions in mind. For a recap see ‘Kristin Tattar and the Selective Application of the Rules’ and ‘Elaine King’s Justification of her Interference at Champions Cup.’ For a brief recap, the color commentator Elaine King noticed a rules violation with Kristin Tattar in that her caddy was not at least 13 years old. King texted Pierce’s caddy alerting her of the situation. Note that at the time Pierce and Tattar were in a tight battle for first place at the time. Fortunately, everything ended up fine in the end with Kristin Tattar’s daughter following a few feet back holding a quiet sign. It didn’t appear that this situation affected Kristin Tattar’s play.

Let’s alter this scenario a little. Let’s say that Elaine King saw that Tattar was in a terrible position on a blind shot and likely wouldn’t get up and down from that position. She casually texts Paige Pierce telling her the situation causing Pierce to completely change her plan of attack on the hole. Because Pierce received that information from an outside source, this changed the outcome of the game and in this situation King and Pierce are cheating. I do want to emphasize that this is a hypothetical situation. The only reason I picked Elaine King and Paige Pierce were because of the situation that happened at the 2022 Champions Cup. In no way is this something that has happened at a DGPT event or at a PDGA Major.

Now that athlete like Paul McBeth, Kona Panis, Paige Pierce, Kristin Tattar, and Ricky Wysocki have publicly known, large contracts (Pierce’s numbers aren’t known but safe to assume she makes at least the same guaranteed money as Tattar and Panis), what’s to stop them from paying a small number of fans to text them course or shot update. I’m not saying this is happening and only using current top paid pros as an example. But as more money comes into the sport the likelihood someone will try to gain the competitive edge by any means necessary.

I can already hear the keyboards clacking away with counter arguments. 

 ‘But [insert pro disc golfer] would never do [cheating]; they are an honest individual who loves the game.’

I agree with your sentiment, anonymous user. I don’t believe the current pros would do that. I believe that they are playing disc golf at the highest levels because they love the game and love to compete. But it is my belief that as the tournament purse grows, so does the temptation to do something. To this point we haven’t really seen a disc golf ne’er-do-well. You can say Nikko Locastro fits this but again I disagree. I don’t believe we’ve seen a disc golfer with the mentality of win at all costs on the pro tour. But looking at other sports with high dollar amounts this is something that has happened. Baseball and the steroid scandal. The Astros and sign stealing. Tom Brady and Deflategate. Those are the recent issues in major professional sports. I’m sure you can list more but the point remains. More money, more incentive to win.

‘But how is [insert pro disc golfer] supposed to see the scores and know where they are in the standings?

Unlike the PGA tour the DGPT does not have large signs plastered all over the event with the current scores and standings. But, at every Disc Golf Pro Tour event there is a UDisc scorekeeper on every card. Among other things the scorekeeper does exactly that. It’s not hard to ask the scorekeeper, ‘hey what’s my score?’ or ‘what place am I in?’

‘Every tournament I go to uses PDGA live scoring. How am I supposed to keep score?’

This is where the rules need to deviate from the DGPT/Majors and the rest of the PDGA events. It’s unrealistic to have a separate scorekeeper for every C-Tier event that happens. This is where banning headphones is the better option. A player is more likely to get hit from an errant shot from an amateur than from a touring professional.  If someone really wants to cheat at a local C-Tier, that person is more likely to be banned or at the very least ostracized by the club members.

The current buzzword, more aptly a phrase, is ‘grow the sport’ which is a great thing for disc golf. But if we continue to ‘grow the sport’ with more player, more sponsors, and more money we are going to have to ‘grow the rules.’ The simple step of banning cellphones eliminates a very low barrier to cheating. Is it a problem right now in 2022? Not to my knowledge. Add in the safety element to this and this becomes a no brainer. If cellphones and smartwatches are banned then headphones become pointless and the athletes are less likely to sustain an injury from a lack of communication.

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