I've seen a lot of conversations about Unsporting Conduct as it pertains to appropriate playmats in the last few days, and like many subjects, I've got some thoughts.
I see a lot of judges in these types of discussions fall back on Unsporting Conduct (USC) Minor, an infraction that carries a penalty of a Warning at Competitive REL. "I would totally USC that playmat." I think this is a mistake for a couple of reasons.
At a tournament earlier this year, I was talking to a player and he used the word "retarded" as a pejorative to describe a play. This might have been a fine time for a Warning, but it was just the two of us talking and we weren't really in earshot of anyone. I chose a different route and said, "Would you mind not using that word in that way." He immediately got the context of what I was saying and apologized. "You're right. That's not cool." Why not a USC Warning? For one, the use of that word as a pejorative is currently in a nebulous place in our society. It's not quite the N-word, but it isn't (yet) heavily enforced. Second, given the demure nature of the conversation, his use of the word didn't really constitute a disruption to any other tournament participants besides me, and I felt that I got my point across to him well enough. He left the conversation with the idea that he shouldn't use that word in that way, not that a judge had caught him and penalized him.
After a tournament, hanging out with judges, one of them used the word "rape" to describe something that wasn't rape. Obviously, being after hours, I'm not going to issue a Warning. My reaction was to be a little snappy and interrupt him with "Hey, not cool." There was a female judge sitting right next to him, and she also spoke up. The judge knew what he had done, apologized, and we all moved on. Had it been in a tournament setting, that would have crossed my USC Minor threshold (or USC Major if directed at someone).
At a recent tournament, I saw a player in line at the coffee place. He had on a shirt that read "Cool story, babe. Now go make me a sandwich." As soon as I got into the tournament hall, I went to the TO and informed him of this player, pointing him out when he entered a few minutes after me. The TO spoke with the player, who agreed to go get a sweatshirt to wear over his T-shirt. No USC was issued. Was that right? I think so. We want to promote a safe, friendly environment at tournaments. That's been a big movement over the past few years. But issuing penalties for shirts, playmats, and sleeves that are contrary to that goal is itself counter-productive.
The Dragon Ball Z Principle
Yes, it is ironically named after an anime, but it also fits perfectly. In that anime, the main character Goku fought through a series of tougher and tougher opponents, Yamcha, Tenshinhan, Piccolo, and Vegeta. After defeating each one, the next story arc would feature an even tougher opponent, and Goku would need to team up with the last arc's rival in order to defeat the new foe. I try to look at the Magic community in the same way. Today's enemy is tomorrow's potential ally. And while Goku could get away with just beating the crap out of his rivals, the same doesn't hold true for us judges. In fact, how you deal with an unruly player today will define your relationship with them in the future and whether they will step up.
The truth is that the stereotype of Magic players being immature and socially awkward does hold some weight. I know because I was there, well into my late 20s, and really it wasn't until I started to take judging seriously at the age of 30 that I feel like I "became an adult." This is why I identify and sympathize with today's Magic "youth." It's not easy to stop being an asshole, and it really helps if someone you look up to points the way and gives you friendly nudges. Giving a USC penalty isn't a friendly nudge.
People who say "I'll know it when I see it" in reference to Unsporting Conduct whether in verbal form or art on a playmat or sleeves strike me as the same kind of people who say that about Slow Play. When I see statements like "I'll know it when I see it," I tend to fill in the rest as "and I don't do anything about it." This isn't a blanket condemnation of all people who says this, but I can say with certainty that the vast majority of judges have never issued a USC or Slow Play penalty, so chances are good. Whenever I ask a judge if they've issued a Slow Play Warning, they usually say, "No, but I've given a bunch of hurry ups," you know, the "I need you to make a decision" talk. The equivalent of this for USC is "nothing." If you think it's hard to tell a player that they're playing too slow, try telling them that they are acting like an jerk.
There's a line here somewhere. It's kind of blurry. The definition of USC Minor reads "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."
"Takes action" is a key phrase for me. Saying something like my above examples certainly constitutes taking an action. Wearing a shirt or using a playmat doesn't strike me as the same. There's certainly a choice made to put on a particular shirt or purchase and use a particular playmat in a tournament, but those are more passive than what I feel is required for a USC. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't ask people to turn their shirts inside out, or to put their playmats away. I just think it means that we have that conversation first. Consider it a courtesy to the player much like asking a player to make a decision before leading with a Slow Play penalty. It also puts us judges on a less antagonistic level.
Explain to the player how the object might affect the comfort level of other participants. Use phrases like "friendly environment." Get them on your side. Get them to see your point of view. If you do, maybe next time they will choose not to wear/bring the object in question. Maybe if the future, they will stop their friend from bringing a similar object. Make a future ally, not an enemy.
It's been pointed out to me that, yes, there is a point where a message on an object could cross over into something that you would issue an infraction for. There was a incident a while back where a player made "Spirit tokens" altered with a school bus labeled "Sandy Hook." He then repeated his "joke" after the Boston Marathon bombings. I would personally issue USCs for these because they are an active statement in a way that wearing a T-shirt you bought from a website isn't. That's my line. I can understand if you disagree. But the main thing is, let's ask the players to put these objects away.