The Jam That Never Was: A Plea to WFTDA

I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.

As someone who grew up seeing roller derby on the banked track, I’m accustomed to a faster game of roller derby. For as long as I’ve watched flat track roller derby, I’ve tolerated slow play. I understood that the speed and game flow of flat track derby was different than classic or modern banked track derby, and was willing to accept that difference and embrace that difference, all for the good and the growth of the sport.

I’ve even been willing to accept the occasional extended slow-pack start, since the derby that was played around them was generally very good, and generally played between two very good teams. And that’s all I wanted to see, was good derby.

I figured, the kinks would get worked out eventually.

When the Gotham Girls and the Philly Liberty Belles played a high-profile game at a high-profile event, I would never expected to see the modern flat-track game start to fall apart before my eyes. But in my book, that’s exactly what happened. By now, you should know exactly what I’m talking about.

There was a full two-minute jam where the jammers were never released from the jammer line.

The unthinkable non-jam.

Has slow start “strategy” really gotten to the point where teams are going full 2-minute jams without playing roller derby? Have we entered bizzaro world, where cats and dogs are living together?

I’m angry that this is happening in roller derby. Or to be more accurate, I’m angry that it’s completely possible for roller derby to not be happening, when it should be happening. It’s like a football game where the quarterback snaps the ball, and then both teams just stand around for two minutes, waiting for something to happen.

It’s unfeasible in football, but it’s completely doable (and was did) in roller derby. I don’t want to wait for something to happen. I want to see roller derby happen. Real roller derby during every second of every jam. Is that too much to ask for, people?

As such, what happened has happened. All I can do is make a big fuss of it and break it down to try to figure out what the hell is going on. If we can understand why this is happening, then maybe we can convince WFTDA to do something about it before it happens again.

I’ve also got a thing or two to say to the WFTDA about this…but that’s for later. First, let’s take a look good, hard look at what happened during that infamous non- jam at ECDX, just over a month ago…

The Jam That Never Was

(2) Gotham vs. (7) Philly
June 26 at East Coast Derby Extravaganza

Game situation

The game had just started. After the first two jams of the game, Gotham jumped to to 14-0 lead. There were 27 minutes left in the first half. It being this early in the game, both teams would still be playing with their “normal” game strategies. That is, the score or time left in the game would have no impact on a team’s line of thinking during gameplay. Especially, since the penalty box was empty at the time of this next jam.

Pre-jam

All of Gotham’s blockers lined up directly in front of the jammer line, close enough to the jammers that they could reach out and touch them without extending their arm. In response to that positioning, Philly interspersed their blockers directly in front of Gotham’s blockers. This created a situation where all ten skaters from both teams were literally within arm’s reach of one another before the start of the jam.

The “jam”

A second view of the jam with an uninterrupted shot of the pack, from the helmet cam of an inside pack ref, can be found here.

Analysis

Man, oh man. Where to begin with this one?

Right as the jam started, literally no one moved for five seconds. For the next 20 seconds after that, Gotham showed no real interest in pushing forward, although Philly tried to throw their weight around a bit to force the issue while still staying mostly in front of Gotham.

Finally, two of Gotham’s blockers started to bolt forward. This caused the rest of the pack to speed up. Juuuuuust as it looked as if the pack was going to cross the pivot line, three of Philly’s four blockers walled up in front of the two Gotham blockers still behind them. This had the consequence of keeping the pack from completely crossing the pivot line (by a wheel width), preventing the jammers from being released.

I noticed something here. When the two Gotham blockers got beyond the pivot line, the one Philly blocker trying to keep up with them suddenly spun off and looked behind her. As well, the other three Philly blockers eventually turned and focused their attention to the Gotham blockers on the pivot line. They were focusing their attention on them for quite a few seconds, too.

Where are the four Philly blockers looking? Understanding why is important to solving the riddle of the non-jam. (Screengrab credit: Blaze Streaming Media/DNN)

Whatever the reason for Philly’s blockers turning behind them, the message to me was loud and clear: The two Gotham blockers at the head of the pack became irrelevant, unimportant, and nonthreatening to Philly. Why else would they let half the Gotham pack go away unopposed so easily? (Hold that thought.) It seems to me that Philly was more concerned with what was happening at the rear of the pack, specifically any and all Gotham players that may have been behind them.

The two Gotham blockers that went out ahead, recognizing they were no good to anyone out in front of the action, skated back into the “fray.” For the next 30 seconds, the same thing that happened at the start of the jam in front of the jammer line, happened on the pivot line instead. Skaters for both teams jockeyed for positioning within the same space, even though nothing of consequence was really happening.

As the situation “developed,” the teams wound up walled on top of each other. Gotham was lined up all across the rear, and Philly was lined up directly in front of them. Gotham started creeping backwards, as if to solidify their claim to the rear of the pack. Philly, sticking to their guns, stood right with them. The last 45 seconds of the jam had both teams at a virtual standstill, ultimately ending five feet from where the pack started the “jam” two minutes beforehand.

So what happened here? Why were both teams hellbent on sticking to their strategies, even if it meant washing out an entire jam and causing the paying patrons to throw a fit?

I believe Gotham’s actions at the beginning and ending of the jam made their plan obvious: Control the rear of the pack, and be as close as possible to the Philly jammer when the jammers were released. In doing so, they would have gained a large advantage in the pack, as I had previously explained in my post about pack no-starts. Here’s what Gotham was probably wanting to do (Gotham would be the blue team in this example):

The blue team can get their jammer through the pack and pick up lead on the jam without ever needing to contact the red blockers. If you were the blue team, would you try to do this on some jams? Why not on every jam? (Re-posted from "Jam No-Starts: An Analysis and Condemnation")

Philly, having gone through this dance many-a-time before, was aware that they would be put into a bad spot should they split the pack. To ensure that couldn’t happen, they kept their butts glued to Gotham. I don’t know why they didn’t let the jam start when Gotham was so close to crossing the pivot line, but I’m guessing it may have had to do with Philly finding themselves in a Gotham sandwich. Maybe they thought it wouldn’t have been the best time to start the jam.

If the jam started 75 seconds ago, and I hadn't moved 10 feet from where I started, I'd throw my arms up in frustration, too. (Screengrab credit: Blaze Streaming Media/DNN)

Whatever their reasoning, the Philly Rollergirls were clearly as frustrated as the crowd at what was going on. The sad thing is, there wasn’t anything they could have done about it once the jam started without giving up an advantage. Even though Gotham got their fair share of minor penalties on this jam (I believe they incurred seven minors altogether), they were of no immediate benefit to Philly and of no consequence to the immediate state of play on the track during the jam in question.

Instead of forcing a jam start and being put in a pickle, Philly decided to take a mulligan on the jam and rode it out. In the subsequent jams, it should be noted, Gotham and Philly continued to play for pre-jam positioning directly in front of the jammer line. The only difference was that Philly started the subsequent jams on a knee, to ensure that the jammers would actually get to jam, and wouldn’t be put into a position to make the first move against their wishes.

Both teams eventually stopped doing this once the score got to a point where a Gotham victory was a foregone conclusion.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I’m sure there are a lot derby fans out there that may just think this was a one-time fluke in the rules. They’ll just brush it off, say it was an “interesting” jam, and try to justify what happened with buzzwords like “strategy” and “mindgames.” They’ll say that there’s nothing wrong with the modern game, that the non-jam is just a curiosity will never happen again.

Well…I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you folks.

It happened again a few weeks later.

The Second Jam That Never Was

Grand Raggidy vs. Arch Rival
July 16 in St. Louis

Game situation

With 3:30 left in the first half, Arch Rival was ahead of Grand Raggidy, 48-28. Raggidy was on a serious run at this point in the game, having outscored Arch Rival 22-7 in the previous 10 jams. During that stretch, which took about 15 minutes of game time, Raggidy took 7 of 10 lead jammer calls, including a 10-point power jam. Both penalty boxes were empty for this next jam, so both teams were at full-strength on the track.

Pre-jam

Much of the game up to this point featured slow pack starts, split pack starts, and one team or the other (mostly Arch Rival) staying on their knees for extended periods of time to gain positioning in the back. At the start of this particular jam, Arch Rival (in black) were in a set position that they used often in this game, with two blockers standing on the pivot line and two blockers on a knee 15 feet behind the pivot line. Grand Raggidy (in white) were pretty much dispersed between them in the middle, with their pivot on the pivot line.

The “jam”

If you thought the Gotham/Philly non-jam was ridiculous, wait until you get a load of this:

Analysis

When the pivot whistle sounded, the two foremost Arch Rival skaters slowly rolled out, but only after some encouragement from their bench. Grand Raggidy’s blockers held position relative to Arch Rival’s movement. As Arch moved up, part of Raggidy followed, as would an accordion being unfolded.

Meanwhile, the two Arch blockers and one Raggidy blocker at the back stayed put. The referees defined the pack as the five blockers most forward, including the one Raggidy blocker still behind the pivot line. Since the pack was still defined and had yet to cross the pivot line, the jammers could not yet be released. The blockers held their positions.

For the next 1 minute and 40 seconds, not one blocker moved a single inch.

Not a single inch.

Not. An. Inch.

Here's an overhead "video" of the positioning of Grand Raggidy (red) and Arch Rival (blue) during their exciting 100-second standoff. The two rearmost Arch blockers were on a knee, putting them out of play (and transparent on this diagram).

As there’s not much else to analyze in this non-jam, let’s just take a look at the skaters, their positioning, and what they may be thinking. Maybe we can find something to make sense and get to the root cause of this problem.

That Grand Raggidy’s blockers fanned out to keep the pack together doesn’t mean much of anything, since they could have as easily stayed at the pivot line and had the pack be there instead. It looks like that action was to just keep the same relative positioning that they had before the start of the jam.

The three blockers that stayed back, however, looked as if they weren’t going to move for anything. In fact, the Arch Rival blockers didn’t even bother getting up off of their knees. (Why weren’t they called out of play and penalized for failure to immediately re-enter play?) It’s clear that they wanted to be the first to engage the jammers when they were released, or else they would have moved forward.

The one thing that stood out for me during the 100 seconds of nothing was where the attention of the blockers was being  directed to. Although they weren’t doing anything, they were certainly putting their focus somewhere:

Where are the blockers all looking? Why are they just looking, and not acting? (Screengrab credit: McWheely/JustinTV)

The four blockers at the front of the pack were looking at the group of three blockers at the back. The three blockers at the back were looking at the all the blockers in front of them. The one blocker in the middle (that was preventing the pack from crossing the pivot line) was alternating looking at the blockers in front of her and the blockers behind her. No one was particularly interested in the blockers around their personal space.

Why were they doing that? In a contact sport like roller derby, I would be more immediately concerned with the skaters around me (you know, the ones that could knock my head off) than the ones 20 feet or more away.

In this situation, there were two groups of skaters looking at each other, waiting around for something to happen. If I was a betting man, I would wager that the front of the group was watching rear blockers, waiting for them to move forward to start the jammers; and the rear of the group was watching the front blockers, waiting for them to move forward and force a split-pack start.

This is the only thing that makes sense in this scenario. To double-check this idea from a different perspective, instead of wondering why both teams chose not to move during this jam, just ask why one team would choose not to move during this jam. If I was Arch Rival, for instance, what would I be thinking if I decided to stand still? I’m not helping my team that much if I’m not moving around, so we can rule out doing that, for that long, for my own benefit.

The only other factor left to consider, then, is the other team. If I’m Arch Rival and I’m refusing to move, but I still want a jam to start, the only way both of those conditions can be satisfied is if Grand Raggidy makes the first move, even if doing so is to Raggidy’s detriment.

So what if Grand Raggidy is thinking the same thing about Arch Rival at the same time? You enter a situation where two teams are digging their heels in, causing a delayed jam start or no jam at all.

It’s a stalemate that no one likes, and no one wins. You know all the political crap that’s going on in Washington between the Democrats and the Tea Party Republicans? Same thing, but roller derby.

The fact here is that both teams were waiting for the other team to move first. They would only be doing this if they felt making the first move was a disadvantage so great that they were willing to wash out a jam to preserve their position. It’s the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose, basically.

If teams start doing the latter more than the former, the game of roller derby will suffer on the whole.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I feel these two-minute non-jams are the collective result of all of the problems and issues with derby rules I’ve pointed out on this blog before. In case you haven’t been with me until recently (shame on you!), here they are again, in a nutshell:

Good teams are starting to realize that the best place to be at the start of a jam is behind the other team’s blockers. In doing this, they can 1) ensure that they get the first crack at slowing down the opponent’s jammer without needing to worry about the opponent’s blockers getting in their way, and 2) should there be a pack split between the two teams, the team at the front would not be able to stop the other team’s jammer from going through due to the no-pack situation. During this second scenario, the team at the rear can skate forward, reform the pack, and continue to block the jammer behind them (as previously diagrammed).

If a team is very stubborn or insistent on getting the advantages outlined above, they will hold their position and wait for the other team to move forward instead. However, this causes a conflict at the start of a jam. If one team doesn’t want to move forward, but both teams need to move forward past the pivot line to start the jammers, you get a stalemate with slow or no movement. These “pack no-start” jams can last up to a minute (or more!) before jammers are released, since many times these situations involve a team waiting for one of their blockers to leave the penalty box.

As a result of the pack definition rules, a major flaw in gameplay emerges: Because the pack is required to have both teams in it, a team can try to use this to their advantage by forcing the other team into a lose-lose situation. For example, a team holding an advantageous position at the start can refuse to move, forcing the other team into a disadvantageous position as a result. If the other team doesn’t want to put themselves behind the 8-ball, then no one moves and and entire two-minute jam is lost to a stalemate that never had a chance of being resolved in the first place.

Ever since I started seeing slow pack starts in roller derby, I immediately understood why teams were doing it. However, I would have never thought it would come to entire jams being thrown away by both teams. I know you feel the same way.

Looking back, though, the writing has been on the wall that teams were going to want to start employing these game-crippling tactics more often. As teams get better, and understand the rules better, they’re going to want to eke out any and all advantages that they can. When good teams play against each other or when the stakes are at their highest, they’ll do what they need to do to win, even if that means standing around and doing nothing for two minutes during a jam. It has happened before (twice!) and it will happen again unless something is done about it.

The question is, will the WFTDA going to take action before it happens again, or are they going to wait until thousands of people–many of whom are going to be paying over $100 for tickets to watch the games in person–possibly see more extended slow-starts and  lost jams during the four regional tournaments, or worse, during the organization’s showcase event, the WFTDA Championships?

I want to see people play roller derby. I don’t want to see people play not-roller derby. Yet it seems that’s happening more than ever. Slow starts and non-jams aren’t very common, obviously, but all it takes is one person new to derby to see a slow/no jam start to get the wrong impression about the sport.

Case in point: Me. The last three games I remember watching online (via DNN, of course) were Philly at Denver, Charm City/Windy City from ECDX, and Denver/Bay Area from Rollercon. I only take the time out of my schedule to watch games between top-ranked teams because I want to see the best the sport of roller derby has to offer. Presumably, I would get that if I watch the best teams duke it out.

However, upon turning on each of these games I was quickly presented with the worst roller derby has to offer: When I tuned into Philly/Denver, the second jam I saw was a one-minute pack no-start jam. When I watched the Charm/Windy game, I saw the infamous (and since confirmed to be deliberately pre-planned) play where Charm started their blockers behind the jammers. When I got a chance to see the recent Denver/Bay Area game, the very first jam I saw was another 45 second no-start jam.

Somehow, Brad, I doubt it.

It’s not like I’m combing through every single roller derby game, trying to find every single flaw and shortcoming in the rules, just to build up a portfolio of slow play to ruin the modern game’s growth. This shit is finding me when I seek out games between good teams. The modern game is doing all the work for me, and I think it’s on the verge of ruining itself.

There may be hundreds and hundreds of games where gameplay progresses without any bumps. That’s fine, but ultimately irrelevant. If boring derby happens in the few games between the good teams, the ones that everyone wants to watch and the ones that WFTDA wants to showcase to the rest of the world, then what’s the point of watching good teams anymore? What’s the point in growing the sport anymore? What’s the point of roller derby, if the only way to play the game to win at a high level is to not play the game?

So yeah, I’m a bit frustrated at all of this. The impression I’m getting from the WFTDA is that they’re content to let things happen and then react to them, rather than grab the bull by the horns and stop questionable things before they start. This makes me wonder if WFTDA isn’t growing up fast enough to keep up with the explosive growth of the game throughout the country, and the world. And I worry if that’s ultimately going to cause the derby bubble to pop like the U.S. housing market. Because true growth and evolution is done by actions, not reaction or inaction.

If WFTDA makes an announcement that they’re aware of the problem and will start looking into it, that would be a good first step. If they announce a rules clarification or new rule mid-season, even better. They need to communicate something to the derby community that they’re at least aware of the situation and will be looking into ways to rectify it. But even that would be a reaction to the inaction on the track, and to the voices on DNN/derby blogs that have already had their say on the matter.

Still, there’s hope. Whether or not you think that slow starts, no-starts, and non-jams are a little problem or a big problem, you’d have to at least agree that this is a problem of some kind. Like any problem, it should be addressed in some capacity. Since WFTDA is an organization governed by its players, for its players, we will need its players (and their fans) to take decisive action and get this nonsense out of the game once and for all.

One of the best and most straightforward ways of doing that would be to put our heads together and come up with a possible solution. A real solution, and not just a stop-gap rules clarification or a few new rules that address the effect of the problem, but not the cause.

So let’s think about this, everyone. Let’s really think about this. What rules would you change, add, or remove to prevent non-jams (and by natural extension, slow starts) from ever happening again? Is your solution completely watertight, under any and all circumstances? Or could there be loopholes could teams try exploiting after those changes are made?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve almost certainly got some ideas. Leave a comment below about what you think will work, and try to break the solutions of others. Also share this post with your derby friends on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or elsewhere, using the share buttons  below. I’m not going to ask for that often, but I think this is something that everyone needs to see, in order to help fix the problem.

I’ll collect the best ones and further analyze them, along with detailing my own possible solution to the problem, in a future blog post.

Advertisements

7 responses to this post.

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I recently watched 2 games by top 5 teams in a single weekend. Sadly, I had plenty of time to take out my phone and check my email DURING most jams. I noticed many other fans texting and generally not paying attention because there really wasn’t anything to pay attention to.

    I also noticed that crowds have been thinning. I guess it’s not surprising when they paid $20 to see nothing happen.

    The announcers were unconvincingly trying to spin the inaction as “a tactic that is much harder than it looks” but the crowd didn’t buy it and started booing even though the home team was well in the lead. Think about that, the home team was being booed by their own fans while winning! If that isn’t the strongest condemnation of the slow game then I don’t what is. And if that doesn’t get the WFTDA to enact some rules changes to keep the game moving then I’m afraid the sport is doomed.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Derby Nerd on 20 September 2011 at 7:09 am

    The sport is not doomed, people. Relax. It’s called evolution. The flat track game is only 8 years old. This is extraordinarily young for a sport, and the fact that it has come so far in such a short period of time is nothing short of remarkable. Just like when trapping and isolation was introduced and people overreacted and prematurely said the game was going to be played backwards now, this too will go away as teams find ways to adapt.

    And you don’t need to change any rules: One already exists: 6.10.2.1.2, and we saw it used at this weekend’s Eastern Regionals (AFTER the first whistle three blockers take a knee while the fourth crosses the pivot line–no pack created after the first whistle and no penalties given as long as the pack is immediately reformed).

    While this may give the other team a slight pack advantage (because one opposing blocker has to leave the zone) the other blockers are on their knees and thus holding their position. When done well, it works beautifully.

    Everyone who watches or is involved in derby right now is in both the enviable position of getting to watch a sport grow, but also in the unenviable position of having to deal with a sport that is still very much growing. WFTDA’s slow, measured restraint is probably the best thing for the sport. While I’m not saying that rules shouldn’t be refined, I just think we as viewers and commentators have a responsibility to take a measured response to these changes and evolutions in the game as well and trust in the players who love the sport.

    Reply

    • And you don’t need to change any rules: One already exists: 6.10.2.1.2, and we saw it used at this weekend’s Eastern Regionals (AFTER the first whistle three blockers take a knee while the fourth crosses the pivot line–no pack created after the first whistle and no penalties given as long as the pack is immediately reformed).

      Once they got the lead, Philly’s blockers were not going to move forward off the jammer line for any reason whatsoever. They basically forced London to do a knee start, stand around for half the jam if they didn’t, or make London come up with a knee-start strategy that I predicted was plausible five months ago. That this idea has been applied to jam starts instead of intentionally destroying the pack for points doesn’t change the fact that these stifling tactics are not only predictable, but they’re inevitable. And they’re also unfair:

      While this may give the other team a slight pack advantage (because one opposing blocker has to leave the zone)

      It doesn’t matter that it’s only a “slight” pack advantage. An advantage is an advantage. If two teams are at full strength and one team can gain any kind of advantage by not doing anything, you’re going to get skaters and teams into a bad mindset. Once you get into a highly competitive environment (such as during the playoffs), teams will throw almost everything out the window, except the desire to win. “Doing nothing is easy, and it helps us win the game. So let’s keep doing nothing so we can win the game!”

      The way I saw it, Philly won that game from the moment they got a 10 point lead and kept the rear wall on the jammer line. They knew that London was not experienced in slow start tactics, so Philly pushed slow tactics to the extreme by not moving and giving themselves a hole for their jammer on each and every jam. Poor London never had a chance. There is absolutely positively no way to counter not moving without putting yourself at a disadvantage, which is why unless something changes with the rules, derby tactics will devolve, not evolve.

      However, if you don’t change the skater mindset of “less effort, more success guaranteed” during certain game situations, when it comes time to change the rules so that switches to “more effort, success not guaranteed” (which is what it takes in real sports) not all skaters are going to want to go along with it, or WFTDA is going to lose a lot of skaters once they do. That’s the double-edged sword of “by the skaters, for the skaters,” because if there comes a point where WFTDA is going to need to decide between quantity and quality, or between what the skaters want and what the fans want, who are the majority of skaters really going to vote for, if not their own interests first?

      Reply

  3. […] group of skaters, but it seems like every time I watch a game with them they’re always doing something that makes me want to jab a stick into my left […]

    Reply

  4. […] you to justify your ignorance of why derby fans make “Occupy the Pivot Line” signs and boo their own home teams when they engage in extreme slow tactics. I want you to to prove me wrong when I say there were […]

    Reply

  5. I saw this happen several times at The Stomp in Knoxville as well last year

    Reply

  6. […] Stop me if you’ve heard this before. […]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: