The 2011 WFTDA Penalty Derby Championships

September 13, 2009 was a very significant date in the history of modern roller derby. Do you remember what happened then?

Because I will never, ever forget it:

(Derby News Network) RALEIGH, NC — Philly and Gotham provided what was by far the most dramatic bout of the Eastern Regionals, trading the lead all through the second half — and 4 times in the last jam alone — before Philly scored a one-point upset of Gotham to end Gotham’s two-year, 18 game winning streak by just one last-second point, 90-89.

It was the day Philly upset Gotham. Their game was an epic contest that featured everything that makes roller derby, roller derby: Speed, constant action, great blocking, amazing teamwork, and competitive on the scoreboard the whole way through. As if that wasn’t enough, the last jam of the game went the full two minutes, culminating with Philly’s Teflon Donna literally making a last-second pass to pick up a point on the track and a ghost point in the box…the two points they needed to overcome Gotham and win the regional title.

The game was amazing in every respect. Personally, I hold it near and dear to my heart. It instantly sold me on flat track roller derby, and showed me everything that was good about the modern game.

There are two things about it that will forever be ingrained in my memories.

The first is what happened at the end of the game. When Philly realized they had won, their entire bench came out and dogpiled onto Teflon in mad celebration. By itself, this moment was amazing.

But then Gotham joined in the celebration and also jumped onto the dogpile.

That made the moment legendary.

A pile of humanity containing Gotham and Philly skaters. Awesome!

Right then and there, I got it. I understood how teams could be fiercely competitive and still be part of a community that just wants to have fun playing roller derby. That winners and losers can mingling in the same ball of joyful humanity after a nail-biting finish told me all I needed to know about the people playing the game.

It was absolutely wonderful.

However, it’s the second thing that I took away from Gotham/Philly 2009 that has been on my mind a lot lately.

As exciting as the finish was, I was more impressed with the start of the game. In light of recent events, you may have a hard time believing this: For the first ten minutes of the bout, there were no major penalties committed by either team.

I was gobsmacked. Finally, I thought. The best teams playing the best roller derby, skating hard, skating fast, and skating clean, playing the game five-on-five for an extended period of time. As it should be!

Inevitably, penalties factored into the game. A penalty directly influenced the final result, obviously, as a last-minute blocker penalty by Gotham gave Philly the last-second ghost point they needed to topple the giants and end their years-long win streak.

Even so, this game showed me how quickly derby skaters were bettering themselves and their abilities, proving that they could skate hard without committing penalties. I envisioned roller derby games with fierce action and very few penalties, as is the way in other sports. I was stoked. Surely, I thought at the time, this was the springboard towards a bright future.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.

Two months after Philly’s historic upset, Denver started to tug on loopholes in the rule book at west region playoffs. Ever since then, derby has been getting slower and more sloppy, ultimately culminating with Gotham solving the rules and coming up with unbeatable strategies, directly resulting in red-faced referees gasping for air, whistling more penalties than ever. This has turned derby into a mindless farce, and a shadow of what the game used to be just months previously.

This isn’t my opinion. This is a fact.

With the help of Rinxter, we can look at bout statistics and prove—beyond the shadow of a doubt—that the “slow derby” game has been bad for roller derby, turning beautiful games featuring clean skating, into ugly affairs filled with penalties.

If you’re someone who likes the “strategy” game, then you’re going to have some explaining to do: The numbers will prove that you also like games filled with rule violations and box trips galore.

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I’ll start with the Gotham/Philly game of 2009, which is far and away my all-time favorite roller derby game…so far.

Rinxter hadn’t been invented yet, so penalty numbers were not immediately available. Instead, I re-watched the game—something I highly recommend you do as well, because it’s a friggin’ awesome game—and manually counted up the number of penalties* committed by both teams.

*(For ease of reading, when I refer to a “penalty” in this article, I am referring to a penalty that would send a skater to the penalty box. So that’s a major penalty or an accumulation of minor penalties. In the following tables, I will reference these as PIMs: “Penalties in Minutes.” I’m ignoring minor penalties that do not add up to a box trip for the sake of simplification, but keep in mind that also means more total penalties in the referenced games were committed than mentioned here.)

After the first ten minutes of skating nirvana, there were 26 Gotham penalties and 18 Philly penalties, a total of 44 penalties between both teams.

At the time of their game, Gotham and Philly were two of the best teams in the country, featuring some of the best skaters in the country. If the best can skate a close game with only 44 penalties, it would follow that as the best get better at derby skating and earn more game experience, they would commit fewer penalties in similarly competitive games.

This will be our baseline for comparison going forward.

Our first set of data comes from the 2010 WFTDA Championships in Chicago. Unfortunately, the Rinxter data is incomplete and doesn’t have stat tracking for all the games. (Most notably missing is the championship final between Oly and Rocky. Bummer.) But there are still some telling bits of information here that will be important later:

*(Rinxter only reported penalty data for the first half of this game, so this set of numbers is an estimate derived from doubling the first-half numbers.)

The baseline number established in the Gotham/Philly game the year before seems to be holding here. Interestingly, there were fewer penalties in blowout games, and more penalties in closer games. There isn’t much data to verify that claim with, but it makes sense on the face of it: With more on the line, teams may try to do more at the risk of getting more penalties.

Oly and Rocky Mountain were the most heavily-penalized teams shown here, although that didn’t seem to hurt them on their way to facing each other for the 2010 championship. Coincidentally, Gotham kept their penalty counts extremely low. That didn’t necessarily lead to success, as their game against Rocky Mountain would indicate. But overall, these were competitive games, and few or fewer penalties were comitted than in our baseline game the year before. Looking good so far!

Next up are the penalty stats from the 2011 regional playoff championship games. Again, Rinxter numbers have some holes in them, so we’re missing penalty data from the North Central playoffs. Still, the numbers in the other three regional finals are starting to paint an interesting picture:

Note that these teams played in other games, and there were also many other games between a lot of other teams not listed in this table. But for the purpose of this article, I’m only interested in seeing the progression of the “best” teams playing in the “best” games, where one would expect the number of penalties to be kept under control by the “best” skaters.

At the west regional final, Rocky and Oly, played one of the best games of roller derby I had seen since Gotham/Philly 2009. Although, Rocky Mountain has a reputation for being penalty-heavy, and their game against Oly at the regional final game may have been the one to cement that idea into people’s minds. Thirty penalties in one 60 minute game is a hell of a lot to take.

However, compared to the other 2011 regional finalists, Rocky Mountain was a regular Lady Byng. Kansas City, Philly, and Gotham all committed more penalties in their respective games, than did Rocky against Oly.

That Philly/Gotham game in particular was an ugly one all around. With 73 total penalties—almost 30 more than their amazing game in 2009—and a 151-point margin of victory, it was not what you would call roller derby at its best.

But hold on a second…that doesn’t make sense. With two more years of experience, both teams should have improved from their historic meeting and committed fewer penalties. They managed to stay out of the penalty box at Championships the year before. But instead of getting better and skating cleaner, both teams somehow got worse in 2011?

Something fishy is going on here.

Thankfully, Rinxter data for the 2011 Championships is just about complete. We can use their treasure trove of information to get to the bottom of this mystery.

This last table shows all games between the best of the best in the WFTDA: Gotham, Oly, Rocky Mountain, Texas, Kansas City, Windy City, Philly, and Rose City. Playing at the WFTDA Championships, all of these top national teams would almost certainly be doing whatever necessary to skate clean and stay out of of the penalty box!

Um, yeah…

No.

What an awful, bloody mess.

All that red is proof positive that all teams were guilty of committing a gross number of penalties, especially when you compare it to our baseline game of Gotham/Philly 2009. Virtually all the games played in Denver at Championships this year had penalty totals approaching twice that of one of the best games of derby ever played just two years ago.

While it’d be really easy to just look at the scores and see how many close and competitive games there were, one would be foolish to ignore the proverbial bloodbaths that were the Rose/KC game, the Rocky/Gotham game, and the Gotham/Oly championship final. Not only that, the other headlining games played at championships weren’t exactly neat and tidy, either.

Just consider the best three best roller derby teams in the country. Gotham, Oly, and Rocky Mountain have been at the top of the WFTDA for years, with the last four Hydras being claimed by those three teams.

When Rocky Mountain and Oly played each other in October, their game had the fewest total penalties of all the games between DNN Top 10 teams Rinxter has 2011 playoff penalty data for. This would be expected, considering those two teams are some of the best in the WFTDA.

Yet somehow, when these two clean-skating teams each played against Gotham at the WFTDA Championships, there were 30 more total penalties committed against the new champs than in their game against each other.

Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Penalties are a part of roller derby, as they are in other team sports. But that many penalties? Why were there so many in the two games Rocky and Oly played against Gotham, games (allegedly) featuring the best of the best roller derby has to offer? If anything, shouldn’t there be fewer penalties?

In our baseline game, Gotham committed 26 penalties against Philly. That number was probably an outlier (and surely a factor in the upset) considering that during the 2010 Championships, Gotham was good for about 15 penalties a game, an extremely low number. Again, that kind of clean play is to be expected from an elite team with another year of skating experience under their belts.

However, the 2011 WFTDA Champion version of Gotham somehow found themselves in the penalty box nearly 40 times a game during their critical playoff match-ups.

The Gotham of 2010 had proven to us that they can skate an extremely clean game of roller derby. But according to the numbers, the Gotham of 2011 had just as hard of a time staying out of the penalty box as did their opponents.

It looks like Gotham is the wrench in the works here, the common factor in all of these messy, penalty-heavy games.

So that begs the question: What changed between the Gotham of last year, and the Gotham of this year?

There can be only one possible explanation:

Slow derby.

A pile of humanity containing Gotham and Philly skaters. Awful!

Since Denver started the trend in 2009, roller derby has been played at a slower and slower pace. As the months went on, more and more teams adopted and refined this stifling style of play. By the start of the 2011 season, almost all the top teams in the nation relied on slow derby start strategies. During this same time, the number of penalties committed in games increased dramatically.

This is not a coincidence.

When Gotham mastered slow derby, their games at the regional playoffs and during championships were some of the most penalty-heavy games in recorded roller derby statistical history.

This is not a coincidence, either.

Slow derby is clearly the cause of the high volume of penalties being committed by teams across the WFTDA. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it, because slow packs mean blockers and jammers have to fight a lot harder to get around a massive wall of bodies, making cutting, back-blocking, out-of-play, direction-of-play, and other blocking fouls much more common and prevalent than was present in our fast-moving 2009 baseline game. Or the fast-moving Oly/Rocky game at west finals this year, for that matter.

Yet, there are some (that’s some) people out there that prefer this penalty-heavy style of roller derby. They might even tell you that here and now, roller derby has never been better.

If that were true, the stats would be trending downwards toward a game that had few or no penalties. But instead, they’re indicating the opposite, that penalty counts have skyrocketed.

Strictly by the numbers, roller derby has actually never been worse.

In fact, I don’t think we can even technically call it “roller derby” anymore. So calamitous was the action between the top teams at WFTDA Championships, there were nearly 2 penalties called per jam (PPJ). That is to say, averaged out, both teams in any given game committed one penalty each per jam, effectively creating a four-on-four derby situation the entire way through championship weekend. (The “cleanest” game between top teams was Oly/Kansas City at 1.79 PPJ, and the “dirtiest” game was Rocky/Gotham, featuring a staggering 2.13 PPJ.)

If roller derby is supposed to be a five-on-five team sport, then there was little or no “roller derby” seen at Championships. But there was plenty of “slow derby,” “stopper derby,” “noller derby,” “stroller derby,” “rugby derby,” “ruler derby,” and “four-on-four derby” to be had.

The special Championships Edition of the WFTDA official magazine. Hopefully, never again on newsstands.

That it came to this isn’t really anyone’s fault. I’m not writing this article so I can assign blame to WFTDA, or a specific team. Just like we can’t completely blame Dutchland for their forfeit against Gotham earlier this year, we can’t completely blame Gotham, or Philly, or Denver, or any single team for reading between the lines of the rule book and crowding themselves at the jammer line, or standing around and doing nothing at jam starts, or stopping at the rear of a pack during a power jam, or skating backwards in packs, or anything like that.

It was just the inevitable conclusion to the competitive nature of team sports, with players doing whatever it takes to win, using a rule book rife with unfair loopholes and grey areas to do it. It’s tragically unfortunate that this directly led to a record number of penalties committed by the “best” teams in the nation, the absolute last thing new fans would want to see when it comes to showcasing the sport to the masses.

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I think the WFTDA is going to look at what happened this year and take away some valuable lessons as it moves forward to grow and expand the sport.

I bet we’ll never see them try and run the same set of rules for two straight years again, for starters. We saw how quickly the game changed from the start of the 2011, to the middle of the  year, to The Big 5 season. Rules need to keep up with what its players are doing on a constant basis. All amateur, collegiate, and professional sports leagues—including the 95-year-old NHL and the 142-year-old MLB—change their rules at least once a year to ensure fair competition within changing times. I think the WFTDA realizes that now, so roller derby should be doing the same from here on out.

But there’s something more important that I hope the WFTDA will come to understand.

One of the original motivations behind the creation of the WFTDA was to devise a standard set of rules that would bring together all the independent roller derby leagues under one unified umbrella, thereby allowing for ease of interleague play. By extension, this made the game more accessible to anyone that wanted to play it, growing the game nationally, and internationally.

There are now 124 WFTDA member leagues and a thousand more leagues throughout the world playing under WFTDA rules (or some derivative thereof), so on that front it’s mission accomplished.

Until this year, however, the primary assumption behind what went into those rules was based on a bunch of women on roller skates getting together to have “fun” in a competitive environment. The current rules are written in a way that assume players would always skate and play roller derby; I needn’t go into specific examples here to prove that, because you can see it on the track when both teams play skate and play roller derby in an attempt to win. (See: Philly/Gotham 2009 or any Rocky/Oly game.)

But the second a team wants to play a game to win first, skating be damned, you run into big problems. (See: Rat City/Rocky or any Gotham 2011 playoff game.) One of those problems is a ridiculous number of rule infractions by all the best teams in the country, as confirmed by Rinxter stats.

This kind of play is turning what was supposed to be the “fun” sport of roller derby, into the frustrating game of “penalty derby.”

When the WFTDA and its member leagues vote on a new set of rules for next year, I hope that they look at derby not as a “fun game that can be competitive,” but a “competitive game that can be fun.” There’s a big, BIG difference between the two, and depending on how the rules get changed for next season (and beyond), we’ll see what kind of game the skaters really want to play.

Frankly, I’m excited about it. I know for a fact that my suggestion for new pack definition rules is being considered by the skaters for the 2012 rules. Surely, there are many other ideas on how to put the “roller” back into roller derby being put through their paces.

However the players vote on how to change the rules, I can guarantee you that the slow derby tactics that started in Denver two years ago, also ended in Denver earlier this month. Surely, a majority of WFTDA leagues—and certainly two out of the best three teams in the country—will want to all but eliminate “slow derby” tactics from the game, and the penalty-heavy play that goes with it hand-in-hand.

When the players voted in the current rules more than 18 months ago, no one imagined that they would be playing the slower, “rugby” style of roller derby that took over the sport like a virus. If they did, it would have been written into the rules from the start. Besides, if they wanted to play rugby, they would have joined a women’s rugby club. Not a roller derby league.

I’m confident the players will do what it takes to get roller derby moving in the right direction again. What I saw on September 13, 2009 was all I needed to see to be sure of that. How they do it is up to them, but now that they know what not to do, it’ll make it easier for them to make good decisions.

But still, there are some people out there that like the slow game. They say it’s “cerebral” or that there are many different “strategies” that a faster game would take away, as if that kind of game is nothing more than just “going fast and turning left.”

Here’s what I say: Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the slow game breeds sloppier skating and more penalties, and roller derby is worse off because of it.

The numbers don’t lie.

So, Mr. and Mrs. Slow Derby Fan, I’m giving you a chance to defend yourself.

I want you to explain to everyone why you like games that have nearly as many penalties as a team has points.

I want you to explain to us why derby fans have been using terms other than “roller derby” to describe the game primarily played during the playoffs.

I want you to justify your ignorance of why derby fans have “Occupy the Pivot Line” signs and boo their own home teams when they engage in extreme slow derby tactics.

I want you to to prove me wrong when I say there were better roller derby games played two years ago, than there were at the WFTDA Championships two weeks ago.

Because I’ve explained why the slow game is bad for roller derby. I’ve backed my claim up with facts. But I’ve yet to see a reasonable explanation as to why the slow game is good for derby.

And I’m still waiting for one.

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21 responses to this post.

  1. I am curious as to how these penalties break down between jammers and blockers, because jammer penalties obviously have a lot more potential to impact the out come of the game. I don’t know why any team wouldn’t want to avoid having their jammer go to the box. At the same time, I can see how drawing pentalies on the opposing jammer is advantageous. Blockers are of course important to the game too, but you are less likely to win or lose a game from one blocker being in the box.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Aussiederbyfan on 25 November 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Very scientific article but can you assume refs are a constant? Perhaps they got better? Or they don’t like slow derby so they call teams that play it more? I am a big fan of your pack solution and I think it’s telling that slow derby is so effective you can still win with so many penalties. I just think methodology wise you could factor in refs at least being more vigilant from one year to the next in such a young sport?

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    • I don’t think officiating is a factor here. All they do is call ’em as they see ’em. It’s just that there has been a lot more for them to see and call lately. The best referees in the WFTDA were staffing the games at Champs, and certainly the best of the best were calling the bloodbath that was the Championship final. Besides, ref bias or integrity alone cannot account for every single game featuring an overflowing penalty box. Yeah, maybe one or two games. But not all of them.

      I can say for sure that good refs are neutral about slow derby. In fact, they’re completely neutral about derby, period. They publicly demonstrate this by having one of their major referee forums, Zebra Huddle, open to the Internet for all to see. (They also have a topic about The Pack Solution, discussing it from an officiating standpoint.) If you just read the forum you will find almost no talk about skate strategy or preferences of derby. They’re just making sure they’re calling the game by the rules. No more, no less.

      I’ve been really impressed with officiating lately. Derby refs do a fantastic job from top to bottom, they really do.

      Reply

  3. ever try to dissect the Texas/Rat City debacle in 2007??????

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  4. Posted by James McAllister on 29 November 2011 at 5:16 am

    Interesting stuff, my only issue is that you state it is a fact that this is bad for roller derby. I don’t think you can say as a fact that the scrum is good or bad for derby, but you can say that you think it is good or bad.

    I only ask this, if the rules as they are, are bad wouldn’t we see less teams using the WFTDA rules set and more either joining, moving to, or creating other rule sets? I tried looking up membership for the other rules and couldn’t find any numbers, but my “ear to the ground” seems to only indicate that more and more teams are adopting the WFTDA rules, and it is a very vocal minority who are using alternate rules.

    This could be a case of that there aren’t many alternatives; however, as someone who has been involved for around five years I have a pretty solid feeling that the number of alternative rules has been strongly decreasing. I would think this implies that teams are at least accepting of the rules set as it is.

    I’m not advocating one way or another regarding the rules, I’m pretty neutral on it. I don’t think the slow game is good or bad for roller derby, it simply is roller derby and I don’t believe you can say that a qualitative assessment is a fact.

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    • I’m basing my claim of “slow derby is bad for roller derby” on the conclusion that “slow derby increases penalties” and “increasing penalties is bad for roller derby.” I would hope everyone agrees on that second part. More penalties means more disregard for the rules, sloppier skating, and lack of effort on the track. I wouldn’t want to have my team do more of that year-to-year, but it seems as if no top team could avoid increasing their fouling rate this year.

      The only way someone can convince me that slow derby is NOT bad for roller derby, is to counter-argue that the increase in penalties has no connection whatsoever to the proliferation of slow derby tactics. The only argument that’s really out there is that the games at Championships this year were more competitive than the games at Championships last year, so that’s not bad. But to that I say, if people are okay with the fouls racking up at record levels just to make sure games stay close, then there is no hope for the future of the sport.

      You bring up a good point about the proliferation of WFTDA rules. Everyone’s using them. I said as much in this article. So that’s good, right?

      But consider when a new league has to decide which set of rules to play by. They’re going to see that all the top teams are playing by WFTDA rules. They can glean strategy and tactical information from watching those games. The new league would also need other leagues to play against. When they also see that a bunch of nearby leagues are also using WFTDA rules, the choice is obvious…if you can really call it a “choice.”

      For all we know, there could be a set of roller derby rules out there that are actually far superior to those the WFTDA are using. (*cough* The Pack Solution *cough*) But no one is going to switch over to them unless a lot of other people also switch over to them. Otherwise, there would be few or no opportunities to play interleague games, which is vital to improve a team’s skill level in the long run. It’s a catch-22 at this point, I feel, and the only way to break it is for WFTDA to lead on the issue.

      Just because everyone’s using WFTDA, doesn’t mean they are the “best” rules. They were just the “first” rules. Being first to market in any industry is a huge advantage, because you can effectively create a monopoly…provided the product you make works well enough to NOT SUCK.

      Up until this year, everyone was accepting of WFTDA rules because they worked. However, now the players have demonstrated that they don’t quite work in the way everyone intended them to be working. (See: The pivot line.) The WFTDA and its players now need to figure out how to make things work again, or else they stand liable to lose a lot of players due to frustration–and maybe whole leagues to other rule sets.

      Reply

  5. Its amazing how much of this article I agree with. Thanks!

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  6. Posted by question man on 30 November 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I wonder if it isn’t the opposite that is true?

    That the reason there are more penalties is because the skill level has increased so much and it is that much harder to stop the skaters today by purely legal methods which means that teams are willing to take penalties to slow things down and prevent points being scored against them?

    Perhaps you are approaching this problem from the wrong end?

    Reply

    • If the increase in skater skill was legitimate, then skaters would be good enough to AVOID getting penalties, just as much as they were good at forcing the other team to commit penalties. If skaters were really improving, they would be able to stop their opponents through legal means, instead of relying on illegal means to the the job.

      That some derby players and derby fans are okay with breaking the rules to try to go for a win doesn’t help derby’s cause for legitimacy.

      Reply

    • Posted by question man on 30 November 2011 at 10:48 pm

      Your supposition maybe incorrect in that there are two skill sets that are developing at different rates. This differential may explain the increase in penalties.

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    • Perhaps. But if these different skill sets are “avoid getting penalties” and “force penalties on the other team,” I’d prefer to see skaters avoid penalties first. It seems so counter-intuitive to me that the only way to force the other team into penalty trouble, or to avoid getting beat or scored on (or to score) is to commit a penalty yourself. I think that’s putting the game on the wrong track.

      Regardless, when the WFTDA changes the rules for next year I’m expecting penalty counts to go down, if only because those stupid rugby starts will be eliminated one way or the other.

      Reply

  7. Posted by question man on 2 December 2011 at 7:16 am

    If they don’t eliminate the rugby scrum shouldn’t penalties, on the top teams, go down as well as they learn to adapt to the strategy and do it more cleanly?

    Reply

  8. Posted by manburger on 4 December 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Windy,

    “…slow derby is bad for roller derby on the conclusion that slow derby increases penalties…”

    “…convince me that slow derby is NOT bad for roller derby, is to counter-argue that the increase in penalties has no connection whatsoever to the proliferation of slow derby tactics…”

    First, I don’t think “slow derby” is bad for roller derby. It’s just not resulting in the roller derby everyone expects to see or play. I’d say that is good for derby without making anymore argument than mutation without intention can be a good thing.

    Second, increased penalties and “slow derby” are not necessarily connected.

    Your argument for this is not entirely settled on a solid foundation. I’m just not seeing how you can invalidate officials from the equation. It takes two participants (skater and ref) to make a penalty regardless of the skill of the skater. I know it’s in poor taste to blow the whistle on referees but to completely disregard officials from the flow of the game is like putting a knee pad to your nose and saying it smells like a rose.

    It is very easy to understand an increase of penalties based solely on how referees are trained or discuss their strategy for calling bouts. You watch sports and a lot of them I gather. You know how boring the NBA is because of how they call fouls. Referees impact the flow of the game because they have a strategy laid out for known scenarios prior to the game. Derby officials do exactly the same (hello ZebraHuddle). They even talk about the flow of the game between halves and during those long official time outs. Ghads, they can get long winded talking about how to score a single point on that last jam (wink wink).

    Referees are in a competition too. They are working to get to the championship bout. Missing a call, blowing a call or calling too much has impact on derby. They want, just as much as a skater, to be in the last game of the weekend. They have to be both good and correct all while creating a safe and enjoyable bout.

    What you can say for sure is that with all the contact occurring from the slower start that penalties are more likely. Now if you could back that up with empirical data your argument would be a solid four wall. Even though there is a lot of statistics right in front of you using Rinxter (about 38 points were scored by Gotham with a jammer advantage in the first half) you only talk in totals for the bout. You need to dive in deeper.

    Sum totals on the bout do not get you to the conclusions you claim because you haven’t shown at all that there are more penalties caused by “slow derby”. You’ve only pointed out that since the inception of slow derby that penalties have been called at a higher rate. It’s like saying that since the creating of breathing people have died. That’s true but not necessarily related.

    If you could show that more penalties are called at certain times and certain locations on the track that would help you more. This could be done graphically with a 2D track and penalties flashing on screen as the jam clock counts down. It could be even more explanatory if skaters could be shown. Or, a low tech approach could be look at the penalty box log.

    What types of penalties called will also show you more about how a game is played (and being called). Lots of blocking calls with lots of majors usually means a physical game while one with procedural calls and track cuts could mean the two teams are relatively new to bouting. In the Gotham v. RMRG bout 10-12% of calls made were “blocking out of play.” That’s a lot of penalties happening beyond the initial scrum and not necessarily a result of “slow derby.”

    While I appreciate and share your enthusiasm for derby I do not find your suggestions for derby with the best intentions for derby. I, too, have been watching modern derby for a long time (almost 10 years) and I can say without hesitation that this year’s championship tournament was the best tournament I’ve seen. I sat at the end of turn two during the RMRG v. Rat City bout. It was incredibly exciting. Hard hitting, energized and it was clear that every jam counted for every skater for the entire bout. All the best action came directly at me. That first 1/3 to 1/2 of the track contained so much firepower of action that I didn’t really care at all that starts weren’t happening as they “should be” or “on time.” My partner (a skater), in contrast, sat at the jammer line and stewed in equal annoyance as you. She couldn’t believe that I enjoyed even a second of that bout knowing how much I enjoy the game. She was floored that I thought it was amazing. My only defense of enjoying it so much is that I let go of my expectations of how I wanted derby to be and embraced the good in what I was seeing.

    In short, this isn’t an issue about penalties that is ruining derby for you. It seems more that you have certain expectations about derby and that the game isn’t doing what you want it to do. You’re a smart guy and make great points but I don’t agree with you about the correlation between “slow derby” and penalties. And you asked for contrary point of view. That’s the one I can think of.

    Reply

    • I’m just not seeing how you can invalidate officials from the equation. It takes two participants (skater and ref) to make a penalty regardless of the skill of the skater.

      How utterly incorrect. It takes exactly one participant to make a penalty: The skater who commits it. Regardless of whether or not there is a referee present, a player performing an action either does it legally, or does it illegally. If they do it illegally, the penalty has been made. After that, it’s up to one of the referees to observe the action, reference the action against the rules, and then blow the whistle and send the player off if said action was illegal.

      Referees impact the flow of the game because they have a strategy laid out for known scenarios prior to the game.

      Your logic is wrong. The “strategies” that refs have are not motivated by a goal of whistling as many penalties as possible. It’s to make sure they can best use their resources (i.e., the number and positioning of zebra eyeballs) to ensure they have a total and unhindered view of what the skaters are doing so they can properly enforce the rules of the game. That means if they’re anticipating the pack is going to line up on the jammer line, they need all be on the same page as to where they’re going to position their inside/outside pack refs to get total coverage of the boundry/start lines and the skaters in the pack from all angles.

      This kind of ref coordination does not directly result in skaters committing more penalties. Like I said, skaters committing an illegal action are breaking the rules no matter how refs are positioned. But referees wouldn’t need to be implementing these kinds of pack coverage strategies unless the players themselves were engaging in these kinds of strategies to begin with. Refs didn’t need these sorts of officiating strategies last year, because teams weren’t lining up on the jammer line last year. Refs would not be calling as many penalties, if the players themselves were committing them in the first place.

      Referees are in a competition too. They are working to get to the championship bout. Missing a call, blowing a call or calling too much has impact on derby. They want, just as much as a skater, to be in the last game of the weekend. They have to be both good and correct all while creating a safe and enjoyable bout.

      Right. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, the best of the best referees were certainly officiating the championship game. We can assume they were both good and correct during that game, because they beat out all the other refs in making sure they were calling the game correctly.

      So that the number of penalties committed by skaters in the championship final was one of the top-three highest in the history of WFTDA roller derby, only further backs my claim that the skaters have never been worse at staying out of the penalty box. How is that even partially the fault of the “good and correct” referees?

      To make a secondary comment outside of this reply, I’ve been seeing a lot of players start to complain to referees about calls/non-calls lately. They’re not being subtle about it, either. Just today at the World Cup final between the U.S. and Canada, one of the U.S. blockers had her hands up in the air for a good four or five seconds during a jam, complaining to an inside pack ref that there should have been a cutting penalty called on the jammer she hit out of bounds. (In a game where the U.S. won by 300 points, no less.) Earlier this year at (I think) WFTDA North Centrals, a blocker was complaining to a ref about something, completely oblivious to the opposing blocker that came in and landed a massive hit which knocked her to the floor. And she fuckin’ deserved it, too.

      I feel that actions like these are conveying a lack of respect towards officials, as if the skaters know better or somehow have a better vantage point than the refs do. That people are trying to shift some or all of the blame to the referees is the typical derbyverse knee-jerk reaction: It can’t be the skaters’ fault, so therefore it’s someone else’s fault. It can’t be the skaters’ fault that they’re committing so many penalties, so let’s blame the refs!

      Somehow, I think the referees would disagree with that sentiment.

      What types of penalties called will also show you more about how a game is played (and being called). Lots of blocking calls with lots of majors usually means a physical game while one with procedural calls and track cuts could mean the two teams are relatively new to bouting. In the Gotham v. RMRG bout 10-12% of calls made were “blocking out of play.”

      It doesn’t matter how good or bad a team is. If a physical team commits 40 penalties, or if a new team commits 40 penalties, or if the WFTDA Champions commit 40 penalties, they’re all equally as bad at playing the game within the established rules. A team that illegally blocks 40 times sits just as long in the penalty box as a team that cuts the track 40 times. Either way, a new fan sitting in the stands is going to see a lot of butts parked on the penalty bench. How they got there is not as important as that they’re there in the first place.

      That’s a lot of penalties happening beyond the initial scrum and not necessarily a result of “slow derby.”

      “Slow derby” exists beyond the start lines. To assume that all I’m talking about is the scrum start is to miss the point entirely. There’s way more to slow derby than that.

      A team with lead jammer will engage in slow derby by ignoring the blockers on the other team and drifting toward the rear of the pack to force the pack to maintain speed or slow down. A team going on the power jam in the middle of a jam will goat a blocker or line up along the outside of the turns to grind the pack to a halt for their jammer. A blocker that hits an opponent out of bounds will stop and skate backwards with her entire team to make sure the pack and/or other jammer goes as far backwards as the rules (and the other team) will allow.

      These slow derby tactics were not in as heavy use last year as they have been this year. All of them are situations rife with potential penalties, penalties that are being committed by skaters a lot more often lately. Granted, the team that usually commits penalties in these situations is the one that isn’t the one wanting to do slow derby. Regardless, my claim is still valid: Slow derby directly results in more penalties. I didn’t say that the team doing the slow derby was the one committing the penalties, just that that more penalties happen across the board because of slow derby tactics in general.

      My partner (a skater), in contrast, sat at the jammer line and stewed in equal annoyance as you. She couldn’t believe that I enjoyed even a second of that bout knowing how much I enjoy the game. She was floored that I thought it was amazing. My only defense of enjoying it so much is that I let go of my expectations of how I wanted derby to be and embraced the good in what I was seeing…. It seems more that you have certain expectations about derby and that the game isn’t doing what you want it to do.

      My expectation for derby is for the game to eventually get to the point where fair, clean-skating, competitive, entertaining, and legitimate games played between many good teams across the country, and the world, are commonplace. If this is setting the bar too high, then I’m sorry for having high expectations for roller derby, expectations I know in my heart of hearts that the current crop of players want to meet.

      If you want to lower your expectations and be satisfied with the crap that people are trying to pass off as “good” roller derby, then by all means. To each their own.

      Reply

  9. Posted by Kid rock N Rollin' on 5 December 2011 at 8:40 am

    First of all, I am a roller derby referee and I absolutely believe that slow derby is bad for derby. Nobody goes to a NASCAR race wanting to see the racers go 50 mph around the track. It makes for boring derby and it’s frustrating to watch. Second, slow derby IS creating more trips to the penalty box and here’s why I believe that. When you have two teams who are moving at a fast pace, things happen quicker and therefore penalties happen quicker, meaning the referee has a shorter amount of time to actually see the penalty and call it. Slow play means that penalties are happening at a slower pace making it easier for the referees to see them and make that call. It’s easier to process, remember, describe something when it goes by you at 5mph than it is if it goes by you at 75mph because you have more time to see it and process all the details about it. Slow play is creating more penalties because the players are giving the refs more time to see the penalties. As a referee It is easier to ref a slower bout than a faster bout because I have more time to see what is actually going on out on the track. Slow play, good for referees, bad for skaters. Also, the number of penalties that COULD have or SHOULD have been called in the Regionals and Championships were far fewer compared to what was actually called. Am I the only one who saw a steady flow of players getting back blocked to the floor and there was nothing being called or at the very best the calls were inconsistent on that? I’m not talking questionable penalties, I’m talking these were blatantly obvious penalties that were not being called. Cutting was another one that was being missed or not called on regular basis. I know cutting can sometimes be hard to see, but I was watching referees who were 3 feet from a player cutting the track and it wasn’t getting called, but on those issues I digress. The bottom line is that slow play is creating sloppier, boring, penalty heavy roller derby. If you want fewer penalties, then the players need be more disciplined AND play at a faster pace.

    Reply

  10. Posted by manburger on 7 December 2011 at 12:45 pm

    “How utterly incorrect.”

    Hardly. It’s just that you are not understanding what I am saying. It’s a simple matter of observation. Someone has to determine, during action if a skater is within or outside of the rule set. Even you admit this,

    “…it’s up to one of the referees to observe the action [and] reference the action against the rules…”

    If there is no observation then what is occurring is called session skating. Break out the disco ball and put on your glam it’s Zanadu!

    “Your logic is wrong. The “strategies” that refs have are not motivated by a goal of whistling as many penalties as possible. ”

    Read what I posted again. Nowhere have I stated that officials are motivated by calling infractions. To help you, here’s the gist of what I said about about officials, “They have to be both good and correct all while creating a safe and enjoyable bout.” That’s about the same as what you’ve said too. So, I’m confused at why you are getting defensive on this point.

    In regards to official’s strategy, “That means if they’re anticipating the pack is going to line up on the jammer line, they need all be on the same page…” sounds like you agree, not disagree. Am I understanding you correctly?

    “Refs didn’t need these sorts of officiating strategies last year, because teams weren’t lining up on the jammer line last year.”

    Windy, because it’s very likey you aren’t an official and can’t actually know what went on with them, I’d like to hear from an official on this who worked the championship tournament last year. Did officials have pregame, mid-game and post game discussions about what went on during play and how officials can be most effective during play? Or, did you all just wing it the whole time?

    “To make a secondary comment outside of this reply, I’ve been seeing a lot of players start to complain to referees about calls/non-calls lately.”

    To honor your digression, it’s incredulous that you would even bring up this issue. Yes, it occurs. It occurs in all sports and at almost every level. Is it right, doubtful. Is it good sportsmanship (sorry ladies), doubtful. But, to go on a tirade about this and conclude with,

    “And she fuckin’ deserved it, too.”

    is incredibly disrespectful to the skaters (and specifically this one skater). They work hard, give up their free time and PAY to play this sport for your entertainment. You should relax a bit on chastising someone that is giving up a lot to provide you (and us) enjoyment.

    If you are saying that I am attempting to blame officials for causing an increase in penalties then you are mistaken. I am merely pointing out that they are fallible and capable of making errors that can not be disregarded as a variable from your evaluation. No matter their skill level then can make mistakes or even make no calls to keep the game flowing. Though I doubt an referee would ever admit to making a no call for obvious reasons, it happens. Even in professional sports, no calls are made. How many times have you seen an NBA official not blow the whistle on the last shot of the game? By the way, I’m sure they plan that in advance too. I’d go so far as to say that they even have conversations with the commissioner about very specific situations involving very specific players too. Would they ever admit it, no way! Is it fair, no way! But, fans eat that up and allow it to happen.

    “A team with lead jammer will engage in slow derby by ignoring the blockers on the other team and drifting toward the rear of the pack to force the pack to maintain speed or slow down. A team going on the power jam in the middle of a jam will goat a blocker or line up along the outside of the turns to grind the pack to a halt for their jammer. A blocker that hits an opponent out of bounds will stop and skate backwards with her entire team to make sure the pack and/or other jammer goes as far backwards as the rules (and the other team) will allow.”

    Windy, all these tactics have been around a lot longer than just this year. In fact, I’d wager, “goating” is the first tactic ever practiced in roller derby.

    You conclude,

    “Regardless, my claim is still valid: Slow derby directly results in more penalties.”

    Yet you suppose prior to this claim,

    “…All of them are situations rife with potential penalties…”

    The optimum word you use it potential. Yes I agree, the potential has increased. And, I will admit that with increased potential some of what you claim will occur. That’s natural. But, with out specifically showing when and where more penalties are being called you can not make such definitive conclusions. You are right that penalties have increase and there is a dramatic change in some tactics on the track but using the sum of all penalties during bouts does not tell the story of how the bout unfolded. One team can rack up about 40 minor penalties without a single player going to the box. That results in a very different outcome than a team that is called for only 10 majors, all on jammers, during an entire bout. Who played a cleaner game?

    “…My expectation for derby is for the game to eventually get to the point where fair, clean-skating, competitive, entertaining, and legitimate games…”

    To assume anything other than that right now is insulting, again, mostly to the skaters (again for the same reasons as I stated above) and, also, the officials. I would wage, these skaters believe, at all levels, believe with all their being that their sport is legitimate, entertaining, competitive and fair right now. If they didn’t they would be off doing something else with their time and money.

    “To each their own.”

    If you actually meant that in a respectful way you would have attempted to find common ground with me like I do with you. Instead, as I reread your entire original post, it seems to me that you only believe what you want to hear and say and that you are probably more trolling for a good fight rather than a discussion about the good and problematic for derby.

    “The numbers don’t lie.”

    In closing, here’s a link to a book you should buy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Lie_with_Statistics

    It’s pretty famous.

    Reply

  11. Posted by Chris Jones on 8 December 2011 at 10:16 am

    “If you are saying that I am attempting to blame officials for causing an increase in penalties then you are mistaken. I am merely pointing out that they are fallible and capable of making errors that can not be disregarded as a variable from your evaluation. No matter their skill level then can make mistakes or even make no calls to keep the game flowing. ”

    Certainly officials make errors, but IMO the argument for discarding this variable rests on the assumption that this variable didn’t change much between championships. All the discussion of referee strategies, positions, skill at calling derby, etc. would be relevant if one could show these factors changed substantially between championships; that at least would be a reason to consider official fallibility as a potential cause for the dramatic increase in penalties year-to-year.

    I’m no expert, just a fan–and your call for officials to weigh in on different techniques from 2009 vs 2011 is a fair one–but I personally would be surprised if there was any substantial change based on refereeing skill alone. It’s possible that an adjustment in refereeing strategy (based on the expected prevalence of slow-derby tactics) made it possible for the ref’s to detect many more penalties besides those associated with slow derby (like the way replanning your daily commute to avoid new construction also leads you to discovering a shortcut you might not have found otherwise), but considering the dramatic increase in penalties this would presume officiating was using a VERY inefficient strategy to start with, even among the best officials. It’s hard to believe the skaters in high-caliber bouts wouldn’t have complained if nearly half the penalties committed in a typical bout went unnoticed by the refs prior to the 2009 advent of the slow-derby strategy (or, at least, complained no more than they do now:-).

    IMO Windyman is making a fair, simplifying assumption in ignoring officiating as a substantial factor. We’re talking about a doubling of penalties here; it’s logical to assume that’s occurring mainly (though perhaps not completely) because more penalties are actually being committed rather than belatedly discovered. Asking him to track every penalty on the track to prove this is akin to asking him to prove the American Flag has 50 stars by insisting he check every one flying in the US. Sure, if he did this he may find a few 48-star variants in a few remote outposts, but does it really invalidate the assumption that when you see an American Flag it most likely has the correct layout?

    Reply

  12. If you didn’t start the penalty clock until the jammer whistle, you could very easily get rid of the stalling to kill penalties at least.

    Reply

  13. […] I have about slow derby tactics, particularly the “wall of humanity” jam starts that made the WFTDA playoff season something of a farce. When everyone starts with their butts glued to the jammers, there’s no room for anyone to build […]

    Reply

  14. As a novice Derby fan I have very little experience with these topics, although I have now seen a few bouts both of the fast and slow version and I would like to offer my novice insights:

    1. Refs, even good ones seem to miss a lot at high speed. I’ve watched a few of the slower bouts and the penalties do rack up BUT I’ve watched the faster ones and a lot of the same things that would be penalties in the slower bouts are missed or go unenforced. I think in a way this might have something to do with how refs actually follow the action and that in “fast” derby there actually needs to be more refs. The zone approach to reffing works well in the slower style derby, but not so much in the fast derby.

    2. The nature of the “fast derby” and the blocking seems to separate players and packs which leads to less penalties. When a skater commits to a block in fast derby, they often go from skating very fast, to committing to a block, if the block is successful, so be it; if not the person attempting the block will go from skating very quickly to almost a stop, off on the side of the track. When that happens the pack starts to lose cohesion.

    Ultimately I think fast derby is better, better to watch, better for the sport better overall.
    I personally would like to see rules that sort of “force” the issue and force slow derby to move to fast derby. Maybe something like a requirement that the pack must make one complete revolution every 40 seconds (or whatever is appropriate to speed things up).
    If the pack doesn’t a point gets deducted from each side.

    Reply

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