Another Derby #1: Classic Roller Derby

Chapter 2

Classic Roller Derby: The Rules

Leading up to their invention official invention, the rules of roller derby went through major changes and revisions as Leo Seltzer tried balancing the integrity of the game with the necessity of putting on a good show for the crowd. Some things worked, like adding the pivot position to the game. Some things didn’t work; an experimental version of roller derby had three teams on the track at once, but that was scrapped when two teams teamed up to bully the third.

Before long a genuine framework for the sport had emerged, and once established the game remained virtually unchanged for over 40 years. The idea of a designated player lapping opponents for points has always been at the core of roller derby, but things like shorter jam length (it was also 2 minutes in the early years, coincidentally), faster and more agile players, and a more, shall we say, liberal interpretation of the rules and lax enforcement of them ultimately made the classic game what it was.

In the end it was still an actual sport, even if the conditions in which it was primarily played didn’t always make it appear that way. If you remove the staged fighting, the pre-determined plays and outcomes, and the over-the-top personalities playing it, all that remains is a set of rules that dictates how roller derby is played.

That’s the thing I’m most interested in taking a closer look at: What are the hows and whys of classic derby rules?

The old game has multiple concepts worth investigating, most of which I’ll get to throughout the course of this series. However, before getting there let’ look back and learn how the game was played in the 1960s and 1970s, the time when roller derby was at its peak in the United States.

Here are the major bullet points on the rules of that era, and a video demonstrating them in action:

Game Parameters

Teams – A team can consist of up to 16 players, but always an equal number of men and women on the same team. (Seven women and seven men on one team of 14, for example.) Though on the same team, men and women were never on the track at the same time during gameplay; it was strictly men vs. men and women vs. women, alternating periods. Men and women “pairs” would wear the same player number on the same team.

Track – The classic game was played exclusively on a banked track with a Masonite skating surface. (It was a bit longer and wider than a modern banked track.) A single start line is marked halfway down one of the straights. Team and penalty benches are located in the infield.

Structure – Games were 96 minutes long, with eight 12-minute periods. (Halftime is after the 4th period.) Women skated in odd-numbered periods (1st, 3rd, etc.) and men in the even-numbered (2nd, 4th, and so on). The team with the highest point total at the end of the game, men and women combined, wins.

Periods – At the start of each half (and overtime) play begins from a standing start when the referee fires the starting gun. In all other periods, the period begins when players are rolling in pack formation and the referee signals for play to begin. The period clock takes precedence over the jam clock, meaning any active jam ends once the period clock expires.

Exception: In the 7th, 8th, and overtime periods, the jam clock takes precedence, allowing a jam to naturally conclude after the expiration of the period.

Jams – Play begins only when the pack is rolling at a comfortable pace and after the referee determines the pack is in a fair starting formation. Pivots must line up at the front of the pack, blockers in the middle, and jammers at the rear. Front pivot position is determined by which team last scored.[1] Both teams must have at least one jammer, one blocker, and one pivot on the track before a jam can begin.

The referee will then sound his whistle to begin play, signaling to the jammers to race through the pack. The 60-second jam begins when a jammer breaks from the pack to become lead jammer, and ends after jam/period time expires or when the lead jammer places hands on hips.

Exception: At the start of each half and in overtime, players begin from from a standing start. Jammers line up on the start line at the front of the pack, with all pivots/blockers behind them. Period and jam time begins when the starting gun is fired. Jammers may immediately break from the pack (as they are already out in front of it) to start scoring.

Lead status is always given to the jammer or pivot most forward on the track. Lead status can change between players (teammates or opponents) when a trailing jammer or pivot overtakes the lead jammer (or pivot). There can be multiple scoring players out on a jam, but there may only be one lead jammer. There must always be one lead jammer on the track at all times once the jam begins.

Above: The player positions, helmet designations, and start formation of classic derby. Below: The modern equivalent.

Players

Jammers – Designated with team-colored, cross-striped helmets. They are the offense, with the ability to lap the pack and score points. Once a jammer breaks from the pack and establishes lead position to start the jam, all other position players (jammers/pivots) are also eligible to break from the pack and score. The lead jammer can call off the jam at any time by placing his/her hands on their hips.

Blockers – Designated with solid team-colored helmets. They are the defense, who must prevent the other team from scoring. They cannot score, but can be scored upon. They must remain in the pack at all times.

Pivots – Designated with solid black helmets (regardless of team affiliation). They are a special position that is primarily defense, but can break from the pack and become an offensive player at any point after a jammer breaks from the pack and starts the jam. Pivots are generally regarded as a team’s “playmaker,” the key player who needs to be proficient at both offense and defense.

Helmet Restrictions – A player must be wearing his/her helmet to be the designated position player. A jammer or pivot that loses their helmet may not earn any points until they recover and replace their helmet. Helmets (positions) may never change between players during a jam, only between jams.

The Pack – Blockers must remain in the pack at all times. The pack must move in a counter-clockwise direction at all times (i.e., no stopping or clockwise skating). Pivots initially set the pace of the pack, but once jammers reach scoring position, teams may attempt to maneuver within the pack in an attempt to slow (forward wall) or speed (pullaway) the pack, as tactically necessary.

Blocking

Blockers may make use of any part of their body, except their hands, feet, or skates, to block other players. However, arms may not be used in blocking while fully extended. The point of the elbow may only be swung parallel with the track surface, and never at the head. Teammates may not interlock with their hands or arms in an attempt to form a defensive wall, but may link at the wrists. Referees have the authority to issue penalties for any illegal block or illegal action not explicitly outlined in the rules.

A selection of hand signals used by classic derby referees. Contrary to popular belief, there were penalties back then–it sometimes just took a lot for a ref to finally call one.

Penalties

Minor penalties – One minute in length. Include illegal blocking, tripping, holding, illegal use of hands, delay of game, and others.

Major penalties – Two minutes in length. Include fighting, unnecessary roughness, insubordination, and unsportsmanlike conduct.

Penalty Enforcement – Penalties are issued during or between jams, and players serving the penalty will report to the penalty bench immediately (but in practice, between jams). A penalized team must skate the duration of the penalty short-handed. All penalties reduce the number of blockers on the track for a team only. (The player is penalized, not the position.) Upon expiration of penalties, players may freely rejoin the pack while gameplay is in progress. Penalties committed near the end of a period carry over into the next period, with men serving women’s penalties and vice versa. Players accumulating eight total penalty minutes in a game are ejected.

Scoring

Any jammer who breaks from the pack is eligible to score points. Any pivot that breaks from the back after the jam begins (after a jammer first breaks from the pack) is also eligible to score. A team may have more than one player out on a scoring attempt simultaneously. A point is earned for every opponent lapped by an active jammer or pivot after the jam has begun. An individual jammer may only score on an opponent once per jam (no multiple scoring passes) but a team can score on a single opponent multiple times if more than one of that team’s jammers/pivots can pass them in the same jam.

A jammer that is fouled by a blocker while attempting to score on them will automatically be awarded a point for their team. Ghost points are awarded to a team’s jammer only if they score on all other opponents on the track during a jam. (That is, a team’s jammer must pass the all the other four players on the track before getting the one box point.)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Those are the basic rules of the classic roller derby game. Whether the the pioneers of modern roller derby knew it or not, this was the blueprint from which they worked with to make their own rules, rules that are still an ongoing work in progress. Although these rules and the structure of the game served derby well throughout the 20th century, there are probably things in them that would not work in today’s game.

The “anything goes” blocking rules wouldn’t fly, as they would probably be very dangerous. There’s also the fact that the old game had penalties were rarely called for things that would obviously be a foul or penalty in any legitimate sport today, let alone roller derby. A game with more than one active scoring threat per team may be something a legit professional game can someday bring back, but today’s volunteer referees have enough complexity to deal with; one active scoring player per team is fine for now, thanks.

Still, there are some things in the classic rulebook that the modern game would do well to take a closer look at. This is not a suggestion that we copy the old rules into the new rulebook word-for-word; it’s merely a suggestion that the game was setup in the way it was setup for a reason, and if some of the things in it may still hold water today. It would do no harm to at least come to an understanding of why things were done the way they were, in other words.

You may have noticed that there were a couple of bold and underlined passages in the summary of rules. I’ve highlighted these because they may be of use to modern derby’s own efforts to make their versions of the game work better for everyone. There are going to be a few of these throughout this series, so look out for them as we go along.

Of all the concepts of roller derby we’ll be putting under the microscope, though, there’s a very important one that we need to start things off with:

The start.

~ ~ ~ Continue to Chapter 3 ~ ~ ~

Chapter 2 Footnotes:

[ 1 ] An element of this rule exists today in modern banked track (RDCL) play. The team that scored the most points on the previous jam, gets first pick of inside/outside positioning for their jammer at the jammer start line. (A coin flip determines start position for the first jam of the game.) Return

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by FobWatchHero on 30 April 2012 at 1:37 pm

    As always, Windyman, your articles are well written, researched, and thought out. However, I’m a little confused as to your intent. In your introductory post, you say that other sports have “volumes upon volumes of knowledge to refer to when teaching the basics, crafting strategies, and refining rules to play by.” I think it is a worthy and noble goal to begin something like that for derby, and I applaud your attempt. But then, in chapters 3 and 4 you spend a considerable amount of time editorializing various rules.

    Now, I’m not saying your points aren’t valid, nor am I saying you shouldn’t express them. I think you have a lot of good things to say about modern derby rules and changes to them, and I’m glad your opinions are gaining traction in the derby community.

    If you’re looking to begin a repository of derby knowledge, though, I think it would be beneficial to keep the “history and concepts” separate from your opinions of them. I find your personal interjections distract from the interesting and valuable information you’re giving. Allow the reader to absorb the information free from bias, and perhaps reserve a final installment in the series for the purpose of suggesting changes.

    Of course, this is your blog, and that’s just one guy’s opinion, so I won’t be offended if you choose to ignore it. I’ll most likely keep reading, regardless!

    Reply

    • I make no apologies for injecting my opinion into places that I feel it may help make a point or where I feel some criticism is necessary to drive something home. (That is the ultimate purpose of this blog, after all.) Some people may not like that. I get it.

      But it’s part of the whole thing about perspective. If they can understand where I’m coming from, such as you do, then that’s part of the process and I’m cool with that even if they disagree with me. If they can’t (or choose not to) then that’s a problem with them, not with me or my opinions.

      There are going to be other opinionated chapters of this series, and I’m not going to try to hide that. Though I’d like to try slant more neutral when everything is all said and done, some of the topics I’m going to be covering will basically be a direct challenge to the status-quo in modern roller derby, flat and banked. It’s tricky to basically say, “you’re doing this wrong,” without coming off at least a little bit biased, even if I back it up.

      When I get to those parts, however, I will try to keep your view of things in mind. Thanks for the honest feedback!

      Reply

  2. Posted by pwhastin on 1 May 2012 at 10:37 am

    It actually seems like letting the pivot score as stated above would virtually eliminate the pack issues we see today. The only time that the strategy of a stopped pack would be useful is if both the pivot and the Jammer were in the box at the same time. This would be a sort of a Super Power Jam. In all other scenarios, holding the pack back without the effort of holding the other team back would make very little sense as there would always be a scoring threat. No effort slow derby seems to be the result of having no scoring threat on the floor for one team. Having a scoring Pivot would reduce the frequency of this tremendously. There would still be power jams when the offense of one team was reduced by a Pivot or Jammer in the box, but they would still be an offensive threat.

    I disagree with forced location at the start. It seems that the same goal could be achieved with teams having a priority enforced by the pack ref. The team that last scored would have the right to take the inside spot on either the jammer line or the pivot line and the other team would have the right to take any spot directly next to in front of or behind that player. They teams would have the right to take alternating positions if they wanted to. This would allow for the strategy differences without creating an undue advantage.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Chris Jones on 2 May 2012 at 10:13 am

    I thought the pivot discussion was the most interesting part of this article. I too have wondered why the WFTDA rules single out a pivot from the other blockers; there just doesn’t seem to be that much they can do. But now knowing the history–that basically pivots could break from the pack as a jammer once the other jammer is out–the WFTDA pivot rules IMO look like the fragments of a half-remembered game–people kind of remember seeing pivots always at the front of the pack and sometimes could break away, but no one seemed to remember why.

    The star-pass rule in particular illustrates this point. It allows the pivot to become a jammer (like in the old rules), and routinely I hear this strategy described as “desperate” or “thrilling”, somewhat akin to pulling the goalie in hockey. But objectively, the rule doesn’t really convey much of an advantage because the jammer must be near the pivot anyway to perform a star-pass, i.e. she has to go thru the same blocking regimen the jammer would anyway, plus deal with the logistics of passing the helmet cover–which as the recent Windy-Rose bout shows isn’t as simple as it seems. Frankly–outside of the minor deception value–I don’t understand why teams use this strategy; if you think your pivot is a better jammer, why not simply start with her as jammer? The only way this rule would be useful is if the “star-pass” were a virtual one–like in the older rules that allow the pivot to break once the opposing jammer is free, regardless of her own jammer’s position in the pack. This might also be the reason the pivot on a star-pass can never be lead jammer; under the old rules she’d only become jammer after the opponent has gone in front of her.

    This is where IMO this series can be very valuable to the RD community, because the older rules were play-tested over a long period of time in front of large audiences. Rules for the modern game didn’t arise out of thin air; they are based on imperfect memories from watching the older bouts. Perhaps some of the gameplay problems we’re seeing now are a result of those built-in imperfections…

    Reply

    • I don’t understand why teams use this strategy; if you think your pivot is a better jammer, why not simply start with her as jammer?

      There are three legit reasons that I could think of that a star pass is a smart idea in WFTDA play:

      1. A jam goes the full two minutes, but a jammer is gassed and may find it more efficient to pass the star off to the pivot, who would have fresher legs;

      2. A jammer finds themselves with three minors and passes the star to avoid the chance of getting a 4th minor while jamming; and

      3. A jammer sent to the box at the end of the last jam comes back onto the track during the next jam and wants to have the regularly-scheduled jammer have the star in the current jam, or to avoid #1 or #2 from happening (again).

      But even in these cases, the “strategy” of the star pass is the result of flawed rules that make them viable. #1 wouldn’t happen if there was always a true lead jammer that could call off the jam defensively. #2 wouldn’t be necessary if there were no minors (which is happening for the 2012 rules, thankfully). #3 wouldn’t happen if every jam started with a jammer (and pivot), as has historically been the case.

      Power jams are a different beast, however. I deliberately avoided talking about this in this first part; I’m saving that for part 3.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Skater Guy on 8 May 2012 at 8:15 am

    Having played in games both with and without a real pivot, I’d have to say derby with a meaningfull pivot makes for a far more strategy-filled and exciting game than one without it.

    Could you imagine an NFL game if before each snap the quarterback had to call out which single player would be allowed to catch a pass or be handed off to?

    By having two real scoring threats out there each time, teams have to work on controlling the front and the back of the pack at all times, and by having two active jammers battling for points almost every jam it cuts lopsidded scores way the heck down.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Candykitten on 22 May 2012 at 12:14 am

    Anyone ever think how this impacts referees? Or don’t you care about them?

    Reply

  6. This section on Pivot is the most interesting part of your article, and the most important to me. In summing up, you say: “If you’re going to just keep them (pivots) as a special blocker, then make them truly special with actual gameplay abilities that regular blockers don’t have.”
    You are right on the money. Otherwise, why even have a Pivot?
    Perhaps when one team gets lead jammer, the opposing team’s Pivot becomes the center of the pack, and the pack is defined as only those blockers from both teams who are within 10 or 20 feet of the defending Pivot? This would make the Pivot the captain of the defense, just as the Jammer is the leader on offense.
    Maybe it wouldn’t work, I don’t know. But you are clearly on the right track here.
    Thanks for more great writing & insight. You’re a big help to a lot of us out here who are working to help roller derby make the transition into a true professional sport.
    Please keep up the good work!

    Reply

  7. Posted by mos deathly on 29 July 2012 at 9:27 am

    We love having our Pivots break over at M.A.D.E. It creates such an exciting dynamic to the game. You have to not only stop the opposing teams Jammer, but also hold their Pivot back. And we have the same penalty system as Classic Derby, except we are out on our 6th infraction (not the 8th).

    Reply

  8. […] number 1 was retired permanently. If you love derby, you should be interested in learning about where it has been and in helping it grow. There are a lot of mixed feelings about this and you shouldn’t be […]

    Reply

  9. […] decent summary of Roller Derby history can be found from the The Roller Derby Origin Story and Roller Derby Notes, but here are a few key points related to our current jersey […]

    Reply

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