The Pack Problem

Wwhy trying to make teams cooperate can't work when they are competing against each other.

There’s a problem brewing in modern roller derby.

This problem doesn’t have anything to do with the schism between the flat track and the banked track.  It’s nothing to do with the drama over someone’s comments about how to skate.

I’m here to bring to light something I believe is a problem that’s right in front of us. It’s right under our noses. You may have even seen it a million of times and not have realized it.  It’s a problem that’s festering and waiting to potentially ruin roller derby as we know it. What could it be?

Here it is, plucked straight from the WFTDA rulebook:

WFTDA 2011 Rules

4.1 – Pack Definition
4.1.1 – The pack is defined by the largest group of in bounds Blockers, skating in proximity, containing members from both teams.

If you don’t see a problem here, then that’s the problem.

I’ve spent years of my life watching roller derby: Old-school, WFTDA, flat track, banked track, in person, streaming live, YouTube clips, you name it. If it’s roller derby, I’ll eat it up.  I love roller derby like nothing else.

However, I’m also pretty passionate about sports in general, and regularly follow sports with enough regularity to understand how they work, what their rules are,ahow they work, and how teams try to push the limits of the rules to exploit any gray area they can to gain an advantage. Such is the reason for the old saying in NASCAR auto racing: If you ain’t cheatin’, you aint’ tryin’.

I’m not insinuating that anyone is cheating in roller derby, of course. But the spirit of the saying holds true in all sports. If you’re not pushing the bleeding edge of the rules, then you’re leaving a potential advantage out there that the other team may be using against you.

With that, I present an essay to the roller derby community, specifically directed at the WFTDA.  As any sport grows, and teams get better, the desire to win becomes greater and greater.  The desire to win any possible advantage over the other teams is born from this.  From that, you’ll eventually have teams looking for loopholes in the rules that they can try to eke an advantage out of, however small.

This analysis will aim to demonstrate that there is a potentially disastrous loophole lurking within rule 4.1.1, the pack definition rule. Using real-world examples, a thought experiment, similar situations from other sports, and good-old common sense, we can make better sense out of the problem.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – WFTDA Rule 4.1.1, In Definition
Chapter 2 – The Intentional Foul and its Role in Sports
Chapter 3 – WFTDA Rule 4.1.1, In Practice
Chapter 4 – The Pack Problem, Explained
Chapter 5 – Banked Track Worst Case Scenario: The Iron Maiven Incident
Chapter 6 – Learn from the Past; Plan for the Future
Chapter 7 – Flat Track Worst Case Scenario: Intentional Penalties
Chapter 8 – The Pack Problem, Realized
Chapter 9 – The Solution to the Problem…Maybe
Chapter 10 – Final Thoughts

Chapter 1

WFTDA Rule 4.1.1, In Definition

In modern roller derby rule books, be it flat track or banked track, the rules defining the pack and players’ role in it are pages long. However, the first rule about pack definition is quite clear, and it’s what we will be focusing on in revealing and discussing the pack problem.  Here it is again, with the relevant passage emboldened:

4.1 – Pack Definition
4.1.1 – The pack is defined by the largest group of in bounds Blockers, skating in proximity, containing members from both teams.

By rule, the pack must consist of blockers from both teams.  The rules also cover the both teams having responsibilities to keep the pack together, skaters needing to skate in within a definied proximity, players in the pack, in play, and out of play, and no-pack situations.1

In a 4-on-4 or otherwise equal-strength pack, both teams have an equal right to try to gain control of the pack, positioning within the pack, and to a certain degree, the speed of the pack. This is pretty straightforward.

A team demonstrating superior pack play can get more jammer breakouts, scoring passes, and points.  What happens in the pack is critical to scoring, and since 80% of the players on the track are blockers within the pack, what goes on in there dictates what goes on with roller derby in general.

Basic roller derby strategy dictates that if your jammer gets out of the pack first2 and is out in front of the other jammer by a significant margin, the team with the leading jammer will want to slow the pack down to make it easier for their jammer to catch up to the rear of the pack and possibly get in multiple scoring passes. At the same time, the team without lead will try to prevent the pack from slowing down to try and delay the other team’s jammer to catching up as easily, giving their team more time to do something in response.

The problem comes when there is an imbalance in the pack due to blocker penalties. In these cases it’s made somewhat easier for the team with more blockers in the pack to get their jammer into scoring position, as it should be due to the penalties taken by the other team.

Unfortunately, it also makes it a disproportionately easier for a shorthanded team to get their jammer into scoring position, something that goes against the idea of common sense. A team with fewer players on the track should always have a more difficult time of getting what they want, but the WFTDA game doesn’t always make this the case.

The details of how this is possible will come shortly. But first, there’s an important sports concept that needs a look at, as it will later factor in to why The Pack Problem is indeed an actual problem in roller derby.


Chapter 2

The Intentional Foul and its Role in Sports

In mainstream sports, it’s an accepted and valid strategy for an individual or team to intentionally commit a foul or take a penalty—that is, break the rules on purpose—in an attempt to benefit from it in a roundabout or silver-lining kind of way. In doing so, a team can temporarily prevent something immediately bad from happening to them at the cost of putting the other team at advantageous position as compensation.

Basketball fans should be readily familiar with this concept.  With time running out, a team down by a few points will intentionally foul someone on the other team. This gives the fouling team the immediate benefit of a clock stoppage and possession of the ball back after the team in the lead takes their free throws.

However, that’s the downside and risk of this strategy: The team being fouled gets immediate retribution for the actions of the other team, in this case the chance at two easy points. If the fouled player is very good at the free throw line, this tactic would cause the fouling team to fall further and further behind.

Still, the intentional foul gives a losing team at least a small chance of mounting a comeback.  The hope is that a poor free throw shooter is fouled quickly and they miss one or both free throws.  In turn, trailing team has a chance to quickly score coming back the other way and claw back a point or two during the sequence, with minimal impact on the dwindling clock.

After the leading team gets the ball back, the team behind would foul again to repeat the cycle in the hope that a string of missed free throws and made baskets would put the game back in reach.

This can often cause the end of close basketball games to get drawn out with fouls and free throws, turning the last minute of game time into the last ten minutes of real time.  Fans get annoyed by it too, especially if their team is the one winning and is getting fouled. However, teams and players alike understand it’s what a team sometimes needs to do in the closing seconds to win a game, making it an accepted part of basketball.

Other sports have similar tactics.  In hockey, there are times where a team in the offensive zone has a very good scoring chance, like a partial breakaway or a clear shot at goal with the goaltender out of position.  There are certain circumstances where a defender will deliberately hold, hook or otherwise impede the offensive skater to deny them a very good scoring chance.  This is called a “good penalty” or “a penalty you have to take” in hockey-speak.

But it’s still a penalty.

As compensation for being penalized, the team who was denied the good scoring chance immediately gets another good one: A power play, which forces the other team to skate with one less defender for two minutes. The player/team committing the penalty figures it’s better to prevent a very-very-good chance to score and the cost of a penalty, at the trade-off of giving the other team a pretty-good-but-no-guarantee chance at scoring during the power play.

Football also has a variant of the intentional foul. In college football, pass interference is only a 15 yard penalty. You’ll often see a defensive back getting beat deep down field deliberately interfering with a receiver who would otherwise have a sure reception for a big gain. In taking the penalty, the defense is figuring—and rightly so—that it’s better to give up 15 yards and a free first down instead of 30, 40, 50 yards or more, and maybe even a touchdown.

In the NFL, pass interference is a spot foul3, so the punishment more accurately fits the crime.  Still, if this happens in the end zone, the ball would be put on the 1-yard line.  Giving a professional football team four new chances to gain a yard to score almost always results in a touchdown, but you never know if a miraculous defensive goal line stand or a mistake from the offense will turn a sure touchdown into a field goal instead.

Because there’s a chance, however slim, that an intentional penalty could cause a four-point swing in a game, it’s a tactic that coaches wouldn’t hesitate to teach their players to use if the circumstances arise to do so.

Under certain circumstances, particularly near the end of a game, a foul or penalty is the lesser of two evils. This is why despite the situational benefits an intentional penalty might bring, you don’t see sports teams committing penalties on people left and right. There’s a very good reason for this: Penalties are designed to penalize a team for breaking the rules in such a way where it unfairly advantages a team, unfairly disadvantages the other team, or as is usually the case, both at the same time.

This is why sports rulebooks are written so as to discourage players from committing penalties. There is no sane reason a player would want to hurt their team intentionally, particularly because any scoring chance a defensive player takes away from the offensive team, they’ll just get right back in the form of a power play, penalty shot, penalty yardage, or free throws.

Never would there be a situation where a penalty would directly benefit the team taking it, let alone irreconcilably disadvantage the fouled-upon team. Otherwise, it would no longer “penalize” the team that committed it.

But what if it did? It’s time to play devil’s advocate and apply this line of thinking to roller derby.


Chapter 3

WFTDA Rule 4.1.1, In Practice

Let’s get back to unequal pack situations in roller derby.  Pretend we have a 4-3 pack.  The Blue team has four blockers and the Red team has three blockers.  Both jammers are on the track. For the purposes of this example and all those following, assume that both teams have about the same level of skating skill and derby experience.

At the start of a jam, Red will have a bit more difficulty in getting their jammer through than Blue, due to the decreased blocking power within the pack.  Still, being one blocker down isn’t that big of a deal if the Red blockers are good and the Red jammer can make a few moves to get lead jammer status.

So let’s say Red is at a 3-4 pack disadvantage, but has lead jammer with a bit of a lead on the Blue jammer, who also managed to break from the pack.

If we follow basic derby strategy, Blue will want to speed the pack and make it harder for the Red to catch up to the blue players and score, or at least give time for the Blue jammer to catch the Red jammer. The opposite is true for Red, which will want to try to slow or even stop the pack to make it easier for their jammer to catch up and score before the Blue jammer can catch up to the pack herself.

Here is where the problems begin. Although they’re outnumbered, all the Red team has to do to slow the pack is gang up on a single opposing blocker (three against one) and pin them behind a wall. This is a common pack strategy known as “goating” a blocker. Owing to the pack definition rules, this automatically makes this group the pack, since they’re the biggest group of blockers (four out of seven) that has members of both teams in it (3 red, 1 blue).

Red therefore has a way of pinning down a Blue blocker and slowing the pack down to the benefit of their jammer, despite being shorthanded in the pack. They also have a fair chance to score, much like a hockey team skating shorthanded due to a penalty can still score a goal.

However, if the Blue team wanted to use the other extreme—get the pack going as fast as possible to make it harder for the Red team to score—they are prevented from doing so due to the pack definition rule.  Although the Blue team can work to get entirely in front of the Red blockers within the pack, once they get there they have to deal with a speed limit.

The Blue blockers aren’t able to go faster than the Red blockers were going at the time that they passed them, due to the fact that the speed of the pack is the responsibility of both teams. If Blue starts to pull away from Red with speed, creating a pack split, a Blue blocker would get pegged with a destroying the pack penalty due to the fact that the Blue team was the one that initiated the speed change at the front.

This means that the rules–not their opponents–force the Blue team to stay at the Red team’s current (and usually, slow) speed. This would be despite the fact that the Red team has fewer blockers on the track due to penalties and are not doing any physical blocking to hold the Blue team back.

Here’s the takeaway: It’s okay for a team to cause the pack to come to a dead stop if they can demonstrate superior positioning and blocking skill. Even a team with just two blockers against four can technically achieve this. The rules make it that way.

However, it is impossible for a team to do the opposite and put the pack into a dead sprint, even if they can counter the other team’s tactics by outmaneuvering them, or if they enjoy a 4-2 pack advantage and demonstrate superior evasiveness and speed. The rules make it that way.

This doesn’t make much sense. Imagine an NFL game where a wide receiver completely smokes a defensive back on a play and looks to be wide open for a long pass, but the receiver gets penalized for breaking a rule that requires players from both teams be within a certain range of each other. That is, if the equivalent rule 4.1.1 was put into football, an offensive receiver would have to stay close to the defender at all times—even if it’s to the defender’s benefit.

That’s the start of the problem.


Chapter 4

The Pack Problem, Explained

Again, the same scenario: Red has lead jammer, but is down 3-4 in the pack. All four Blue blockers manage to position themselves at the front of the pack. As per standard derby strategy, it’s in the best interest of Red to goat a blocker and slow the pack down so that their team has the most possible time to get into scoring position.

Put yourself in the skates of the Red in this situation. Are you in any hurry to catch up to the Blue blockers if your jammer is no where near the rear of the pack?  If the Red blockers immediately sprint forward to catch up to the Blue blockers ahead of them, that would allow the Blue blockers to also speed up without fear of penalties, creating a fast pack that would make it more difficult for the Red jammer to catch up and score.

Instead, the better strategy for Red would be to slowly cruise around at the rear of the pack, forcing the Blue blockers to match speed. This happens frequently. Jammers are running around the track at top speed and little to nothing is happening within a pack that has all blockers of one team at the front, and all of the other team’s blockers at the rear with a big gap between them.

When this happens, the Blue team is unfairly put into a vulnerable position. They would want to put distance between themselves and the Red jammer4, but they know they can’t do that unless Red also starts skating forward to engage them at the front. However, the only reason why Red would want to skate forward is if their jammer is with them, ready to score.  When the pack finally does start to speed up, it’s almost certain that Red will get its goat, thereby allowing them to dramatically slow the speed of the pack.

When the fast pack at the front inevitably turns into a slow pack at the rear, the three remaining (non-goated) Blue blockers up front will naturally drift closer to the front end of the engagement zone, due to the speed change causing the front of the newly defined pack to quickly drop behind them. This creates a gap between the Red wall at the front of the newly-defined forward pack, and the Blue wall top of the engagement zone some distance in front of it.

After the Red jammer gets around the single Blue blocker in the goat pen, who is walled off by the three Red blockers, the Red jammer then goes one-on-three against the remaining Blue blockers. However, by this time the three remaining Blue blockers start to separate more and more as the pack behind them slows down or stops, which is necessary to match the speed of the incoming Red jammer and to avoid stop-blocking direction of play penalties.

Inevitably, the three remaining Blue blockers hit 20 feet and are forced to let the jammer go on to score on them, even though she effectively only needed to get by one thanks to the help of her team; the others came thanks to the threat of out of play penalties.  At this point, the jam gets called off before the Blue jammer can get into scoring position, leading to the most common jam scoreline there is: 4-0.

You may be thinking: “Well yeah, it’s Blue’s fault that they didn’t get lead jammer, so Red has every right to score like that!,” Or, “it’s Blue’s fault that they allowed one of their skaters to get goated and scored upon!” Or even still, “Blue should have slowed down to stay with the pack to avoid being out of play!” Fair enough.

But these arguments are ignoring the underlying problem of what’s going on here.

Let’s change our example scenario. Instead of a jam with both jammers on thet rack, now the Red team is on a power jam, but Blue still has a 4-3 pack advantage.

Let’s establish that a team on the power jam is not getting a guarantee that they will score. It just means that they are the the only team with a jammer, making them the only team on the track that has the potential to score.5 The Blue team won’t be able to score without their jammer on track, but they should still have every fair right to avoid being scored upon. Especially in this case, since the Blue team has a pack blocking advantage.

In the jam, the Red jammer eventually manages to get through the pack and pick up lead jammer. After this happens, it’s in the best interest of the Blue team to speed up the pack and make it harder for the Red jammer to catch back up and score. However, the Red blockers can hang at the back of the pack to moderate its speed, as previously discussed.

The reason why this is a problem, and why it’s completely unfair to the Blue team, is that Red can use this tactic to manipulate the speed of the pack in their favor with little to no effort, even while shorthanded. Only when the Red jammer catches up and is in the middle of her teammates does it make sense for the Red blocker to spring into action and make an actual attempt to clear the way for their jammer.

Basically, there’s nothing that Blue can do to initiate a speed up the pack at any time and prevent or counter Red from using this tactic. This therefore gives Red a disproportional chance of scoring on the play, relative to the Blue team’s chance of getting scored upon.

The fact of the matter is Blue has no ability to take advantage of their superior numbers to change the speed of the pack to their advantage, compared to Red’s “ability” to manipulate it to theirs. This is maddening. Why should a penalized team, or a team that doesn’t want to engage their opponents, be able to get something for nothing in such a way?

To further illustrate this concept, let’s take an example to a further extreme. With Red on the power jam, Blue now has a 4-2 pack advantage. It’s the same story as before: Red can keep the pack from picking up too much speed by loitering at the rear, only to engage when their jammer is already in scoring position.

Theoretically, it will be much harder for the Red jammer to get a scoring pass with fewer blockers to assist. But realistically, Red can easily keep the pack speed steady, enabling their jammer to quickly catch back up again and again. This is not an insignificant advantage, especially if you have a fast and evasive jammer.

A team that’s down 2-4 in the pack should have very, very little advantage in the pack due to them being that heavily penalized. But in the WFTDA, the opposite is true.

This is like having a hockey rule that prevents a team on a 5-on-3 power play from moving wherever or however they want. Granted, it’s unlikely that a heavily shorthanded team will be able regain control of the puck, get through five skaters, and getting into a good scoring position. But if they can do it–and the rules make it easy for them do so–it would turn what would normally be the other team’s offensive advantage into a defensive liability, giving the shorthanded team a disproportionately fair chance to score.

A rule like this doesn’t exist in hockey, because it doesn’t need to. It’s very difficult, and rightly so, for a team playing shorthanded to score a goal.  They need to overcome the manpower advantage of the other team, fend off their superior offensive numbers, play superior defense, and hopefully cause the other team to make a mistake and break down completely.

But even doing all of that doesn’t automatically mean they’ll get to score. It just may give them a very hard-earned scoring chance. They still need to capitalize on it, but even that’s no guarantee when the other team can stifle them very quickly with their superior numbers.

The pack definition rules in WFTDA roller derby is, in practice, saying that a shorthanded team doesn’t have to do that much to earn their scoring chance if the jammer isn’t in the engagement zone. If Red finds themselves shorthanded in the pack but on a power jam, they can just coast at the rear of the pack and get an easy chance to score6 with little effort, denying Blue a fair chance to stifle their opportunity whenever they want, despite their superior numbers.

Just because one team has a power jam doesn’t mean they should score automatically, as mentioned previously. However, in this circumstance the team with the jammer will be guaranteed a scoring chance if they can get through the pack on their initial pass, leading to the backwards situation of a team gaining a scoring advantage despite their penalty disadvantage. This is completely possible given how the rules are written.

To drive this point home, let’s look at an extreme example. What if, for some bizarre reason, Red was on a power jam, but Blue enjoyed a mind-numbingly dominant 4-1 pack advantage?  This would be both extremely rare and extremely short-lived in the WFTDA, but thanks to some strange reasoning in Los Angeles, a past version of the L.A. Derby Dolls interleague banked track rules allowed up to three blockers in the penalty box during a jam, making the 4-1 pack a possibility.

Just on the face of it, it would seem impossible for one blocker to out-block four blockers and get her jammer through for the initial pass, let alone a second time to score some points within the 60 seconds of a banked track jam.  Is there hope for Red to score?  Is there anything the lone Red blocker could do to in this situation?

Unfortunately, there is.


Chapter 5

Banked Track Worst Case Scenario: The Iron Maiven Incident

During the LA Derby Dolls 2010 championship game, the two-time champion Tough Cookies were leading the San Diego Swarm early in the 3rd quarter, 73-69. In the jam prior, the Cookies were hit with three blocker penalties, putting them at a 1-4 pack disadvantage.  However, the Swarm’s jammer also committed a penalty, giving the Cookies a power jam but with little blocking help to support it.

What happens next is probably the most shameful thing you’ll ever see in derby, and needs little explanation:

Iron Maiven, the lone Cookies blocker, finds creative ways of getting blocked out of bounds, tripping, stalling, and otherwise not moving along with the pack.

Because the rules require the pack to have both teams in it, without Maiven in the pack, there is no pack. When there is no pack, the Swarm blockers cannot legally block the Cookies jammer, allowing her to skate on by untouched for lead jammer, then five points; and then ten points; and then fifteen points on the jam. This was despite the Swarm outnumbering the Tough Cookies 4-to-1 in the pack.

Obviously, the refs had a field day. Following a lengthy timeout, Iron Maiven was issued two major penalties and also enough minors to make a third7, getting sent to the box for the next jam. Not too long in the game after that, she got to her penalty limit and an early trip to the showers for her troubles.

When half of your allotted penalties come in one jam, getting a penalty ejection that soon before the end of the game is inevitable. Maiven’s actions ultimately caused her swift removal from the game, leading to the Cookies having one less option available to them on the bench.  With that, you can say justice was served.

Or was it?

Even though the individual was penalized, the team ultimately benefited from her actions in a big, big way—a 15-point jam kind of way. At that moment in the game, it turned a four point lead into a 19 point lead, and the Swarm seemed to never get close again after that point swing.  The Tough Cookies ultimately won the game by 38 points and captured their third straight Derby Dolls championship, so that 15 point jam was thankfully not a real factor in the final outcome.

But if it was?  What if the Tough Cookies won by one point?

This sets a horrible precedent for roller derby. Recall Chapter 2, the role of the intentional foul role in sports.  In all of those circumstances, the team committing the foul or penalty was immediately put at some kind of disadvantage.  Even if committing the penalty took an immediate advantage away from the other team, the team being fouled upon was compensated by being put right back into an advantageous situation.

In the Iron Maiven Incident, the team committing the intentional penalties was granted an immediate and uncontested advantage: Legally disallowing the other team’s blockers from touching their jammer, allowing her to breeze on by for some easy and free points.

Worst of all, there was literally nothing the other team can do to legally prevent from being scored upon. If they block the jammer during a no-pack, they get blocking while out of play penalties; if they just dart off at top speed to avoid getting passed, they’ll eventually be hit with failure to reform the pack penalties.

It’s a no-win situation for the team with all of their blockers, whereas the team with very few blockers gets an immediate gain with very little loss, all told.

Is that fair?

You may be thinking this was only possible in this older rules set. Penalty enforcement is one of the disadvantages of banked track roller derby rules.  In a real-time penalty enforcement environment like in the WFTDA skaters committing penalties are immediately removed from play in real-time, so they can’t keep flopping around like this.

Still, that doesn’t mean the WFTDA can’t have their own “Worst Case Scenario.”  I’ll point out what that could be shortly. First, there’s an important lesson that the flat track world should take from this incident, even if it happened on the banked track.


Chapter 6

Learn from the Past; Plan for the Future

There are many different rule, regulation, and procedure differences between banked track and flat track roller derby. But at the end of the day, roller derby is roller derby.  There are basic strategies that are the same regardless of the angle of the track surface.  Good flat track teams can8 beat good banked track teams, because good teams are good teams on any surface.

Critically, there are also basic rules that are the same across derby disciplines, namely our friend rule 4.1.1. Because of this, the WFTDA would be wise to see what’s been happening outside of Flatland and prepare for the inevitable in their own rulebook.

In banked track rules, because a blocker remains on the track after committing a penalty, there’s every possibility of them going rogue and doing something heinously bad during a jam to give their jammer a big points payday, only to have to sit out the next single jam when it may not be as consequential to their team.

For example, it’s possible for a blocker to take an intentional penalty while her team is on a power jam in such a way to ensure their jammer can easily clear a final blocker and squeeze in another scoring pass, possibly leading to another five points.  If the subsequent jam had both jammers in it, then at worst the points scored as a result of that penalty on the previous jam would just cancel out any points the other team’s jammer may score during the subsequent jam, while the offending blocker sits in the box.

Even with one less blocker in the pack, there’s still every chance that their team would get lead jammer again, or even score, making the penalty nowhere near as detrimental to a team as the benefit it brings them. Hence, Iron Maiven taking penalties all over the place. She knew that the punishment wasn’t going to fit the crime or trump the points benefit her team ultimately gained from it.

This is exactly why the last jam of a banked track game in LADD rules has different procedures for enforcing penalties. At the time of the Maiven Incident, during a declared “last jam” for a game jammers hit with a major penalty were immediately whistled dead (but remained on the track) and major-penalized blockers immediately became ghost points.  Since there would be no next jam for the penalty to have consequence, there’s little other choice to but make it a consequence during the same jam.

However, jammers penalized on the last jam began to realize that even if they couldn’t score any points, they could become a roving blocker and engage the other jammer anywhere around the track, still allowing them to hinder the other team despite no longer having the ability to score.  There was no rule against this and no consequences for doing it, since it would otherwise be completely legal.

Without any motivation to score, they could exclusively focus on blocking without any fear of hurting her team any further, creating an unfair advantage for the penalized jammer and a disadvantage to the other jammer trying to score.  This also meant that a jammer or blocker could commit further penalties to the advantage of her team without further consequences.

After recognizing this, L.A. changed the rules during the last jam to require penalized jammers to leave the track altogether, thereby restoring the original intent of the last jam major rules.9

Reports are that LADD is considering a rewrite of the rules on packs and serving penalties as a direct result of the Maiven Incident. Teams would be required to field at least two blockers in the pack at all times, even if there were three or more penalized blockers on the jam before.  In addition, if one skater commits multiple penalties during a jam, that team will be forced to skate shorthanded for an equal number of future jams (two majors in one jam = next two jams skating shorthanded).  Previously, a skater could get three, four, or more penalties during a jam, but only have to sit out the next one jam. If this is the case, good for the Derby Dolls to act quickly on that subject.

There are two important lessons to take from this real-life dam burst of modern roller derby rules.

First, although these actual and potential rule rewrites make it more damaging to the team that commits the penalties, unless banked trackers follow in the footsteps of the WFTDA and whistle penalized skaters off the track immediately during every jam (not just the last jam) there will never be a set of banked track rules that is 100% watertight in terms of preventing undeserved points from being scored.  That’s not a knock on banked track play in any way shape or form. It’s just the nature of the beast.

Second, it’s proof in action that no set of rules are perfect. Not just roller derby rules, either. Rules and regulations in sports are constantly changing and evolving to keep up with more athletic players, advances in equipment, loopholes, and more.

Every major professional and collegiate sport has a competition committee or similar body to see what rules may need changing or tweaking to ensure fairness or better overall play, all for the greater health and good of the sport. Leagues detail new or changed rules and regulations each year, so people know what’s different and what to look out for.  It’s generally a big deal, because leagues announcing it are effectively saying, “we’re making these changes so you can see that we’re making our sport better than it was before.”

The rule changes LADD made were reactionary to tactics and strategies devised by skaters who were able to interpret the rules in a way that perhaps was not originally intended, or using the rules presented to them to turn a supreme disadvantage into an advantageous opportunity.  It’s great that L.A. is plugging leaks in their rulebook, improving its chances of staying afloat in extreme situations.  However, that’s not to say new leaks won’t spring up again.

While the Maiven Incident didn’t turn into a long-lasting “nightmare scenario” for all-female banked track roller derby in Los Angeles—they were able to act quickly thanks to the timing of the game being at the end of the season—it should still be a notice to the WFTDA that they need to start putting more critical eye on their own rules. Teams will want to find loopholes in order to squeak out any advantage they can find. It’s common nature for participants in any competition to want to do that.

However, if the WFTDA isn’t careful, they’ll have a rules leak spring up that may cause their ship to sink in a hurry. What follows is a cautionary tale in the form of a thought experiment.


Chapter 7

Flat Track Worst Case Scenario: Intentional Penalties

In the Worst Case Scenario section for banked track, it was demonstrated that in certain circumstances, the combination of creative rule book interpretation and intentional penalties can create a perfect storm and give an unfair points swing in the favor of the penalized team.  You even got to see what that looks like when played out in a real game scenario.

Still, that was an extraordinary turn of events, with a lot of it having to do with the nature of banked track penalty enforcement. There’s no way that could happen in the WFTDA, however.

Right?

Let’s play the devil’s advocate card one last time, pushing the WFTDA rule book to its limits and paint a picture for you on the flat track.

—————

Two teams, Red and Blue, start the jam at a 4-4 pack, but Red has a power jam with about 55 seconds left on it and manages to spring their jammer almost immediately after the start.  Just as the Red jammer reaches the pack for her first scoring pass, three Red blockers drop 15 feet behind the rest of the pack, leaving one Red blocker in the pack ahead of them.  They are still legally in play, but are no longer considered a part of the pack (which must skate within a 10-foot proximity to each other).

As the Red jammer starts being blocked by Blue in what is left of the pack, the remaining Red blocker takes a knee. This means she is no longer standing and is therefore no longer a part of the pack, creating a no-pack situation.

For her actions, the kneeling Red blocker gets singled out for a destroying the pack penalty and is sent off the track with 1:30 left in the jam. Meanwhile, the Blue blockers can’t legally block during the ensuing no-pack, allowing the Red jammer to pick up a free 5-point pass. The remaining Red blockers reform the pack before they are penalized, but only the points go on the board for the Red team.

Despite this, Blue now enjoys a 4-3 pack advantage. However, the no-pack brought the pack speed to a crawl, preventing Blue from speeding up the pack. The pack needs to have both teams in it, and Red wouldn’t be in a rush to speed things along. This would allow the Red jammer to catch up much more easily, saving time on the power jam.

On the next scoring pass, however, the Red blockers employ the same intentional pack-split strategy. The Red blocker gets a destroying the pack penalty, sending her to the box with 1:05 left in the jam. Again, Blue is disallowed from blocking during the no-pack, and the two remaining Red blockers reform the pack before they are penalized, but only after the Red jammer breezes through and scores five more points, a total of 10 so far.

By this time, the Blue jammer will return to the track from the penalty box.  She gets through her initial scoring pass with relative ease (thanks to the Blue team’s 4-2 pack “advantage”) but soon after, the B-jammer is once again approaching the rear of the pack to try for another scoring pass. Let’s say there’s around 40 seconds in the jam at this point.

Here’s where the WFTDA rules start to show some big-time weaknesses. Never mind the fact that using this strategy of intentionally taking penalties to guarantee points on a power jam is fishy. At this point, if the Red jammer uses her lead jammer status to not call off the jam, the Red blocker who were penalized for intentionally creating a no-pack will eventually come back onto the track (at :30 and :05 left in the jam, respectively), leaving the Red team in much the same state they started the jam at: Full strength.

Sure, Blue may score some points themselves after their jammer comes back onto the track, but Red is still able to score as well, a job made easier as the Red blocker penalties expire.  You may ultimately wind up with a 14-4 or 14-8 jam, but the ugly truth becomes apparent: It’s completely possible for the Red team to effectively guarantee they gain a significant points margin on a power jam as a direct result of intentionally committing penalties, without the penalties hurting them in the long run.

This leads to another point. The significance of blocker penalties is greatly diminished if the shorthanded team has lead jammer or is on a power jam.  Because there’s little the Blue team can do to prevent what is happening from happening, suddenly their 4-2 pack advantage really isn’t a true advantage at all.  In fact, you could make the argument that having a power jam trumps any number of blocker penalties a team may have, rendering blocker penalties useless in certain situations.

In sports, any penalty should be significant in all situations, yet it’s not in roller derby.

While there’s every chance that Blue will refuse to allow this to happen, what strategies can they use to counter? There aren’t any, because they are powerless to prevent the other team from intentionally creating a no-pack situation or being scored upon.

On top of that, if Blue tries blocking during the no-pack, they’ll get penalized.  If they try to skate away, they may avoid getting passed, but they’ll still eventually get penalized for failure to reform if they don’t slow down to link back up with the Red blockers behind them.  Even if they try, the only way they can both slow down and keep the incoming jammer behind them would to also slow down the Red jammer, and the only way to do that is to block them during the no-pack—another penalty.

Is it really a good idea that a scenario exists wherein the only way to counter against an intentional penalty, is to take an intentional penalty?  We learned a long time ago that two wrongs don’t make a right.  One wrong shouldn’t make a right either, but somehow there’s a way for a team that breaks the rules can still gain an immediate and irreversible benefit from it: Points.

A penalized team should have no way of gaining a significant advantage over the other team unless they go out there and earn it back with superior play or mistakes on the part of the other team. In fact, sports rulebooks are written in a way to guarantee that is always the case.

Can you think of a way for someone to weasel out free points in basketball using the rules in backhanded ways?  How about football? Goals in hockey? Runs in baseball? Fewer strokes in golf?  Sure, you can intentionally commit a penalty or violate the rules in any of those sports.  Buy why the hell would you, when you’re just giving the other team or participants an immediate and potentially scoreboard-changing advantage over you?

Yet, it’s completely plausible for a team in roller derby to violate the rules and immediately benefit from it, using the WFTDA rulebook to their advantage.  That doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever, and if something isn’t done to address it, there could be consequences.

What if this happens during the last jam of a game?  What if those guaranteed points or a penalty smorgasbord directly leads to one team to beating the other?  What if it happened during a televised game? What would people say about the WFTDA?

As unlikely as it was, it happened during a banked track championship game. Do you really want to wait and see if it would happen during a flat track championship game, or do you want to see that loophole closed before a team gets too smart and tries to do something along those same lines?

May 14, 2012 Update:

One year later, it actually happened just as forcasted. The video speaks for itself.


Chapter 8

The Pack Problem, Realized

Rules are designed to be black and white, much like the striped shirts most referees wear. If you’re not robust enough in defining them in the first place, teams will jump on that and try to find grey areas they can use to exploit to their advantage.  This is true in all competitive sports, not just roller derby.

The blending of black and white is already starting to happen with WFTDA rules. Take for example, the numerous “rules clarifications” issued for topics like taking a knee at the start of a jam or establishing positions on penalties being called, among others.

If so many clarifications need to be issued for the rules, that can only mean one thing: The rules weren’t written well enough to be clear in the first place.

Good teams test the rules to see what they can get away with.  Taking a knee at the start of a jam to force a quick pack start is just one example of rule-bending flat track derby teams use. It is not explicitly stated in the WFTDA rulebook that this is allowed or not allowed, but teams are smart enough to read between the lines of the rules to try to find something that they think will give them an advantage.

But in doing that, they’re in danger of making the very definition of the game pointless.

Take for instance, this rule:

4.4.2 – Once the rearmost pack skater has crossed the Pivot line, the referee whistles the Jammers to begin their sprint through the pack with two short whistle blasts. Jammers may not be accelerating at the Jammer starting whistle. They are, however, permitted to be moving, coasting or braking.10

A team taking a knee to force a quick jammer start is basically circumventing rule 4.4.2, which was clearly written under the assumption that the jammers would never start until the rear of the pack was more than 20 feet away from them.  The reason this rule exists is to force the jammers to engage each other outside of the engagement zone, before they engage the pack.

But waitaminute…how could the rearmost pack skater possibly cross the pivot line, if there was no pack to begin with?  How can something that doesn’t exist cross a line that clearly does exist, and was put there for a reason?

More importantly, if one team has full rights to force a no-pack start, how can the other team, in their full rights, force a regular pack start?  Is there any way to counter the other team’s strategy of taking a knee at the start, if you don’t want to start the jammers off right away?11 Regardless, this makes the separate pack and jammer starts completely pointless, effectively making rule 4.4.2 obsolete on demand.

The rules clarification on this basically says that no legally defined pack at the jam start creates an immediate no-pack situation, thereby allowing (forcing) the the jammers to start immediately after the pivot whistle.  In issuing this clarification, the WFTDA basically said it’s okay for jammers to begin the jam inside of the engagement zone despite the fact the rules were written assuming that the jammer would always start outside of it:

3.4.2.2 – To remain eligible for Lead Jammer, a Jammer must remain in bounds until she is within twenty (20) feet of the pack, a.k.a. the Engagement Zone, the area in which she may be legally engaged by a Blocker. No part of her skate(s) may touch the ground outside the track boundary before she initially enters the Engagement Zone. Until she initially reaches the Engagement Zone, a Jammer may be blocked out of bounds by the opposing Jammer, rendering her ineligible to become Lead Jammer.

By allowing a team to (legally!) force an immediate jammer start, they are (legally!) denying the jammer on the other team her fair rights to the ability granted to her in rule 3.4.2.2.  Say, if the Red has a jammer that maybe isn’t that good at jammer-on-jammer blocking, the Red blockers can just take a knee at the start and guarantee that the Blue jammer can’t knock her out of bounds before reaching the engagement zone—because they’re in the EZ the moment the jammer whistle sounds.

It’s unfair to Blue that Red can whiteout that part of the rulebook by exploiting a WFTDA-sanctioned loophole and deny Red a possible advantage without being put at a disadvantage themselves.  In sports, a team that unfairly denies their opponents a fair opportunity to gain an advantage is committing a violation of the rules, meaning the team denied the advantage should be compensated for that in some way.12 But when Red denies Blue the chance for an early jammer knock-out by skirting the rules, where is the compensation for the Blue team?

This is the root cause of The Pack Problem. Teams can manipulate the status of the pack whenever it’s most convenient for them, with little or nothing the other team can do about regardless of penalty situations.  Shorthanded teams can apply a disproportional amount of control over the speed and status of a pack, because the rules require both teams cooperate to keep the pack together even if one team may be put at a disadvantage by doing so.

Under certain circumstances, blocker penalties in the pack can become completely meaningless and not penalize a team at all. There are enough grey areas in the WFTDA rule book that a team can use to cancel out most of their disadvantage, or even turn it into big advantage if they have a lead jammer or power jam situation.

This is not to say the WFTDA got it wrong when making the rules. They just need to learn from experience and improve them for the good of the game, before they have their own Maiven Incident.13 The rules still make it possible for one to happen, as I have demonstrated…or as someone else will demonstrate if they find another loophole to drive a truck through.  Better to show it off on paper instead of someone else showing it off during a game.

Rules are constantly evolving, and they do so over time—a long period of time.  A lot of people are waiting for that “forward pass” moment in roller derby, alluding to the fact that the forward pass forever transformed the game of football for the better.

But that required a major rules overhaul for it to be possible, didn’t it?

Even after it was instituted and first executed in 1906, it took 45 years for the forward pass rule to be refined to the point where only certain people were eligible to receive a forward pass instead of everyone on the field.14  If it took football as we know it that long just to refine one rule, there’s no way you can continue to believe that any one aspect of the current WFTDA rulebook is perfect the way it is and will never need changing or major refining.  You just can’t.

The point here is that if something bad is possible within a current set of rules, no matter how implausible the situation may be, if it’s technically possible, the rules that make it so are flawed and need fixing. Ideally, every jam will go off without a hitch, and ideally, no skater or team will try to overstep the bounds of the spirit and original intent of the rules.

So why not write the rules so the ideal situations are guaranteed to happen every time?

While the hope is you are starting to see that there’s something here that the WFTDA may want to consider changing, at best the only thing accomplished so far is identifying a potential problem.  What about a potential solution?


Chapter 9

The Solution to the Problem…Maybe

Let’s go through a quick refresher of the key points of the Pack Problem:

  • WFTDA rulebooks require that the defined pack have blockers from both teams within it.15
  • As a consequence, under certain circumstances a team with fewer blockers on the track due to penalties can take advantage this fact to somewhat or altogether nullify their disadvantage.
  • In extreme circumstances, a team can intentionally commit penalties to guarantee the scoring of points or the calling of penalties on the other team, with few to no negative affects on the team committing the intentional penalties.
  • In special circumstances, there is little or nothing a team can do, legally or otherwise, to counter the actions and resulting consequences of the other team intentionally creating a no-pack (either at the jam start or during it) for the purposes of attempting to exploit a strategic advantage or deny an advantage to the other team.

That’s a lot of circumstances, but any well-written rulebook would want to account for any and all circumstances and make it so there’s no inherent advantage to a team that tries to be cute and creative with the rules of the game, no matter what they try.  What can we suggest to the WFTDA to squash them?

Obviously, taking a penalty to create a no-pack situation is something that needs to go.  LADD is looking to close that loophole in their rules16, although it took someone to exploit it for that to happen. The possibility of it happening in WFTDA play less likely, but it’s still possible and therefore bound to at least eventually attempted at some point in the future.

One possible solution would be for the pack definition rule to be tweaked so that the skaters in the pack don’t necessarily need to be standing, or in bounds.  They just need to be in proximity to each other, regardless of standing status.  This would make deliberately destroying the pack somewhat harder to do unless the pack was completely split between teams.  It would also eliminate forced no-pack starts. However, that would cause a completely different problem.

Remember the Gotham/Philly game at the 2010 WFTDA Championships?  There were some infamous jams that got started…but then didn’t start.  After the pivot whistle sounded (with all blockers on their feet), both teams basically froze at the pivot line.  On one occasion the jammers didn’t get released until after 30 seconds into the jam; the other two jams, the jammers weren’t released until over a full minute into the jam.  That’s a full jam’s worth of time just standing around doing nothing.  Yeah, people booed:

Believe it or not, there was actually a strategical reason both teams did this.  Gotham didn’t want to force a no-pack or split the pack start for fear of relinquishing what they felt was positional advantage to Philly, despite Gotham having a numbers advantage in the pack. Philly didn’t want to leave the line because they were waiting to burn penalty time for their penalized blockers. However, Gotham allowed the Philly penalties to expire because they believed it was more important to have blockers positioned in the way that they wanted and less advantageous being a blocker or two up at the start of the jam, which they had the power to force-start any time they wanted.

In that situation, Gotham—one of the best roller derby teams in the world—understood that position within the pack was more important than having a 4-3 or 4-2 pack “advantage.”  Aside from the fact that this further validates the point about blocker penalties being meaningless in certain situations, if the WFTDA wants to send the message that it’s okay for paying customers to boo the strategies and style of derby that the best roller derby team in the world engages in, then they’re just asking to stunt the growth of the sport to fans outside of the current derby circle.

Remember that roller derby was born to be an entertaining and exciting sport all of the time with all 10 skaters working hard to take an advantage when they could get one, not just when the jammers are skating around really fast.  This is not to suggesti that the WFTDA turn into a NASCAR race17

Although there’s also this rule in the WFTDA rule book:

2.4.1 – A period is divided into multiple jams, which are races between the two teams to score points. There is no limit to the number of jams allowed in each period.

Interpret that as you wish. where the fastest skaters win. I’m just reminding everyone that superior blocking should can and should trump speedy teams.  By extension, that should also mean if a team—(not just the jammer—is really good at evading blocks, they should have the right to demonstrate their superior speed, should they so possess it.

So we still have a pack problem to fix.  But in doing so, now we also have an opportunity to maybe restore derby to what it was designed to be in the first place.  I believe the solution is elegantly simple.  I think all the WFTDA needs to do is change the pack definition rule to this:

4.1.1 – The pack is defined by the largest group of blockers, skating in proximity.

That’s it.  Addition by subtraction, as it were.  It seems like a simple fix, but in my opinion, it would change roller derby immensely, and for the better.

(Update April 2012: Check out a more refined and detailed solution to this problem, The Pack Solution, written some months after this article was published.)

Let’s take a few steps back and consider all of the devil’s advocate scenarios I proposed before, and see how this altered rule would change things.

1) Team Y has lead jammer and a half lap lead on the Team X jammer, but Team X has a 4-3 advantage in the pack

Before, the Y-blockers could just cruise around at the rear of the pack, waiting for the Y-jammer to catch up before engaging the X-blockers. However, with the change in pack rules, if all of the X-blockers want to sprint away from the pack, they would legally be able to do so, because they are the de facto pack.  The Y-blockers would no longer be able to coast around to keep the pack speed reasonable; they would actually have to constantly engage the pack to slow down the X-blockers and force them to go the speed they want (slow) by blocking, instead of exploiting the rules to prevent the X-blockers to go the speed they want to go (fast).

This also means Team X has a fair chance to avoid being scored upon if they can outrun the Y-blocker advances, thereby capitalizing on the advantage that they should inherently have due to the Team Y penalty.  If Team Y can allow all four of the X-blockers to get away (they would just need to keep one back to be the pack and control things—not too difficult), it would be because of inferior blocking and the direct result of the penalty that put Team Y at a pack disadvantage in the first place. Perhaps Team Y should stay out of the penalty box, if they didn’t want to give Team X a opportunity for to gain that kind of control in the pack?

2) Team Y has a power jam and lead jammer, but Team X has a 4-2 advantage in the pack

The above would also apply in this situation, but now Team Y has a much more difficult job ahead of them if they hope to score during their power jam.  First of all, the Y-blockers keeping the speed of the pack to a reasonable catch-up pace for their jammer would be made much more difficult, due to the fact there are only two Y-blockers available to try and goat one X-blocker.  (This would create a split pack of XXX up front and YYX in the back, so current WFTDA pack rules would apply in this situation.)

Not only will the two Y-blockers need to spend the majority of their effort slowing the pack, if and when the Y-jammer catches up to the pack, the Y-blockers will have a harder time assisting their jammer through for them to score.  Again, this wouldn’t change what the Y-blockers would normally do under the current rules, but now Team Y would be in danger of letting the pack get away from them if their two Y-blockers can’t hold back the one X-blocker.  This would again allow Team X a fair chance to control the speed of the pack, considering how penalized Team Y is.

Isn’t this more fair for both teams? Team Y, being two blockers down, can still score if they can overcome the odds to slow down the speed of the pack, and help their jammer through with fewer numbers—just like a hockey team that’s killing a penalty 5-on-4 or 5-on-3 penalty can still earn a scoring chance if they overcome the odds and use their skills to potentially capitalize on the other team’s mistake, should they make one.

Team X, being up 4-2 in the pack, can much more easily defend with the threat of speeding the pack away at any time.  Even though Team X doesn’t have a jammer on the track, that should only they mean can’t score or call off the jam until their jammer comes back on.  It shouldn’t make it easier for Team Y to score; it just gives them more uncontested time to try to do so.  It’s just that it would be harder for Team Y to do so with a thinner pack, as it should be. They have half the pack strength due to penalties!

3) The Worst Case Scenario

This now becomes utterly and completely unfathomable and impossible if you change the pack definition rule to what I am suggesting.  While it would still be possible for Team Y to get a destroying the pack penalty at equal strength, there is no longer any benefit whatsoever to doing so.

The moment one of the Y-blockers gets pulled off the track for destruction of the pack, that immediately gives Team X an advantage in blocking numbers (4-3 pack), making them them the majority of skaters and therefore the pack, allowing them to legally speed away or continue blocking the Y-jammer.  The Y-blockers would then be forced to catch up immediately, or else they’ll get more penalties (such as failure to rejoin) and be put at an even greater disadvantage.

That ultimately means it’s in Team Y’s best interest to not get a penalty at all, or else their job of scoring (or defending) will be made much more difficult.  Doesn’t that make a lot more sense?

4) The Gotham/Philly No-Starts

Gotham had a 4-3 or 4-2 pack advantage in each of the extended no-starts in question. However, if that was really a useful advantage, Gotham would have taken a knee or stretched the pack to force a start and made sure the Philly blockers stayed in the box for as long as possible. They didn’t. Why did Gotham, one of the best derby teams out there, not want a pack advantage? The only possible explanation is they knew it really wasn’t one.

If the pack was defined as the largest group of skaters irregardless of team, common sports sense in jam starts would be restored. As Gotham would be able to dictate the speed of the pack with their superior numbers, their positioning within the pack would be much easier to get—they are the pack. As such, there would be no reason for them to need to wait at the pivot line, since what they won’t need Philly’s permission to move the pack along anymore.

If Philly wanted to burn penalty time for their boxed blockers, the only thing they could do to prevent that would be to hold physically hold back a majority of Gotham blockers from crossing the pivot line for as long as possible. No longer would they be able to just stand around and do nothing, yet get rewarded for it.

Philly’s pivot would be in a position to help with that, as she would be positioned ahead of all the other Gotham blockers (by rule, a rule which is there for a reason). If Philly can outwork Gotham to slow them up, then they get the benefit of their penalties having less of an impact on the game. Coincidentally, a pivot starting a jam in the penalty box eliminates this ability, meaning making pivot penalties slightly more significant.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

These solutions do have their faults, I will admit.  If the pack definition rules switched to what I’m suggesting, a team with a 4-3 pack advantage also has lead jammer a power jam in their favor, they would legally be able to stop the pack without having to commit a block, making it drop-dead easy for their jammer to rack up dozens of points.   Although I feel that’s an improvement over giving a penalized team such an ability, it’s still a potential problem.

To that effect, the WFTDA could take a page from banked track derby and penalize stopping on the track.  (Skating backwards too, while we’re at it.) That way, a team with a 4-3 advantage can still cause the pack to slow to a crawl, but since they’ll always need to keep moving, the 3-blocker team has a chance to at least push the pack forward by keeping one of the other team’s blockers in front of them at all times.  That is, a team would have the ability to trap a goat at the front of the pack and force them to stay moving forward, in much the same way a team can trap a goat at the rear of the pack and force them slow or stop moving.

The WFTDA may also want to relax the back-blocking rules a bit to facilitate this, such as ignoring minors so skaters could push other skaters forward to maintain the speed of the pack, only to call majors if someone were forcefully knocked down.  (The WFTDA is actually already considering something like this; see the last chapter for more information.)

Another potential problem (if you can call it that) is the effect of the teams running away from the pack and stringing out blockers.  I’ve heard some people in rollergirl circles refer to this as a shameful tactic, calling it a game of “keep-away” or accusing the blockers as “runaway pussies.”

It wasn’t a shameful tactic back in the old-school days.  In fact, it was a completely valid and accepted strategy in order to avoid being scored upon.  In reality, it was the only ability the defense had to escape being scored upon, since it was otherwise impossible to block people to speed up the pack.

In fact, the pullaway, as it was called, was also one of the most exciting plays in roller derby.  Take a look at this video, paying particular attention to the crowd’s reaction.

And the crowd goes wild.  Roller derby was designed to be a fast and exciting sport, and these examples show why.  The tension between half of the pack wanting to slow down and half of the pack wanting to speed away was what made pack blocking important and exciting back then.  Currently, the pack doesn’t do as much as it used to if there are no jammers to block or assist, and every-so-often you’ll get the situation where the pack does nothing at all during a jam start…and the the boo-birds come calling.

I don’t care what you think about roller derby, but if people are booing, they don’t like what they see. If they continue to see it, they’ll be less likely to come see it. If you don’t have a good balance of fairness and excitement in a set of rules, you’ll lose fans. While I don’t agree with everything Slow Derby Sucks is advocating, this is the one point were they hit the nail on the head: If something is perceived as “boring,” it doesn’t matter how much “strategy” is involved. You will be turning people away from your sport. Period.


Chapter 10

Final Thoughts

Thankfully, there are other organizations who are trying to head that off at the pass. The Modern Athletic Derby Endevour is a relatively new derby organization that wants to bridge the gap between the fast, exciting (but staged) derby of yesteryear with today’s modern rules and competitive legitimacy.  They’re based on the east coast and have small but growing numbers.  While I haven’t seen a MADE game myself (they don’t stream their games—yet), I have heard from a few people who believe it’s just downright more exciting and entertaining than any WFTDA game they’ve seen.

The MADE rulebook is much simpler than that tangled patchwork that is the WFTDA rules.  This is because they didn’t bother worrying about going into minute detail about every single possible situation. They just layout the basics of what you can and can’t do, and let the referees keep them in line if any grey areas pop up.  Simpler rules are easier for everyone.

However, when I talk with derby people, I always seem to be met with resistance at the very notion of wanting to change or simplify the rules.  “Strategy” seems to be the first word people fall back on when anyone suggests such a thing.  “If you change the rules, you’ll take away strategy,” I hear all the time.  While rule changes may take certain strategies away, I can just as easily say that they’ll create new strategies at the same time.  Maybe even better ones that are more exciting and entertaining for the fans.

Plus, there may be some strategies that are best removed from the game.  Such as, the strategy of intentionally taking a major penalty in order to make it really easy for your jammer to score points.  Is that a possible strategy in the current WFTDA rule set?  Yes.  Would roller derby be better if that strategy was removed?  You tell me.

“But if you take away rules, you’re removing complexity and there will be fewer layers of strategy!”  I’ve heard that one, too.  I will direct your attention to soccer, the most popular sport on the planet.  It has a grand total of 17 general laws18 with just 10 pertaining to actual game play. With such a simple rulebook, it should follow that the strategies are simple too, right?

Not really. At the professional level, the complexity of strategy is much deeper than the rules would lead you to believe. Coaches and players need to always be thinking about formations, player capabilities, match-ups, substitutions, field size, pitch conditions, attacking, defending, midfield, passing, shooting, possession, set plays, weather, yellow and red cards, referees, and many others, including intangibles. And that’s everything just one team needs to worry about; all of that applies to the other team as well, so both teams need to account for each other’s strengths and weaknesses across all of those possibilities.

Coaches and analysts make big money planning and talking soccer strategy. But believing that fewer rules means no strategy is like saying there is little or no strategy in soccer due to the rules being simple. Rules complexity and strategical depth are not mutually inclusive.  Why should they be?19

Already, the WFTDA is realizing that something needs to be done.  As of April 8, 2011, WFTDA will be “beta testing” a new section of rules that eliminates the minor penalty.  This means things like inconsequential contact from behind would no longer count against a blocker, possibly freeing up defenses to force packs forward when they have the chance to do so.  But no one can predict how this will affect the game, which is why WFTDA will be testing this rule out over three months in closed and public events alike—three of the test games will take place at East Coast Extravaganza in June.  They’re not just testing these rules out using low-ranked teams as lab rats, either.

The likes of Windy City, Rat City, Charm City, and even the champion Rocky Mountain Rollergirls will be put under the microscope in order to collect data on how the rule changes would affect top-level derby.  The WFTDA needs to see how top teams would use these rules to their advantage, or how they would be disadvantaged, before they can make a determination on whether or not it’s a viable change worth going forward with.  This is probably just the first of many experiments and discussions on what WFTDA can do to advance flat track roller derby going forward.

What’s important for derby folk to start realizing is that there will eventually come a point where legitimate roller derby goes mainstream, if not professional.  When that happens, someone’s going to need to come up with rules that strike a balance between fair competition and crowd entertainment, still keeping it the game of roller derby all the while.

If you think ESPN would want to televise WFTDA-style derby in its current form, where it’s possible for top teams to engage in stifling defensive strategies and cause fans to boo at their tactics, you’re kidding yourself.

Whether the WFTDA or the MRDA or MADE or someone else makes that happen, you can be certain that the rules drafted for such a top-flight league will need to be a lot better than what the WFTDA has now.  The only way to do that is to test the rules, discuss what the rules mean, find weaknesses in them, and then offer suggestions to prove them.

With that, everyone involved in roller derby has a choice to make.  You can be a part of that discussion and try to find ways to make derby better, or you can cover your ears and believe that derby rules are fine the way that they are.  You can either help derby grow, or you can be happy with it the way it is.

The choice is yours.

In closing: Take another look at the rules and just start thinking about them.  There’s a difference between the original intent and spirit of the rules, and their literal or creative interpretations.  Common sense needs to trump the black and white and grey of rules.  If some rules and “strategies” can cause thousands of people to boo two of the best teams in the world, then maybe that’s a problem that needs a real solution.

  • This is a very well thought out and well written blog. I’m a new fan of your writing! Unfortunately, I suspect its a bit lengthy for the typical blog-reading derby audience to endure, and some of your very good points may be lost. (I’ll bet 100$ you end up with numerous comments by people who clearly haven’t read the entire post!) May I suggest you offer a summary version?

    • I let people know up front that this was a biggie. If they lose interest in reading it, that’s their loss. If you’re looking for a summary, this paragraph from chapter 3 is a good one:


      Think of it this way: It’s okay for a team to cause the pack to come to a dead stop if they can demonstrate superior positioning and blocking skill. Even a team with just two blockers against four can technically achieve this. The rules make it that way. However, it’s impossible for a team to do the opposite and put the pack into a dead sprint, even if they can outmaneuver the other team’s blockers, enjoy a 4-2 pack advantage, and demonstrate superior evasiveness and speed. The rules make it that way.

  • Great read and I appreciate the effort that went into hashing out all the different scenarios. Responding from my phone, so I’ll have to add more later, but I wanted to remark that just because the ideal startegy is for team X to get the pack racing, it doesn’t not mean that’s the only possible startegy or, obviously, the best strategy to employ if team Y is savvy enough to control the pack speed from the rear.

    Similarly, you’d be absoultely moronic to allow a team to take two or more intentionally minors in a row to split the pack and geir jammer through. You do not have to be defenseless!

    For those reasons, I read through most of this essay and maintained my opposite opinion. However, am intrigued by the idea of a pivot’s penalty being more disadvantageous (becuase the pivot is more responsible for controlling the initial pack speed, as the rules seem to intend).

    • “Similarly, you’d be absoultely moronic to allow a team to take two or more intentionally minors in a row to split the pack and geir jammer through. You do not have to be defenseless!”

      How do you prevent a skater, or a group of skaters, from taking a knee any time they feel like it? Because doing that would cause a no-pack situation on command.

      You may want to look at “The Pack Problem” YouTube video again and tell me what the yellow blockers could have done to prevent getting scored upon for three passes. Because they look awfully defenseless to me.

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  • jvaldon

    WFTDA rules do not require 4 blockers to be fielded to start a jam, Technically a team could chose to field only one blocker during a power jam situation and gain all the advantage of 4 on 1 with the one falling or getting “blocked” down to create no pack situations without having people in the box.

  • ndykman

    Some other thoughts. First, it seems to me you have standardize the lineup before a jam start to insure that a team must engage the other team to get all their blockers in front. I’ve always thought that having a small line bisecting the pivot line and going 20 feet back to a full line and requiring that two blockers from each team be in each half, two in the front, two in the back. This creates a fight from the start. If you don’t have this, then you make so team with any good lead will just rush to the front and just race down the clock. Derby is many things, but it’s not speed skating.

    Also, I agree that in the WFTDA rules, being intentionally stopped when movement is legal on the track should be a penalty (failure to engage) is a good idea. Yes, this does mean that movement must occur as soon as the Jam starts. And since I’m a fan of one whistle starts, the same would be said for the Jammers as well.

    But, you need to be able to allow to pick off a blocker. What I think is that any player who passes an opposing player who has superior position in the rear engagement zone is subject to destruction of pack penalties, and after any destruction penalty, any blocker on that team is subject to failure to reform penalties if they do not slow down.

  • This would guarantee a pullaway and a fast exciting jam. Brilliant analysis, I thank you for your hard work. Possible solution: How about no such thing a pack rule during power jams?