The Pack Solution

A potential solution to a potentially serious problem.

There’s been a problem brewing in modern roller derby. If the last few months are any indication, it’s a problem that’s been getting worse and worse.

I’m talking about jams during flat track games that take a while to get started…if they get started at all. Slow-pack starts, pack no-starts, non-jams. Whatever you call them, a lot of people are starting to not like them. Unless something is done about them, there’s no indication of them going away. In fact, the trends are pointing to the problem getting worse before it gets better.

At first, jams were going several seconds before teams crossed the pivot line to start the jam. But then, teams realized they could kill penalties during the time they slowly moved forward, eventually leading to slow jam starts of 30 seconds or more while a team stood around to burn off penalty time.

As teams countered this by skating forward to start a split-pack start, good teams realized that they could take advantage of this and hold the rear of the pack, which was proving to be more and more advantageous. As jam delays were starting to hit the 45~60 second range, teams realized that once a jam was started, the only way to not give the team in the back an easy advantage was to never move forward themselves, ultimately leading to at least two instances of entire two-minute jams expiring without the jammers being released.

Although these extreme slow starts are somewhat rare in the grand scheme of derby—so far—the fact that they can happen at all, and have been starting to happen more frequently as of late in high profile games, should be a sign that there’s some changing and tweaking needing to be done with the rules to make sure that they can’t happen to begin with. Any good rulebook should be written to account for the ordinary and the extreme, and the ever-evolving WFTDA roller derby rules aren’t quite there yet on the extreme side of things.

Even so, there are those some out there that think that little oddities like the occasional dose of inaction isn’t too big of a deal. I suppose that’s true, in a way. After all, there are things that some people may like and other people may not like. You can’t please all the people all the time.

However, a group of people you absolutely must please are the spectators who come to watch and support roller derby leagues. If their booing is any indication, they don’t like it when nothing is happening on the track. If anything, making sure the paying patron is pleased at what they see—without compromising the legitimacy of the sport—should be of the utmost importance.

So whether you think this is a small problem or a big problem, it’s still a problem that bears further investigation. But first, we need to identify the real problem. As will be demonstrated, trying to fix the “problem” that a team or teams are not moving off the start line may lead to more problems down the road. This isn’t because the solutions will or will not work. It’s because the solutions being thought up for it are being applied to the wrong problem.

In this white paper analysis, I’ll break down what’s really causing these slow-starts and non-jams to occur, explain what’s happening with other loophole-inducing derby tactics, and offer a potential solution for the derbyverse to take into consideration to eliminate all of these issues in one fell swoop.

The Pack Solution – Table of Contents

  1. Solutions to the Wrong Problem
  2. The Pack Problem, the Short-Short Version
  3. A Modest Proposal: The Pack Solution
  4. The Pack Solution: Practical Examples
  5. The Problems with the Solution… Maybe (or Maybe Not)
  6. Conclusion
This blog uses a common system for diagrams of roller derby action, with important markings and designations shown here. Specifically for this article, the track color indicates what set of rules a particular diagram is referencing, which will be important to follow as you read through everything. Also note that unless otherwise specified, all the scenarios depicted here assume all players and both teams are of equal skills and abilities, and only touch on extreme situations for the purpose of exaggerating advantages and disadvantages.

Chapter 1

Solutions to the Wrong Problem

It seems like anytime a the topic of roller derby rules comes up, the derby community is never short of opinions. Comment threads on Derby News Network always seem to blow up the moment someone starts questioning the rules, or points out a possible loophole in the rules. The derbyverse voices their opinions on whether or not they like or hate certain aspects of roller derby, and eventually people start suggesting ideas on how to fix what’s apparently broken with the game.

One of the things that everyone seems to agree on: Very long slow starts are starting to get out of hand. That players are even going so far as to stand around for two minutes and literally do nothing while the jammers stay locked down behind the jammer line is definitely something that needs to be eliminated from roller derby as soon as possible.

Like many other things about the WFTDA, rules and rule changes are suggested and voted on by its players. There’s no shortage of ideas from the derby community on how to get rid of extreme slow starts, and here are three of them that I’ll analyze to see how effective they might be in solving the problem.

This is assuming, of course, that we’ve identified the correct problem in the first place…

1. Required forward motion

What it is: A rule that would require all in-play skaters to skate in a forwards (counter-clockwise) direction at all times. Deliberately stopping or skating backwards (clockwise) while in play would result in a penalty.1

Pros: This would have the immediate effect of ensuring that skaters are compelled to move forward at the start of jam, since standing still would be penalized. Skaters who move forward must keep moving forward while they are in play, which would make the pack crossing the pivot line a foregone conclusion. This should prevent the pack from delaying the jammer whistle for extended periods of time during a jam start.

Making skating backwards illegal would also prevent a blocker from skating backwards to force a jammer to retreat all the way back to re-enter behind the blocker, something that goes against the original spirit of roller derby rules. It would also eliminate the possibility of a dangerous collision between a jammer coming in full speed and a blocker skating backwards to pin the other jammer out of bounds.

Cons: Requiring forward motion will not automatically speed up slow starts. Even creeping up an inch a second is still “forward motion,” and it could take two minutes to go 10 feet at that speed; I wouldn’t put it past WFTDA teams to figure out how to waste a minute or more at the start of a jam by taking advantage of that technicality.

This isn’t just speculation, either: Banked track rules already have a rule that requires forward skating motion at all times, but you’ll still see teams tippy-toe forward whenever they need to slow the pack to an effective halt. Basically, if a team has a reason to want to bring the pack to a standstill, they’ll find a way to do it even if the rules technically say that they can’t. Observe:

Verdict: This may prevent some slow-starts from happening, but teams that want to stall at the start will still find a way to do so, as seen by good teams on the banked track. Required forward motion alone cannot be the ultimate solution to the problem of skaters not wanting to move forward.

2. The jam start “shot clock”

What it is: After the pivot whistle sounds, the jammer whistle will sound after a guaranteed amount of time has elapsed, whether the pack has crossed the pivot line or not. Any blockers within the pack who have not yet crossed the pivot line could optionally be issued a “delay of game” penalty for failure to start the jam normally. If the pack crosses the pivot line normally before the “shot clock” expires, then the jammer whistle sounds as normal.

Pros: This would absolutely guarantee that the jammers get released after a set amount of time. It would also punish players/teams with trips to the penalty box if they try to get too cute with delaying jam starts. A slow pack start or a non-jam scenario would be impossible due to the inevitability of the second whistle after a set amount of time.

Cons: Everyone who came up with this idea can’t seem to agree on how long the “shot clock” should be. Ten seconds? Thirty seconds? Five seconds? There are also a lot of what-if scenarios, too: What if a blocker comes out of the penalty box just as the shot clock expires, but hasn’t crossed the pivot line yet? Do they get penalized again?

Here’s another one: What if a team starts the jam on a knee? Well, the jam would start immediately, completely bypassing the reason for having a “shot clock” whistle in the first place. Plus, if this rule is meant to make sure the pack crosses the pivot line (which the knee-start would circumvent anyway) there’s nothing stopping one or both teams immediately backtracking once they do to lock-down the rear of the pack, part of the reason why some teams don’t want to move forward in the first place.

Again, banked track rules are ahead of the game on this. After the multiple slow-starts occurred during the 2010 L.A. Derby Dolls championship game (the source of the previous video, they implemented a simple three-second hand count. The jammer whistle comes three seconds after the pivot whistle or after the pack has crossed the pivot line, whichever comes first. They don’t issue penalties for failing to cross the pivot line, though. Still, it hasn’t completely eliminated slow starts; even if the jammers are released, they are often met with a very slow pack, tippy-toeing forward.

Verdict: If the problem is that blockers don’t want to move forward, this won’t completely solve it. Though the jammers would always be released, this would only shift the problem of slow pack starts from behind the pivot line without jammers, to in front of the pivot line with the jammers. Though I think this suggestion is the best of the three as a temporary fix to jam starts, if a true solution is to be found, this isn’t it.

3. The one-whistle jam start

What it is: All players, blockers and jammers, would be released from their start lines with a single whistle. The dual-start procedure would be eliminated entirely.

Pros: Pretty obvious benefit here: It would be impossible for a jam start to be delayed, because there is nothing for the jammers to wait for. They get released at the same time the pack does. The practice of a team starting on a knee would therefore become obsolete. Another nice side effect is that this would make every second of every penalty meaningful, as it would be impossible for a team to stand around and burn off penalty time.

Cons: Alas, with big benefits come big loopholes. If there’s a single-whistle start, the most advantageous place for a blocker to be would be directly in front of the jammer line, right in front of the other team’s jammer. If the blockers and the jammers start on the same whistle, that means the blockers can block the jammers right off the bat, potentially creating a giant mass of bodies plugging up the start of every single jam of every single game. If this becomes an inevitability, there’s no point in having two separate start lines on the track.

The Philly/Gotham game at ECDX 2011 was effectively a test game for the one-whistle start. Including the non-jam, almost every jam start in the first half looked like this. But hey, at least the jammers are being released!

On top of that, teams on the power jam can exploit this fact by positioning themselves in a way that would create an instant no-pack scenario (such as taking knee) or creating a wedge of blockers (like a football blocking play) to allow their jammer to get through at the start scott-free, with nothing the other team can realistically do about it.

Verdict: Good idea in theory, but under current WFTDA rules it’s something that’s just waiting to be abused by teams who know what they’re doing.

Any one of these suggestions by themselves won’t definitely solve the apparent problem, that of a team or teams within the pack not wanting to move forward at the start of a jam. Even if you add a rule that always makes sure the jammers get released each time up, good teams will find ways to stay back and slow down the starting action anyway.

Not that there’s anything wrong with slow action, mind you. If a team can fight for and earn a favorable position within the pack, or the other team messes up and puts themselves into a disadvantageous position through every fault of their own, the team gaining control should be able to make the pack go as fast or as slow as they want for as long as they have that control.

The problem with generally slow play is that once a team controlling the pack slows it to a crawl and they want to keep it at a crawl, like during a power jam, there is absolutely nothing that the other team can do on their own to speed it back up again.

The team that wants to slow-play the pack just needs to continue going slow, knowing that the other team can never speed things up for fear of splitting and destroying the pack should they try to skate too far forward, or getting back-blocking penalties should they try to shove forward the slow team.

As is becoming increasingly more apparent, the best position to be in to keep the pack slow is to wall up all blockers at the rear of the pack. From there, a team doesn’t need to block the team up front to keep them going slow. Plus, knowing the team up front can’t go more than 10 feet ahead for fear of penalties, the team in the rear is in a great place to push blockers forward to help punch their jammer through. Here’s a perfect example of this (no audio on this video):

All other things being equal, why would you want to give a free advantage to the other team by pushing forward to force a split-pack jam start? Wouldn’t it be smarter to wait for the other team to go forward instead so you can get claim the rear of the pack and get these free advantages? And why else would a team need to take a knee at the start of a jam, if to avoid being forced to decide between splitting the pack and being put at a positional disadvantage, or have no other option but to stand around until the end of the jam instead?

It is this prevalent general derby strategy that leads to the core of the problem with blockers wanting to stall at the line start line.

The two known non-jams prove all aspects of this point.

In the Gotham/Philly non-jam at ECDX, you can see how aggressively Gotham wanted to defend their claim to the rear of the pack, even going as far as skating backwards a few feet to make damn sure the jam didn’t start with them anywhere else but on the rear lines:

Philly started every jam after this on a knee to make sure they didn’t have to decide between splitting the pack or throwing the jam away. They wouldn’t have had to do this if they had the option to speed the pack forward on their own.

In the Grand Raggidy/Arch Rival non-jam a few weeks later, you can see how teams are willing to wait for the other team to do something, leading to a “you go first, no you go first, no you go first” comedy of errors. Where the skaters are looking says it all:

Neither Arch or Raggidy would have had to rely on a strategy of waiting for the other team to move forward first, if it was possible for one of these teams to take the initiative and move forward on their own without fear of being put at a disadvantage for it.

When both teams in a game do one or both of these things during a jam start, you get a very delayed jam start. Or as was the case in these two incidents, no jam at all.

Even though a lot of jam starts go off without a hitch, there are still a lot of teams who still try to take advantage of this by keeping as many players back as possible. If not during the start, then during general play when they have a jammer out front or are on the power jam.

This is why just forcing the jammers to be released artificially will not completely solve all that ails roller derby. The mentality of blockers in the pack wanting to stay back is not only prevalent during jam starts, but during general play, too. If you force teams to (reluctantly) move forward at the start, the motivation to stay back will still be there, just after the jammers are released.

The derby community has been centering the debate of getting rid of slow jam starts around prompts such as “how can we stop teams from stalling at the line during jam starts,” or, “how can we make sure the jammers are always released?”

These questions are identifying the wrong problem.

The problem we’ve identified, let’s not forget, is mind-numbingly basic: The pack doesn’t always want to move forward at the start of the jam.

If we want to reverse this problem, we need to reverse the question: How can we make it so the pack always wants to move forward at the start of a jam?

To put this problem and this question into perspective, imagine a typical football game. Before the snap, both teams are itching to go forward. There doesn’t need to be a football rule stating “players must move forward after the ball is snapped.” Having one would be redundant and silly. Giving a penalty to players who don’t move forward after the snap would be even more unnecessary and ridiculous, because players will do it on their own without needing to be told to do or not do it.

Why, though? It’s in the best interest of the offense to want to move down the field, a job made easier if they can get by the other team. It’s in the best interest of the defense to slow the offense from going forward, a job made easier if they can stay in front of the other team. You don’t need to make a rule for that, because if a team doesn’t do it, they’ll get destroyed, making it harder for their team to do well on the play or win the game.

This is a critical element missing from modern roller derby. To put the practice of slow jam starts into a different view, imagine what it would be like if the football was snapped and both teams just stood around for 30 or 40 seconds. Or imagine if they stood around for two minutes, with no one moving or no one throwing a single block. That’s pretty much what’s been happening in roller derby lately.

The pack moving forward should be an automatic part of roller derby, just like moving forward is an automatic part of playing football. Historically, roller derby has always had its players skating forward. But nowadays there are too many instances of one or both teams in the pack not wanting to do that during jam starts or power jams, or any other time they feel it’s in their best interest.

What we need to do is give a reason for blockers in the pack to want to move forward and be at the front at the start of a jam—or any other time, for that matter. Much like football players always want to move forward once the ball is snapped, derby players should be itching to launch forward off the pivot line when the jam starts, not finding reasons and loopholes for wanting to stay back.

This can be done without getting rid of the separate starts, or adding a shot clock, or penalizing players who dilly-dally and delay during jam starts. It can also be done without mandating required forward motion; there’s no need to make it a part of the rules if you make it in the skaters’ best interest to do so instead.

There is a pretty good way to accomplish this. It would not only have the potential to make slow starts and non-jams a thing of the past, it could also make the game faster and more exciting, but in a way that would not take away some of the good “slow derby” tactics that differentiate WFTDA roller derby from other forms of the sport.

So what is it? It’s simple:

Change the pack definition rules.

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Chapter 2

The Pack Problem, the Short-Short Version

Whether you realize it or not, the root cause of roller derby’s problem of ridiculous slow jam starts lies here:

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.

Yup, it’s our old friend, WFTDA rule 4.1.1. To regular readers of the blog, it should be clear why this is a big problem for roller derby.

But to visually demonstrate why, let’s see what happens when the defense fails to do their job in some other team sports:

In all sports, if one team allows the other team to completely get around them, blockers and ball-carrier included, bad, bad things will happen. (A) In football, the blue team is on their way to an easy score since red team didn’t stop any of them from getting by. (B) In hockey, the red team would be making their goaltender go up against 5 blue players unopposed, surely resulting in a blue goal due to their defensive failure. In both instances, the blue team would be sprinting forward as fast as possible, to give them the most possible time to act unopposed.

In these situations, if the red team fails to stop the blue team from getting through them or getting by them, then the team that failed to do their job (the red team) will be giving up a huge advantage to their opponents (the blue team). Once that happens, the blue team will want to stay as far away from the red team as possible to have the longest advantage possible, where the red team will want to try to catch up to the blue team as quickly as they can to try to get control of the situation again.

Such are the universal, general truths in sports:

  • If a team wants to slow down the other team, they must block or defend them.
  • If they want to keep them slowed down, they must continue blocking/defending them.
  • If a team wants to get by the other team, they must evade blocks and defenses.
  • If  they want to stay ahead of them, they must stay in front of blocks/defenses.

But under current WFTDA roller derby rules, if the blockers for one team fail to do their job and can’t stop or slow down the blockers on other team, this is what happens:

WFTDA Rules: (A) The blue jammer has just cleared the pack and is chasing down the red jammer, who is the lead jammer. (B) The red blockers begin to block the blue blockers in an attempt to slow them down and make it easier for their jammer to catch up to score. However, they completely fail in this attempt, allowing the blue half of the pack to get by them. (C) The blue blockers, wanting to get as far away from the red jammer as they can, are not allowed to skate more than 10 feet ahead of the red blockers. The red pack is skating at a very slow speed and the blue blockers are forced to match that slow speed, or else they will destroy the pack and be subject to penalties. (D) The red blockers still accomplish their goal of slowing the blue blockers, even though they failed to do it by blocking. Instead, the blue team is being slowed by an imaginary 10-foot line.

Even if the red team has the worst blockers in the world, can’t block consistently or effectively, and allows the entire blue team (jammer and blockers) by them, because rule 4.1.1 requires that the pack must have blockers from both teams within it, the red team can effectively control the speed of the blue blockers without needing to initiate contact to physically slow them down.

Which leads to the equivalent truths in roller derby, when applied to the pack:

  • If a team wants to slow down the other team, they must block or defend them.
  • If they want to keep them slowed down, they could keep blocking them, but even if they get by they won’t be able to go more than 10 feet ahead and can’t speed things up by themselves anyway.
  • If a team wants to get by the other team, they must evade blocks or defenses.
  • If  they want to stay ahead of them, they can’t go forward too fast or too far ahead, or else they’ll get penalized.

This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. If you want to slow someone down and prevent them from going forward, you should be in front of them to physically impede their progress. Yet in roller derby, you can keep an entire team slow by loitering 10 feet behind and not throw a single block.

If the red team wants to keep the pack slow to make it easier for their jammer to come around and score, they can simply crawl around at the rear of the pack. There is nothing the blue team—who completely outmaneuvered the red blockers due to their bad blocking, remember—can do to speed up the pack unless the red blockers come with them, something the red team would have no reason to do until their jammer is right on the blue blockers’ butts.

This gives the red team the reward of controlling the speed of general play. All they had to do to get it was be terrible at blocking the other team.

If we apply WFTDA rules to other sports, things start making less sense. (A) If the blue team completely gets around the red team, why should any of them be required to stay within 10 feet of the other team? (B) Ditto for hockey. Even if the puck handler can keep on going past 10 feet (like a jammer in derby), his teammates should also be able to follow in order to provide support. However, derby logic states that they’ll get penalized if they do. Huh?

All other things being equal, the blue team is screwed in this scenario. Even if they can get by the red blockers in an attempt to speed up the pack, they can’t get by the 10-foot pack proximity rule. Since the blue team doesn’t have the option to speed up the pack by themselves in the same way the red team can keep the pack slowed down by themselves, they have no other option but to let the red jammer come in at full speed and try to block her, which usually results in an inevitable grand slam or two. Or three. Or four or five.

If only the blue team could somehow earn a way to control the speed of the pack without needing to drag the other team along with them!

Because teams at the front of the pack can’t speed up the pack on their own initiative, it leads to teams preferring to keep station at the rear of the pack…which leads to teams reluctant to cross the pivot line, which leads to extended jam starts, which leads to teams taking a knee to circumvent those extended starts before the occur, which is beginning to lead to teams crawling around on all fours2 pre-jam in an attempt to get re-positioned themselves around standing blockers before the jam begins.

The first domino to fall in the sequence is that team can’t speed up the pack whenever they want. The reason for that is because of the rules that issue penalties to teams that deliberately destroy the pack, and the fact that a team that wants the pack to stay slow can keep it slow even if they aren’t actively blocking the other team.

The resultant ripple effects of slow start “strategy,” knee-starts, inflated power jam scoring, and boo-inducing slow derby in general can all be traced to the same root cause: Rule 4.1.1.

Therefore, the only way we can truly fix the problem of slow jam starts—and my opinion, lots of other things about roller derby—is to change the pack definition rules so this domino effect is stopped before it starts. If you fix the root cause, you’ll solve all the problems, issues, and loopholes that branch from it.

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Chapter 3

A Modest Proposal: The Pack Solution

With that, here’s one idea on how to solve the root of roller derby’s problems. Not only will idea this all but guarantee the pack will move forward and start jams normally, it could also potentially make the game more tactical and exciting than ever during all phases of general play in a way that is fair for both teams at all times.3

The idea involves redefining the pack definition rules under three key situations:

  • Under normal circumstances, the pack is defined as the largest group of blockers, skating in proximity. In normal game situations, this is pretty much like it has always been. However, there would be two key exceptions:
  • When two or more groups of blockers equal in number are on the track, are more than 10 feet from one another, and no single group meets the pack definition, the pack shall be defined as the largest group of blockers most forward on the track. So an evenly split pack will put only the group of blockers at the rear in danger of being out of play at 20 feet behind, compelling them to move forward if they still want to be able to legally block.
  • When two groups of blockers are more than 10 feet from one another, and each of these groups only consist members from one team, the pack shall be defined as the group of team blockers most forward on the track, irrespective of the number of blockers in the group. If an entire team can get to the front of the pack, they become the pack even if they are the minority of blockers on the track. Should skaters on the other team fall 20 feet behind, they risk falling out of play and may be subject to any appropriate penalties.
Under current WFTDA rules, a pack split between (A) an equal number of players  or (B) between teams immediately results in a no-pack situation once the split hits 10 feet, putting all players immediately out of play. Under my suggested changes, the pack would be always be defined in these scenarios, either as (C) the forward group of mixed blockers or the (D) whole team most forward on the track, even if that team isn’t at full strength. (Blockers are still in play as long as they are within 20 feet of the defined pack.)

This would effectively eliminate the no-pack scenario–and by extension, a hell of a lot of rules, penalties, loopholes, strategies, and curiosities that are associated with it. By ensuring that there will always be a pack somewhere on the track, and the jammers will always have to go through it one way or another to gain lead jammer or to score, you solve many ills naturally through gameplay situations.

The second exception, though, is what I believe is the true key to addressing the issue of slow pack starts. Should a team of blockers completely the front of the pack, they would earn the privilege of total pack speed control: If they wanted to speed up the pack, they could all sprint forward. If they wanted to slow down the pack, they could all slow down and wall off the other team.

Since a split pack would re-define the pack at the front, a whole team getting to the front would always be the pack until the other team does something about it…or prevents the situation from happening in the first place.

If a team wants to speed the pack up, that’s probably because the opposing team has lead jammer and is trying to lap the pack to score. Should the team with lead jammer allow their opponents to get out in front of them and speed the pack along, that would be a very bad thing. Therefore, if the team looking to get into scoring position wants to take the reins of destiny and do something about it, they’ll stay in front of, and block and impede the blockers on the other team in a bid to slow them down, keep them slow, and help their jammer through the pack to score.

The team who doesn’t have lead jammer, knowing there’s a chance they can thwart the other team’s jammer by making it harder for her to catch up, can try to take the reins of destiny back from their opponents, evade and elude their blocking efforts completely, and gain full control of the pack front to earn the right to make it go as fast as they want. This also gives them the option of walling off the other team and their jammer completely, in a bid to slow them down enough for their jammer to come around in an attempt to try and steal some points.

In theory, this should lead to both teams vying to gain the front of the pack in at least some capacity, because being at the front of the pack would put a team at a large advantage in terms of exercising control over pack speed. That in turn would lead the blockers in the pack to cycle to the front naturally–because if they choose not to, they wouldn’t be able to do much of anything to help their jammer catch up to the pack or get through it.

However, a team still may want to keep blockers toward the rear of the pack to assist their jammer through for their initial or scoring pass. They can’t just sprint the pack forward indefinitely; they still need to keep the pack speed reasonable for their jammer to catch up. But a team can’t send all of their blockers to the back of the pack, either: Should that happen, the other team can take over control of the front of the pack and speed it up as a counter-measure.

This is what the idea is all about: Make control of the pack a balancing act between offense and defense. If a team wants to keep the pack slow, they can wall up at the front to block the other team’s blockers, at the risk of leaving their jammer to fend for herself. If a team wants to give full assistance to their jammer, they can drop back behind the other team at the risk of them taking the front and speeding up the pack.

And if a team wants to keep the pack slow AND give full assistance to their jammer, they need to be able to find a way to do both at once by having superior positioning within the pack AND superior blocking skills to slow down the pack–not just stand around at the back and do nothing and wait for their jammer to catch up, as is the common practice under current WFTDA rules. This would force teams to find the perfect mix of a front wall to slow up the pack well enough to allow for a few rear blockers to clear the way for their jammer without letting the other team get away from them.

To put it another way? They’d have to use team strategy AND their athleticism to score points and play defense any way they can, all at the same time.

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Chapter 4

The Pack Solution: Practical Examples

To help make this idea easier to understand and visualize, here are some examples and diagrams to show what would be different under my suggested pack definition rule (the green track) versus the current WFTDA pack definition rule (the grey track) in common game situations and scenarios.

Slow Pack Starts and Potential Non-Jams

Common flat-track derby strategy dictates that the best way to counter a team from stalling at the pivot line is to take a knee before the start of a jam. This creates an instant no-pack scenario, forcing the jam to start immediately.

The problem with knowing when the best time to use the knee-start strategy is that there’s no way of knowing that the other team will want to stall on the line until after the pivot whistle has already sounded. A team taking a knee after that point would be penalized for intentionally destroying the pack (as the pack has been defined already), so by then it would already be too late to do something about it.

Once the pivot whistle sounds, if one team wants to stall, the other team has to choose between being put into a positional disadvantage or, in the case of the Philly/Gotham non-jam, not move forward and waste upwards of a whole two-minute jam. Either way, the team that wanted to play the jam fairly is stuck behind the 8-ball. But what else can they do at that point?

That’s why the second exception for my new pack definition rule is ideal for stopping this slow-start/non-jam nonsense.

Consider what can happen if a team decided to stall at the line and ignore the other team’s blockers, who would then move forward to cause a split-pack start under current rules:

WFTDA Rules: (A) After the pivot whistle sounds, the blue team stalls at the line. The red team elects to push its blockers forward to cause a split pack and begin the jam. (B) This causes both jammers to find themselves in a four-on-one situation, but… (C) If the blue jammer can speed up the red blockers and cause them to drift forward, the pack will split and create a no pack scenario. No blocker may legally engage and the jammers may skate forward untouched. (D) When the blue jammer skates forward, she becomes lead jammer. When the red jammer skates forward, the blue blockers skate forward with her to reform the pack, letting them re-engage the red jammer. Had the red blockers been able to see into the future and known to take a knee before the jam had started, they wouldn’t have put themselves into this bad situation.

It is possible for a jammer to get through the pack and for a team to keep the pack at a very slow speed, without that team’s blockers needing to lay a single block on the opposing team’s blockers.

This is backwards! Aren’t blockers are supposed to block the other team? That’s why they’re called blockers, right?

Let’s change this situation up a bit. Think of what would happen if the pack was defined as the team most forward on the track under this same situation, per the suggested solution:

My suggestion: (A) This time, when the pack split hits 10 feet, the pack gets redefined to the team furthest forward. This puts the pack ahead of the pivot line, starting the jam. (B) If the blue team still wants to stand around and do nothing, they will eventually fall 20 feet behind the pack and be declared out of play. In this state, they may not legally engage the incoming jammers, allowing the red jammer to pass through untouched. (C) The blue jammer follows, but hits a wall of red blockers with no blue blocking help. The red jammer skates by her teammates—the pack—and picks up lead jammer. (D) The red team slows the pack to a crawl by forming a wall up front, making it easier for their jammer to catch back up and harder for the blue team to speed up the pack. Had the blue blockers moved forward off the line or blocked the red blockers from the start, they wouldn’t have put themselves into this bad situation.

Because the blue team elected to stall at the pivot line–or to be more accurate in this context, because the blue blockers failed to skate forward or block a single red blocker–they are put into an extremely disadvantageous position. From the rear position, the blue team wouldn’t be able to slow down or speed up the pack, they won’t be able to help their jammer get through the red blockers until they catch back up, and if the red blockers get too far ahead, any blue blockers 20 feet behind the defined pack (the entirety of the red team) would be declared out of play and won’t be able to stop the red jammer getting through without fear of getting penalized, until they skate forward to re-enter the engagement zone.

In short, the blue team is immediately put into a very, very bad situation…and it’s their own damn fault for failing to skate forward or engage the red team at the start of the jam.

This makes a hell of a lot more sports sense. If you stand around and do nothing during a game, you get beat on the play. Period. It’s the reason for the existence of the phrase, “he blew by him like he was standing still.”

And you never want to be the one who was standing still.

This scenario would naturally lead blockers in the pack to want to move forward at the start of a jam. If they don’t move forward, they run the risk of the other team taking the initiative and going forward instead, which would put the team staying back at a big-time disadvantage as imagined above. The only way to prevent that from happening would be to go forward with the other team’s blockers–or through them, if necessary.

As far as jam starts go, that’s all there is to it. If you want to stop skaters from stalling at the line or washing out entire jams, allow the other team to do something about by pushing forward and gaining an advantage from it. You don’t need to add a shot clock, another line on the track, or more penalties. All you need to do is give blockers a damn good reason to not want to be left behind at the start line. It’s that simple.

Blocker Penalties and Uneven Packs

This is all well and good when the teams are at full strength at the beginning of jams. How would my idea apply to uneven packs due to blocker penalties during the course of normal play?

Again, the second exception to the tweaked pack definition rule suggestion is the key. It allows for the possibility of a minority of skaters to be defined as the pack if that minority group exclusively consists of all members from one team and that same team is the most forward group of blockers on the track.

If it seems backwards that the minority of in-play blockers could be declared the pack, consider that this is already technically happening under current WFTDA rules. Should they have a reason to, the minority can gain full control of the speed of pack without needing to do much else but stay back and do nothing.

WFTDA Rules: In this situation, the heavily-penalized team gets to dictate the speed of the pack. The blue blockers can’t speed up until the red blockers speed up first (if they do at all) letting the red team easily get their jammer into scoring position despite not laying a single block on the blue blockers AND being outnumbered in the pack 2-to-1.

In this example, the red team can keep the pack slow by continuing to skate slow. They control when they want the pack to speed up, because if the blue blockers are at the 10-foot split pack fringe and try to skate forward first (without the red blockers following suit) they will cross the 10-foot barrier, destroy the pack, and be penalized for initiating pack destruction.

The blue blockers won’t want to slow down or drop back, as that would just make it easier for the red blockers to help clear the way for their jammer. Should the red jammer get through and push the blue blockers 10 feet ahead of the red blockers—who can continue to stay back and do nothing—it would create a no-pack scenario and legally disallow the four-member strong blue team from touching the red jammer, allowing her to score a lot of points without really having to really make much of an effort.

The red team can potentially enjoy all of those advantages in the pack, which are all very useful to have during the initial pass or a scoring pass.4 All the red team had to do to get into the catbird seat was to completely ignore the blue blockers, back away 10 feet to let the blue team take “control” of the front of the pack, AND commit a few blocker penalties to make themselves the minority group of in play.

Yeah, that’s a bunch of bull.

Other sports handle similar situations with more common sense. Field sports and their derivatives allow for a team to play with fewer players on the other team as a result of penalties. Soccer (red cards), rugby (yellow cards), lacrosse (man-up situations), hockey (power plays) and even basketball (foul-outs with no subs) allow for unequal team numbers.

In all of these instances, the team down a man or more still has every opportunity to score or prevent the other team from scoring. But with less manpower it’s all of a sudden a hell of a lot harder to do it. As it should be, because the shorthanded team committed a penalty; it’s their own fault they put themselves into that situation.

Hockey is the best example of this. Like in roller derby, it’s possible to have a situation where (up to) two players for one team are in the penalty box, leaving one team playing with fewer players than the other team. While killing off this penalty, the shorthanded team will suddenly find themselves in a desperate situation, needing to put almost all of their energy in holding back the other team from taking advantage of the situation.

In this next video, look how easy it is for the full-strength team to gain scoring chances, and how much effort the penalized team puts into trying to deny those chances. The first two minutes of this clip shows a lengthy 5-on-3 power play, something that’s quite rare in hockey:

Although it was all-hands on deck offensive opportunity for the full-strength team, their advantage was not an absolute one. Even with all their players on the ice, should they do something to blow that opportunity—like allow the other team to get control of the pack puck or let them get around their defense—the shorthanded team can still make an opportunity of their own, such as playing keep-away with the pack puck. And if the full-strength team royally screws up, the shorthanded team may even score on the play, against all odds.

This is another one of those truths in sports. Even if one team is put at a big advantage through penalties issued to the other team, the offensive opportunity they gain from them doesn’t mean that they can completely abandon their defensive responsibilities and stop covering their opposition. Doing so would be folly, as it would allow the other team to take the initiative and do something with it. Should the short-handed team overcome the odds, they might even be able to score despite being so penalized.

It should be the same way in roller derby.

New rule suggestion: (A) With two red blockers in the penalty box, a full-strength blue team can easily slow down the red jammer, seal off the remaining red blockers, and pick up lead jammer. (B) With the blue jammer clear, a blue blocker ignores the red blockers near the front of the pack to help stifle the other team’s jammer at the rear to help prevent a breakout. (C) This leaves the red blockers with a 2-on-1 situation at the front of the pack, an advantage they seize to easily pass by the blue pivot. Once there is more than 10 feet of separation between the two red blockers and the blue pivot, the red blockers become redefined as the pack. (D) As a result of the blue team’s defensive breakdown, the red team is able to race the pack, thwarting blue’s chances at an easy scoring play, causing some blue blockers to fall out of play in the process. (E) To avoid this situation, the blue team needs to keep the red team covered at the front of the pack, letting the blue team keep the speed of play under their control. Blue’s big pack advantage still lets them help their jammer and hinder the red jammer quite easily, but that doesn’t mean they can ignore the red blockers entirely.

With four blue blockers against two red blockers, the blue team should have no problem covering the red blockers in the pack AND hindering the red jammer AND assisting their jammer through the pack. It would take a failure of monumental proportions for the blue team to lose the advantage gained from penalties to the other team.

Should that monumental failure happen, however, and the two red blockers get around the four blue blockers, under the suggested pack definitions rules the two red blockers will be defined as the pack should they overcome a 2-on-4 pack disadvantage and get more than 10 feet ahead of the blue blockers. This would afford them the ability to speed the pack forward as fast as they want. Basically, should the blue team allow this to happen, they done fucked up big time.

After they screw up, it would become much harder for the blue blockers to slow down the pack and help their jammer catch back up and score…and the blue blockers have no one to blame for this loss of containment but themselves. However, all hope is not lost for team blue. The blue blockers can get containment back by getting in front of one or both of the red blockers to slow them down and redefine the pack in their favor.

Or more preferably, they can avoid this situation from happening in the first place by keeping blocking help at the head of the pack at all times, always in front of the red team. That way, should the red blockers be on the verge of breaking out entirely, the blue team would have a last line of defense to try and slow them up enough for the rest of the blue team to catch back up and regain control of the situation before it gets out of hand.

But should the red blockers beat the last line of defense anyway and sprint the pack forward, it would make it difficult for them to help their jammer for her initial pass, let alone keep the pack slow enough to help her come around quickly and score; never mind the fact that they would still need to prevent the blue jammer from getting through to score for the blue team. That is, the two red blockers would need to be able to hold back four blue blockers and the blue jammer for an extended period of time while their own jammer is circulating.

Would it be possible for the red team to score in this situation? Yes. But is it probable? Hell, no. But making scoring an afterthought—even with your jammer on the track—is the situation you put yourself in when you commit a lot of penalties and are forced to kill off two of them at the same time.

In this scenario, the red team would have to all but abandon thinking offensively and switch to desperation defense mode, much like the hockey team that finds themselves killing off two penalties simultaneously. However, should the blue team really mess up and all the red blockers to evade their blocks, the red team can still capitalize on that mistake and move to the front of the pack, speeding things along and making it harder for the blue team to take advantage of their situation. This failure on the blue team’s part would both make it much harder for them to score (unless they do something about it) and give the red team a shadow of a chance to give their jammer an opportunity to score (should the blue team mess up big-time).

But in the end, if the red team didn’t want to be put in this all-but-hopeless situation for a period of time, their blockers should have stayed out of the penalty box in the first place. Having fewer blockers on the track should give a team fewer options to combat the other team from slowing down or speeding up the pack, not to mention making it easier for the other team’s jammer to evade the thinner opposing pack members.

Power Jams and Jammer Penalties

Roller derby is a unique sport in that it requires its players to be on offense and defense at the same time. However, this requirement is broken during a power jam, when only one team’s jammer is out on the track.

Classic roller derby rules required that a team fielded a jammer, pivot, and at least one blocker on the track at any given time. Back then, if jammer committed a penalty, the player would go to the box, but the jammer position would still take the track for the next jam. The team would therefore skate the next jam one blocker down, effectively turning a jammer penalty during one jam, into a blocker penalty for the next jam.

This is much like how penalties work in hockey. Should a hockey goaltender commit a penalty, the goalie isn’t sent to the box for two minutes; that would be ridiculously unfair for team to have to defend an empty net for that long. That would lead to an easy goal for the other team, even if that team had more players in the penalty box. For that reason, the offending goaltender—the player actually committing the penalty—gets to stay on the ice as a regular player sits in the sin bin to serve the penalty for him.

Believe it or not, these two exact same situations occur in WFTDA rules…only in reverse.

In WFTDA play, a jammer can be penalized, sit in the penalty box while she watches her team score a lot of points, come up to the line with the star on the next jam, and then score a lot more points herself. If this sounds impossible (a jammer sitting in the penalty box can’t score points) you’d be right if roller derby made sense. But because it doesn’t always, you have the practice known as poodling.

If a player who normally plays jammer takes an intentional fourth minor penalty while lining up as blocker before a jam, she can turn that blocker penalty into one less (potential) jammer penalty in the next jam. This makes sure she starts the subsequent jam with as clean as a penalty slate as possible. Basically, the jammer committing the penalty gets to sit in the penalty box in the jam before she was likely to be boxed for accumulating minor penalties. It’s just that this “jammer” was really a blocker at the time she retrospectively swept her minor penalties under the rug.

The practice of wanting to intentionally penalize yourself is a bit suspect. Why would you ever want to willingly want to put your team at a disadvantage? There are certain times and situations for intentional penalties, yes. But not multiple times during a game.

Teams that trade a blocker penalty for assurance that their jammer stays on the track during the next jam can only mean that they feel one blocker penalty is inconsequential to the effect a jammer penalty would have on their team. That is, even though one blocker penalty or one jammer penalty is still just one penalty, 10 out of 10 poodling teams will tell you that they’d gladly trade a “meaningless” blocker penalty for a “really-bad-for-our-team” jammer penalty.

Question is, why isn’t that blocker penalty as equally consequential as the jammer penalty? Shouldn’t all penalties carry equal weight, regardless who commits them?

Here we have a hockey game where both teams have one player each in the penalty box. But the penalized blue player is their goaltender. Though the number of penalized players is the same on both teams, their effect on the game is not, unfairly penalizing the blue team even though the red team committed the exact same penalty. Would you rather be the red team or the blue team in this situation?

In hockey, goaltender penalties are served by players other than the goaltender. If a penalized goalie was required to leave the ice without being replaced, as in the example above, even if a regular player on the red team committed the exact same penalty as the blue goalie, the advantage the red team gets and the disadvantage the blue team has to deal with is disproportionally unfair to the blue team, despite the level of offenses being equal.

Would this situation be more “fair” for the blue team if the red team had two players in the penalty box instead? Three players? Is it fair that the red team committed two times or three times the number of offenses as the blue team, but is on equal terms as far as equalizing advantages and disadvantages? It shouldn’t be.

But it is in roller derby, which is why you have players breaking the rules on purpose for “strategical” reasons.

It’s plausible that a roller derby team that has two players in the penalty box can enjoy an immense advantage over a team that has just one player in the penalty box at the same time. A team with four players on the track should have an easier time of things than a team with only three.

Problem is, if the team of three still has their jammer, and the team with four doesn’t, you get a situation where 3 is greater than 4. Or in the case of the Iron Maiven Incident, a situation where a team with two players can easily score 15 points against a team of four players…making 2 much, much greater than 4:

In that situation, would you want to be the clean-skating team that only had one player penalized, or would you want to be the dirtier team who had three players penalized? Maybe you can see why the current rules of roller derby aren’t the best when it comes to situations like this.

While this incident occurred during a banked track game, the current pack definition rules are the same for both banked and flat track derby: The pack must have members of both teams in it. However, as previously mentioned , the minority of blockers on the track can exercise a disproportional amount of control on the pack from the rear without needing to block anyone. In this extreme-extreme scenario, the minority can even go as far as making the pack cease to exist entirely, allowing their jammer to go through untouched with not a single thing the full-strength team can do about it—except commit a penalty themselves.5

The team that had only committed one penalty has been screwed and scored upon big-time by the team that committed seven penalties6 With the pack slowed to a crawl, a competent jammer should have no trouble getting multiple scoring pass chances for as long as the pack stays near-stopped.

There’s a problem with this under current WFTDA rules. It isn’t that the pack can be slowed to a crawl—again, there is no problem with this part of the process. It’s that once it’s slowed to a crawl, there is absolutely nothing the other team can do on their own to speed it up again. Even if the goated blocker can thwart the wall and break free, all the team that set the wall needs to do is stay slow and at a crawl behind the other team, and…well, you should have the idea by now.

Everyone thinks it’s impressive that teams can score 15, 20, 25 points or more during a single power jam, as if something truly “grand” has happened. Grand slams in derby, particularly those that happen during power jams, are mostly just exhibitions in jammer speed and crowd control, effectively turning a 5v4 game situation into a contest to see how many times a jammer can get around a clutch of blockers surrounding just one opponent—a 4-on-1 situation.

Yes, the other team has three other blockers on the track, and they still have every chance to block the jammer as she comes around to score. But do they really? Even if the goat was to escape, the jammer is going to be coming in at full speed, and the 10 feet in front of the goat pen is not enough space for those four blockers to skate forward, match the speed of the incoming jammer, react to her direction change, slow her down, and stop her.

It never happens while the pack is at a standstill, because at 11 feet, an entire team of blockers attempting that defense is declared out of play, and—how grand!—it’s another five point pass…and then another. Oh look, it’s another grand slam! How grand! And so on for three or four or more scoring passes within a single jam.7

A team that can get their goat on during the power jam is all but guaranteed a lot of points, even if the goat escapes. The pack will stay slow ahead of the goat wall, making it a trivial matter to catch up to the other team and re-goat a blocker, keeping the pack still slow. And people wonder why power jam scoring can get so out of hand.

(A) On the power jam, the red team manages to goat (trap) a blue blocker behind a wall, allowing them to slow the pack to a crawl. (B) As a reward for executing this strategy, the red jammer can easily make multiple scoring passes. (C) In my suggested pack definition rules, this tactic and the resulting reward does not change. However… (D) In WFTDA rules, should the goated blue blocker slip away, the pack will remain slow due to the blue blockers being unable to speed up the pack on their own. As a result, the red jammer will still get multiple passes quite easily. (E) But in my suggested rules, if the goated blue blocker evades the red blockers, the red team’s failure to contain any blue blockers means the blue pack will be able to pull away from the red team, making it all but impossible for the red team to score. This makes the practice of goating a much riskier proposition… (F) …unless the red team puts at least one blocker in front of the blue blockers at the front of the pack to defend against a possible pullaway before it has the chance to start.

While a team that can bring the pack to a halt deserves the many points that could result from it, choosing to do it by ganging up on one opposing blocker should be a very risky strategy. It’s not in WFTDA play, due to the overpoweringly unfair advantage a team on the power jam enjoys. However, anything that has a potential high rate of return should have an equally high amount of risk of loss associated with it.

If putting all your chips (defensive blockers) on one number (opposing blocker) always resulted in a big payout (a lot of points) on the roulette wheel (roller derby track), you’d do it all the time, wouldn’t you?8

The pack redefintion suggestion would introduce a risk to counterbalance the potential reward of power jam goating. In this situation, if those three free blue blockers stay in front of the red blockers (that is to say, the red blockers ignore the other blue blockers ahead of them) it puts the blue team on the verge of taking total control of the front of the pack, and therefore the speed of the pack.

While the red team would seem to have the upper-hand by going 4-on-1 against the goated blocker, should the red wall fail to keep the blue goat behind them and let her escape without red defenders covering the front of the pack, you get…

A pullaway.

In the first part of this classic derby clip, you can see what happens when the yellow team (the Chiefs) gets entirely in front of the orange team (the Bay Bombers). They don’t wait for the orange jammer to catch up to them. They’re not bound by rules that require the pack have both teams in it. They take advantage of the situation gifted to them by the failures of the orange team, and just go.

The pullaway was a common defensive tactic in those days. If you’ve got no one out on the play to score, there’s no better way to make it difficult for the other team to score on you, but get as far away from the other team as possible. As long as it’s done in a way that’s wholly preventable by the team getting ran away from, it’s a fair strategy. It has been a part of classic roller derby rules for years and years. Why not make it part of modern rules, too?

Remember, even if a pullaway were to occur, the chasing team is not helpless. Under my pack rule suggestion, the chasing team would only need to sever off one of the blockers ahead of them, effectively re-goating the blocker and allowing them to redefine the pack there. This is no different than what happens during a goating session under current WFTDA rules. The big difference is that while it’s impossible for one team to counter slowness with fastness in the current rules, the idea would give the goated team a fair opportunity to speed up the pack from the front, just like the goating team has a fair chance to slow it from the rear…at their own risk.9

If the goating team wants to goat an opposing blocker and keep all their blockers at the rear of the pack, go for it! Let them at it! The strategy wouldn’t change a bit. However, if they want to abandon their defensive responsibilities and let the other team be one blocker away from taking full control of the pack, that’s the risk they take for a potential points bonanza. Should that blue goat get out of its pen, there’s a good chance that no points at all would be scored during the power jam. If that’s a risk the red team doesn’t want to take, they should keep a blocker forward to cover the other blue blockers at the head of the pack.

…but that would make the group at the front the pack, per the first pack definition exception. Should the pack get 20 feet in front of the group at the rear, all four rear blockers would be out of play, giving a chance for the blue goat to escape. If the red team wants to prevent that from happening, the red wall at the back can’t stay stopped on the track forever. They’d need to eventually move forward to stay in play.

Since the blue team is 3 on 1 against the red blocker covering them at the front, unless the red player is a HELL of a blocker there would not be much she can do to slow down all of them. If the lone red blocker tried to stay with the blue blockers up front, that could speed up the pack, requiring the rear group of blockers to also speed up, which could make the goating strategy less effective. The red blocker up front could also change strategy and return to the rear group, redefining the pack at the back and letting the red team go as slow as they want.

…but that would return the element of risk should the blue goat get away. If the red blockers wanted to have an easier time keeping the pack and goat pen slowed down, they could try sending two blockers to the front and ahead of the the blue 3-wall at the front of the pack. However, that would leave the “goated” blue blocker at the back with only two red blockers to get by, something that’s much easier to do now that the five blockers at the front are trying to cycle forward and get a front position to slow or speed the pack to their liking.

he red team—whose jammer is still trying to catch up to the moving pack, due to its relative speed, still needs to slow down the pack to help their jammer catch up, but didn’t want to risk an all-out rear wall to goat one blue blocker. To all-but eliminate the chance of the pack speeding up, the red team switches strategies on the fly and tries to go to the front of the pack, ahead of all four blue blockers.

…but should the red team succeed in completely walling off and slowing the blue blockers at the front of the pack to slow it down, they now have the opposite problem: Who is going to help their jammer get through the 4-wall of blue blockers behind them? The blue blockers could pull a goat wall of their own by trapping the red jammer behind them 4-on-1.

But then again…if the blue blockers slow down to stop their jammer goat, then suddenly they run the risk of the red team (now the defined pack) sprinting forward, putting them out of play at 20 feet behind and allowing their jammer to go through untouched for points. If that’s a risk the blue team doesn’t want to take, they should keep a blocker forward to cover the other red blockers…

Gee whiz, it seems like both teams need to figure the best strategy to balance staying forward and staying back within the pack to account for what the other team may do in response. It’s almost like they need to play offense and defense at the same time, at all times!

That sounds a lot like roller derby, doesn’t it?

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Chapter 5

The Problems with the Solution… Maybe (or Maybe Not)

Ultimately, this suggestion for new pack definition rules is all about putting power back into the pack. It would give pack blockers a fair and equal opportunity to make a difference over their team’s success for all two minutes of a jam by forcing teams to block and engage most if not all blockers in the pack at all times, whether or not a jammer or jammers are in the pack, out of the pack, or in the penalty box.

This is not to say it’s necessary for a pack to need to be moving as fast as a jammer does at all times. But it should still be possible for one team to have the opportunity to make that happen should the other team let them—and the simple threat of the other team getting away altogether should be enough to prevent slow starts, non-jams, multi-grand slam power jams and unbalanced penalties from ruining the flow and fairness of the game.

However, this pack solution may not be the most ideal one. There are at least three things of issue with this idea—and only one of them has to do with the rules.

1. The Pullaway that keeps on pulling away

Let’s say a team of blockers can manage to completely outmaneuver the other team’s blockers and get to the front of the pack. Should they execute a pullaway and literally pull away from the chasing team, there’s an outside chance that they could lap them completely.

If the pack is defined as the group of team skaters most forward, a team of blockers could theoretically and legally lap the other team’s blockers and jammer under my suggested pack definition rules. But how often would this realistically happen?

I don’t have a contingency plan in place for my idea should this transpire, but I doubt it ever will realistically happen during actual play. Three reasons why:

  1. Knowing that the possibility of a pullaway could happen in the first place, teams (especially when on the power jam) would be much more likely to keep at least one blocker at the front of the pack, ahead of all opposing blockers. Since this person would effectively be a team’s last line of defense against a breakaway, it may be a good idea to put a team’s best blocker in this position. From this front position, they’d effectively be the leader of the pack, and pivot point around who has the most control over how fast or slow the pack can go.10
  2. A team is only going to want to try to lap the pack if their jammer is in the penalty box, since they would have no reason to keep the pack slow. Once the jammer penalty is over, there’s no reason for the blue team to keep things fast, as that would make it impossible for their jammer to start scoring once she comes back on the track. As long as the red team is trying to make an effort to slow down at least one blue blocker, there’s just not going to be enough time for a full overtake to happen.
  3. If the red team stays with the blue team, eventually someone is going to get tired, or get their skates crossed up, or make a mistake. Remember, all would take for the pullaway to fail is for the chasing (red) team to peel off and re-goat a single blue blocker. They don’t need to recapture them all to stop the pullaway, although it may be a good idea to do that eventually to lessen the possibility of a re-pullaway.

But still, if it’s technically possible to happen, there should be a rule covering it. I just don’t have one at this point.

2. Flat track vs. Banked track

I’m not sure if this rule suggestion would completely work on the flat track. Since my idea would put a lot more focus on players wanting to cycle forward and be at the front of the pack, naturally leading to packs that would move along a bit faster on the average than what we’re currently used to seeing, a team that holds the inside line of the track would be incredibly difficult to get around the outside while at speed. Unless a team is really good at using whips or taking bold cuts into inside lines, you may have a situation where a team that gets up front may never give up the front.

On the other hand, these rule suggestions would be great for banked track derby. The banked skating surface makes it much easier to get around the outside of someone and also for someone to hold A LOT of speed through the turns, instead of needing to scrub it off on the flat track’s turns.

I think the flat trackers should give this idea a shot, though. If the rare speed-skating processional jam is going to replace the rare jam where no one moves on the track for two minutes, derby will still be better off for it.

3. The “runaway pussy” argument

More than anything else, this is the one point that makes me wonder if my idea will ever see the light of day out on the track.

Back in the early days of the WFTDA, Version 1.0 of the rules (PDF) had a half-realized version of the pack definition rules: The pack is defined as the largest group of blockers. That was it. However, making it so the pack was a simple majority of players on the track created a “loophole” in the rules that teams exploited rather handily.

A team killing a power jam, but with a 4-on-3 pack advantage, could speed the pack for as long as they wanted since they would be the majority of skaters at all times, always being able to define the pack should they all stay together. That means they could all stop on the track and always be the pack, or they could all sprint away and always be the pack.

When the majority sprinted away, they were effectively executing a defensive pullaway, making it very difficult if not impossible for the shorthanded team to score during the power jam (the only time a team would want to run the pullaway strategy).

Back in the olden days of derby, this would have been regarded as a fine defensive play. However, the blockers using this maneuver in the early days of modern play were labelled as cowards who couldn’t stay in the pack and block like they were supposed to.

Hence the existence of the derby phrase, “runaway pussy.”

People didn’t like how players could escape their responsibility to block the other players on the track, or completely ignore the blockers that they left behind during the runaway pussy strategy. Since a lot of the inexperienced players of that era11 couldn’t do much to catch up, this led to jams that would just be a speedskating race to see who could stay in front of who the longest.

As a result, the players voted to change the pack definition rules so the pack was required to have both teams in it at all times. That way, should a team try to do the runaway pussy strategy again, they wouldn’t be able to skate away more than 10 feet without being penalized for it. After all, it’s only fair that the pack skaters trying to get away stay near the other team, so they can block them like they are supposed to.

However, if you think about the phrase, “runaway pussy,” you come to realize that there’s only a certain group of people who use such an insulting term: The team that was ran away from. The team doing the running away wouldn’t call themselves that; they’re just trying to do what it takes to help themselves to win the game.

To find it necessary to use such a nasty term to describe the runaways, you’d think that the team that was sprinting the pack did something to upset the team that got left behind, as if it was an unsporting or unfair play. But besides that, I find it curious that people would cry foul toward a team doesn’t want to stay behind and “block like they’re supposed to,” when the very team that was left behind wasn’t practicing what they were preaching.

In WFTDA 1.0 rules, the supposed runaway pussy “loophole” sometimes allowed for the same pullaway strategy that should be a constant threat in the suggested pack definition changes. So what’s the difference between the “loophole” then and  this suggested “strategy” now? (A) The blue blockers seem to be upset that the red team is speeding away from them, with nothing that they can do about it. So of course they’d be angry… (B) …but instead of being upset at the red team, they should be upset with themselves. It was completely within the blue team’s power to slow down and stop the red team from getting in front of them. But because they weren’t that good at blocking (like they’re supposed to be doing) or at staying out of the penalty box, the red team was able to get in front of and away from them. So who’s really at fault here?

What people failed to realize back then12 was that before a team of “pussies” could run away with the pack, they had to get around all of the blockers on the other team. The team being ran away from (the blue team, above) from had to completely fuck up and allow every single one of the opposition blockers (the red team) to get by them.

This wouldn’t have happened if the blue team had held back even one of the red blockers, but apparently they couldn’t even manage that—maybe if they didn’t commit that blocker penalty earlier, they’d have the blocking help necessary to make that happen.

Instead of taking responsibility for their inactions and failures, they just blamed the team that beat them on the play. Instead of looking to resolve the true cause of the problem, that of individual players not being able to block the other team’s blockers; the WFTDA and its players decided to just address the resulting effect, that of the other team “unfairly” pulling away. Instead of fixing the cause by having skaters get better at blocking or devising better strategies to cover the front of the pack, they just changed the rules so the teams that were not as good at doing those things would never be left behind again.

But as time has demonstrated, this was only a temporary fix, or a half-fix that only stopped the effect of the problem. The root cause of the problem remained unidentified and unfixed. Eventually that root grew into something else, a branch relative of “runaway pussies” on the Roller Derby Problem family tree:

Back-away pussies.

(A) Instead of accusing the red team of being a “runaway pussy” for sprinting the pack forward, the blue team should have been outed for what they really were: A bunch of “back-away pussies” for giving up on blocking the advances of the red team. (B) This exact same problem occurs in current WFTDA rules. However, now the leading team only has a 10-foot window of opportunity to stop the blue jammer from getting through, giving an unfair advantage to the blue team and their blockers, who choose to back away from the red blockers and let the rules do their “blocking” for them.

If people were quick to say that the “runaway pussy” tactic was such a bad thing for roller derby, why aren’t they just as quick to direct similar vitriol to teams and players who stall at the line during jam starts, or fall behind in the pack during general play, effectively backing away from the team ahead of them?

If a team stalls at the start of the jam, and the other team skates forward to cause a split-pack start, why is the stalling team being such pussies for not wanting to engage the other team like they are supposed to?

Why do teams coast around at the rear of the pack while waiting for their jammer to circulate around the track? They’re a bunch of pussies for not blocking the other team during all that time, like they are supposed to.

And is it really fair that a goat wall puts one blocker against four blockers? That wall of blockers are pussies for ganging up on one blocker like that. Why can’t all of them block all of the other blockers, like they are supposed to?

These “back-away pussies” prefer to control of the rear of the pack so that they can make the pack go as slow as possible by blocking the bare minimum number of opponents that is needed for their jammer to get through and score. Thanks to this strategy, we now have a growing problem of extended jam starts, knee starts, non-jams, booing crowds, frustrated skaters, split packs, easy out of play points, over-powered power jams, inflated power jam scoring, huge blowouts, intentional penalties, loophole exploitation left and right…

You get the idea.

Until the WFTDA recognizes and respects why teams and skaters are really doing what they’re doing, any rules clarification or rule change they issue is like taking a shot in the dark. You may appear to fix something as a rule change initially takes effect, but only through actual game situations and teams’ competitive desire to do whatever it takes to win, will the true nature of those changes take shape.

It’s for this reason I’m only cautiously optimistic about the possibility of no-minors roller derby next year—it doesn’t directly address the actual problem of team blockers not always wanting to engage the other team’s blockers, so there’s no knowing if it will make things better, or worse, or create an entirely different problem altogether.

Besides, a no-minor ruleset would not completely eliminate the possibility of a non-jam: No penalties were issued in the Grand Raggidy/Arch Rival non-jam, because neither team did anything against the rules. That’s because the rules make it completely possible—not to mention, advantageous—for roller derby to not be happening.

Wouldn’t football fans make a big stink about it if football rules contained loopholes that made it possible for nothing to happen for two minutes after the ball is snapped at the start of a play? So why aren’t roller derby fans and players making as big of a stink about slow derby as I am?13

If this pack problem is to truly be solved, once and for all, we need understand what the common problem is between the “runaway pussies” of 2006, and the “back-away pussies” of 2011. Even though the rules had been changed quite a bit since then, the two “loophole” eras of modern roller derby share one thing in common, the true One Problem that has been ailing the game since day one:

Players on a team don’t always want to keep blocking the blockers on the other team.

Had a team of blockers tried to block the “runaway pussies” before they ran away (instead of over-focusing on the back of the pack to stop the jammer), they’d have no reason to complain about being left behind. If it were in the best interests of the “back-away pussies” to block the other teams’ blockers constantly (instead of focusing on loopholes to make getting their jammer through as easy as possible), the other team would have a fair chance to move the pack forward. In either scenario, the issue isn’t that the rules are bad and need fixing: It’s that the players just don’t want to block all the time.

So just like our original problem, that of slow pack starts and potential non-jams, the only way to reverse the problem, is to reverse the question:

How can we make it so players on a team always want to keep blocking the blockers on the other team?

That’s easy: Use a little bit of common sports sense.

  • If a derby team wants to slow down the other team, they must block them from the front.
  • If they want to keep them slowed down, they must continue blocking from the front.
  • If a derby team wants to get by the other team, they must evade blocks and defenses.
  • If  they want to stay ahead of them, they must stay in front of blocks/defenses.

And if a team wants to be able to do all of those four things at the same time, there’s only one place to be: The front of the pack, where there’s no place for the likes of back-away pussies like we’re seeing in the modern game.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Chapter 6


This updated pack definition rule suggestion would work to make the game fair for everyone. A team can take control of the pack at any time if they can all get to the front, requiring the other team to block them should they want to have keep that privilege for themselves. It would still be possible take full pack control even if a team has been penalized blockers; but that would make it a lot easier for the other team to gain pack control (but no guarantee) and a lot harder for the shorthanded team to do the same (but not impossible). And regardless of which team gets to the front, it’s completely in the other team’s power to stop it from happening by doing a better job blocking the other blockers within the pack, and staying out of the penalty box to make that task easier.

This will force teams to block and engage players on the other team at all times through the course of natural gameplay.

If they don’t, the other team would always have the option to capitalize and slow down/speed up the pack accordingly. This way, there’s no chance that a team can exploit a rules loophole, because there probably won’t be enough time to do so due to the constant threat of the other team pushing forward, leaving behind the team that tried to loophole themselves into a better position instead of fighting tooth and nail for the best positioning in the pack. This would naturally lead to packs cycling and moving forward, only to slow down should a team completely lock-down the front of the pack and physically slow down the other team from there.

But words and diagrams—even a lot of words and diagrams—can only explain so much. Here is one final pitch to cement this idea, in the form of a super-cool classic roller derby clip.

Of all the old derby videos on YouTube, this one is completely absent any hair-pulling or fisticuffs. It’s just six minutes of pure roller derby, played as close to legitimate as you could get during that era14 in front of one of the largest crowds in the history of the sport.

This feels and looks like what roller derby “should” be like, and The Pack Solution will bring WFTDA derby—or any other form of roller derby, for that matter—closer to this, but in a way that won’t take away from the uniqueness or legitimacy of the modern game.

Just watch it. You’ll notice that when a team gets the lead on the jam, their blockers don’t start drifting to the rear of the pack and form a wall behind the other team: They immediately drive to the front and create a wall in front of the other team to slow them down. The other team tries to counter this by pushing forward in an attempt to find a hole and break out their jammer, or in the case of the last jam, break everyone out to execute a pullaway that gets the crowd going like nothing you have ever seen or heard in roller derby before.

These are the elements the roller derby thrives on. Packs fighting for control of the front of the pack. Pack front walls slowing down entire teams. Faster play. The possibility for slow play. The risk of slow play strategy failing and turning into a pullaway. The tug-of-war of pack control even when the jammers are jamming.

It’s all good. And it’s all roller derby.

Update March 2012 – I am pleased to announce that The Pack Solution dream is now a reality! USA Roller Sports and its new roller derby division has incorporated the pack definition suggested in this article virtually word-for-word in its new rule set.15 You can find their rules and more information on USARS Roller Derby on their website. Thanks to everyone for your support in this victory for roller derby progress!