USARS Finalizes Derby Rules, Launches Olympic Aspirations

After months of planning, tweaks, beta tests, and input of feedback, USA Roller Sports has approved its first official set of roller derby rules for submission to the the USARS executive committee for final review. They are also to be used in USARS roller derby member leagues, effective immediately.

This marks yet another important step in roller derby’s international growth. Recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee nationally, and the International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS) internationally, USARS is—by law—the only organization in the United States that can launch a legitimate push for top-level international competition or Olympic inclusion of roller derby, or any rollerskating sport in general.

That’s good to know, especially with the re-emerging news that the International Olympic Committee has short-listed roller sports (which includes roller derby) as a possible addition to the 2020 Olympic Games.

Eight sports made the list for consideration. The competition roller sports faces include baseball, softball, karate, wushu, wakeboarding, sport climbing, and squash. There’s only room for one of these to make the cut, however, since the Olypmics have already committed to adding golf and rugby to the Games starting in 2016. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup, and all that.

Derby’s Olympic chances at this early stage in the game are likely slim. A final decision on which of the eight sports will make it in is to be made sometime in 2013. That’s too soon for the world (and men) to catch up to the sport’s explosive growth here in the United States. You can’t have an Olympic event without high-caliber athletes from all over the world taking part, after all.

Then again, all disciplines of a sport will be taken under consideration by the International Olympic Committee. Derby may have an outside chance at coming along for the ride if roller hockey, roller speed skating, and roller figure skating are deemed viable for the Summer Olympics, just as their ice skating counterparts have been part of the Winter Olympics program for decades.

Even if it’s too soon for derby to make it all the way, there are still thousands of amateur athletes within the USARS membership that have an opportunity to apply their skills to the sport of roller derby.

So that we know what those men and women might be getting themselves into, let’s familiarize ourselves with the style of roller derby USARS is bringing to the table.

The USARS set of rules were formed in a way not too dissimilar from the process the WFTDA is currently undertaking. A beta set of USARS rules were initially released, feedback was taken, and beta test games were played before a final document was compiled.

The big difference is that WFTDA rules are voted on by its players only, whereas USARS rules were a consensus of players, coaches, the community, and USARS itself. (Fans of roller derby, all.)

In a nutshell, the first stab at these rules are an attempt to bring together all the best ideas of the different rule sets out currently there. It will probably take a few years of actual game situations to iron out the kinks, but that’s to be expected with any new rules document.

You can grab the full set of USARS roller derby rules here (PDF). I’ll run through them from top to bottom and pick out some of the things that I like, the things I don’t like, and anything else that I feel is of interest. (Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments.) For ease of comparison, if you don’t see a rule explicitly mentioned here, assume the USARS version to be the same as the WFTDA equivalent, or inconsequential enough to not make a huge difference.

USARS Roller Derby Rule Book 2012.01

RD10 Teams

RD10.04 Player Roles
(b) Pivot: Pivots are Blockers that have the potential to assume Active Scorer status. Pivots begin the jam on the Pivot Line.

Score a victory for the Occupy the Pivot Line movement: Pivots are required, by rule, to line up on the pivot line at the start of a jam. It’s where they belong!

RD20 Timing

RD20.08 Overtime Play. If the score is tied at the end of a game, the following will apply: After a one (1) minute break, the teams will play a five (5) minute Overtime Period, observing all rules of regular play. …

This makes a lot more sense, now that I think about it. If sixty minutes aren’t enough to find a winner, putting it all down to a single OT jam makes luck (good or bad) too big of a factor in the final result. Plus, why should we be limited to just two minutes (length of a jam in USARS, same as WFTDA) of extra derby, when we can have five?

Even better, there’s still the possibility for sudden death: Double overtime is one extra jam played with no lead jammer, and if that somehow doesn’t settle it, triple overtime makes the first team to score a point an immediate winner.

RD40 Start of Play

RD40.01 Participating in the Jam. Game play shall include only those eligible Game Roster players on the Track in an Upright Skating Position (on one skate or two, with no other body parts or equipment components touching the floor, except that a Jammer may start the jam with one hand down in the speed start position if s/he desires) and otherwise in compliance with starting position, equipment and uniform requirements at the jam start whistle (“Active Players”); all other players will be excluded from the jam at the jam start whistle and will be waved off the track by a referee (“Excluded Players”).

This is an overly complex way of saying two simple things: All players are released with a one-whistle start, and starting on a knee will exclude a player from playing in the jam.

It’s not explicitly stated here, but USARS rules also mandate a blocker “start box,” the rear of which is demarcated with a second line 10 feet behind the pivot line. Anyone wishing to participate in a jam must be completely inside this box and standing upright—no exceptions (and no loopholes).

This setup, along with the requirement of a forward-starting pivot, should be more than enough to get rid of overly-dumb jam start sequences that have been plaguing WFTDA play.

RD40.02 Direction of Play; Continuous Motion. Beginning at the sounding of the jam start whistle, and throughout the duration of the jam, all Active Players will continuously skate in a counterclockwise direction on the Track; clockwise movement on the Track is not permitted at any time. …

This makes the practice of backwards skating or stopping on the track while within the bounds of the defined pack a no-no. Stopping is okay when a player is too far ahead of the pack and is waiting for it to catch up, though. This is also a rule in current in banked track rules.

Rules that force an action on someone that they should be naturally doing anyway are something I’ve never understood. Especially in this case, where there may be situations where going backwards is tactically necessary if the pack is going forward very, very slowly, a common sight in flat track derby as it exists currently.

I can understand what this rule is attempting to do, but making clockwise skating illegal kills off some of the completely legitimate (though rare) reasons why you would need to do it.

However, required forward motion may actually turn out to be a redundant requirement when considering the consequences of this rule:

RD40.05 Defining the Pack. The Pack is the largest group of Blockers comprising players from both teams in proximity to one another, excluding Active Scorers, except as set forth herein. “Proximity” is maintaining a Relative Player Position not more than ten (10) feet apart. When two or more groups of Blockers comprise an equal number of players and are more than ten (10) feet from one another, the Pack is the largest group of Blockers most forward on the track. When two or more groups of Blockers exclusively comprise players from the same team, the Pack is the group comprising all Blockers on a team and positioned most forward on the track.

Thank God.

This pack definition is The Pack Solution, pretty much word-for-word. For those that haven’t yet seen it, this definition of the pack means that the no-pack scenario is now completely impossible to attain, defining the pack towards the front whenever possible.

Now, a team wanting to slow down the pack can only do it by physically blocking the other team. A team wanting to speed up the pack can only do it by evading those blocks and getting around everyone else on the other team. It’s completely fair, completely foolproof, and guaranteed to put meaningful pack play back into the game.

Full disclosure: USARS had contacted me not long after I published this idea, asking me permission to include it in their rules. I gave it, they tested it in a game, I clarified a thing or two, and then they added it to the rules pretty much on the spot. (In the USARS beta rule set released a few months ago, they used the WFTDA pack definition rule…and we all know how I feel about that.)

This is awesome. It’s not just that common sports sense prevailed, but in that I’ve essentially helped write the rules that may one day be distributed around the world and played with at the Olympic Games. I am literally squeeing right now.

However, there’s one bit about the pack rules that I don’t know what to make of, a pretty significant one that’s implied in rule RD40.06: There is no 20-foot engagement zone. You’re either in the 10-foot bound of the pack, or you’re out of play and subject to penalties if you block anyone.

This is and interesting take on in-play/out-of-play that I hadn’t seen before. I can’t visualize how this would affect pack play (particularly in the rear), so I’d like to see how this changes things before saying it’s a good or bad thing.

RD40.09 Determining Active Scorer. A Pivot may break from the Pack during his/her Jammer’s initial attempt to pass through the Pack and may become an Active Scorer once the opposing team’s Jammer has emerged from the Pack. …

Here’s a blast from the past: Pivots can become jammers at their own initiative. Panty passes are not required for a pivot to become a jammer, and in fact do not exist in this rule set.

Pivots need only to chase the lead jammer from the pack after he or she is declared as such, and they’re instantly eligible to score points. (A pivot can never be the first person to break out of the pack to score.) That team’s jammer then becomes a regular blocker (even though they are still wearing the star) for the rest of that jam. If a team’s jammer is in the penalty box, their pivot is ineligible to score, keeping power jams intact for their duration.

This restores the original purpose and position of the pivot in roller derby: The last line of defense that can cash-in superior defensive positioning within the pack for an inferior offensive opportunity on the jam, a trade-off that isn’t always the no-brainer that it appears to be.

Making the pivot relevant again adds a whole new layer of depth to the game. Soon, I’ll be diving deep into that topic as well as many others about the hows and whys of roller derby from new perspectives. If you’re a fan of WRDN on Facebook, you may have seen this teaser preview, a mysterious hint about what that’s going to be all about. (It’s going to be awesome, if you needed a second hint.)

Update August 2012: And if you want to see the idea and strategies behind active pivot play in roller derby, you can read that in Chapter 4 of the Another Derby Series: The True Role and Purpose of the Pivot.

RD40.11 Lead Scorer May Change Throughout the Jam. Following the initial determination of Lead Scorer, the opposing Active Scorer may assume Lead status by passing the Lead Scorer in bounds and without committing any penalty during the pass (a “Clean Pass”).

Another callback from banked track/classic derby. The lead jammer is literally the jammer in the lead, and that status can change if the other jammer earns it by passing the other jammer. Note the “lead scorer” and “active scorer” terminology is due to the fact that the player who has lead on the jam may be a pivot, and “lead pivot” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Neither does “lead scorer,” actually, but whaddaya gonna do.

There’s one nitpick I have here. Rule RD40.10 says if a lead scorer goes to the penalty box, lead status is forfeit and no one can call off the jam, despite the fact that the jammer or pivot not in the lead will be passing them as they get sent off.

This creates a loophole that would allow a team leading holding a moderate lead with time running out to prevent the other team from stopping the clock. If the leading team commits a jammer penalty while holding lead jammer status, the other team will never be able to call off the jam in an attempt to try and squeeze in one or two more jam starts or use time outs before the expiration of the period.

If you’re going to give a player the ability to earn back lead status, taking that ability away because of a penalty committed by the other team isn’t fair. For rules consistency, lead status must change when the trailing jammer/pivot passes the penalized jammer on the track or in the penalty box, only to disqualify someone from getting lead if both jammers were declared ineligible on their own initiative.

RD55 Penalties

RD55.02 Impact Fouls. Fouls (any action or movement prohibited by these Rules) committed during game play that impact or affect the movement or position of players on the Track will be subject to the following penalties, in accordance with the impact of the Foul upon the game:
a. No impact, no penalty: causing an opposing player to momentarily lose balance, but not Relative Player Position.
b. Minor (1 minute): causing an opposing player to lose Relative Player Position or advancing, improving or intentionally altering own position.
c. Major (2 minute): causing an opposing player to fall down or go out of bounds; significant impact to game play.

Look closely and you’ll see this is the “no minors” rule set that everyone wants the WFTDA to implement. Even though you can still get a “minor” penalty, there’s no accumulation of illegal-but-not-really-illegal actions. This will allow players (and officials) to play without having to worry about ticky-tack things that could come back to bite them later.

As a sports fan, this makes waaaaaay more sense. If a player does something “illegal” to another player, but no loss or gain is made from that action, why is it a penalty? Roller derby is a contact sport. Let ’em play.

The addition of a two-minute penalty means punishments will better fit crimes depending on how badly the foul changes the game, although I’m on the fence as to its implementation.

I like the fact that an illegal action severe enough to cause a skater to fall down is a major penalty. There’s a big difference between a back-blocking penalty that causes a player to lose one or two spots on the track, and a back-blocking penalty that causes a player to fall down and take out three or four players. That difference is now accounted for.

However, if what would normally be a minor penalty (causing someone to lose position) also directly causes a player to streak out-of-bounds, the language here states that action would be upgraded to a major.

I think this is meant to discourage last-gasp blocker kamikaze dives on a jammer on the verge of breaking out of the pack, a situation where both players often hit the floor or spill out of bounds. But that may also mean a relatively harmless minor becomes a major if the fouled-upon skater touches his or her skate on the boundary line, which sounds way too harsh a penalty.

In any event, if players are skilled enough to avoid getting penalties in the first place, this may not be a big issue. Especially when you factor in…

RD55.07 Fouling Out. A player receiving three (3) Major penalties in a single game, or any combination of seven (7) penalties in a single game will be declared ineligible to play the remainder of the game.

A full knockdown off a clean hit and its consequences are a part of the game. But a big hit that isn’t legal within established rules needs to be severely punished and carry severe consequences. The risk of a quick trip to the showers for over-doing it does just that.

Some of the most dangerous penalties are those that cause a fouled-upon skater to unexpectedly or awkwardly fall to the floor, where they are the most defenseless and are most liable to sustain (or cause) serious injuries. Since any illegal action that causes a skater to fall will be a two-minute major penalty in USARS rules, that means a player who is overly reckless will only get two chances to reign it in for fear of ejection upon the third, regardless of how many minor penalties they’ve accrued up to that point.

I’m really digging this. It feels as if it was implemented for the safety of everyone out there. A skater that can’t control themselves and is the primary cause of players to falling down left and right is a hazard to everyone out there, so maybe it’s better that they exit the game. If they keep doing it every game, that could be a sign that they’re not quite ready to play against other people in a safe manner—certainly not at a potential Olympic level of competition.

RD60 Serving Penalties

RD60.02 Penalty Box Capacity. No team may have more than three Blockers and one Active Scorer seated in the penalty box simultaneously.

In other words, up to four players from one team can be in the penalty box at once, potentially leaving a lone blocker to fend for themselves. Derby is a team sport, but it’s kind of hard for one person to be a “team.” I believe even a heavily penalized team should have at least two players on the track at a minimum, like in WFTDA play.

As a consequence, the absolute minimum number of players that could potentially be on the track at once during an active jam is three: One blocker from each team, and one scoring jammer/pivot on one team. (Ick.) If that lone scoring player also gets a penalty…

RD60.04 Active Scorer Penalty. An Active Scorer will serve the entirety of any penalty imposed. If both Active Scorers are seated in the penalty box at the same time, the head referee will call off the jam and begin a new one. …

Playing jammer (er, scorer) musical chairs is pointless when the emphasis is on a jammer passing people on the track for points. If neither team has a jammer out, even for a moment, there should be no jam. Banked track play has a similar provision in its last jam major rules, stating that if both jammers get whistled off the track, the jam (and the game) ends immediately.

The next jam after a double-jammer penalty situation will have both teams start with a jammer and pivot, minus the appropriate number of blockers. Any position players still in the penalty box will remove their helmet covers and come back in as a regular blocker when their penalty expires.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

There’s my rundown of the rules. For the most part, I’m positive on them even with one or two things I personally don’t like. (But what do I know?) If it turns out those little things were better for the game after all, then great. If it turns out the stuff I like turns out to be horrible for the game, that’s great too. As long as we know what works and what doesn’t work, we can all build toward a better set of rules for everyone.

But rules are only rules. How they’re applied by people playing the game is a different animal entirely.

When looked at on the whole, how would the USARS style of roller derby differ from the WFTDA style of play that everyone is used to?

It seems clear that USARS rules will almost guarantee a faster tempo of play. Making the front of the pack the favorable place to be, combined with the fact that lead jammers will almost always have a scoring threat hot on their heels, makes outright speed just as of important skill to have as blocking and evasion.

Speaking of blocking, USARS derby will put more emphasis on pack blocking and blocker engagement skills. Blockers will need make sure that their jammer gets out first while simultaneously worrying about keeping both the opposing jammer AND pivot behind them if they have any hope at a legit offensive opportunity.

It’s clear that a set of rules like these are designed primarily for those that have a higher level of skating skill. That’s not to say that someone brand new to skating or derby can’t play in a USARS game, because rules are only part of the equation; the level of the skaters you’re playing against is just as important as the rules that dictate how they play.

Two different sets of roller derby rules, for two different groups that have two different desires about participating in the sport. Why is that a bad thing?

USARS rules have, in my opinion, a much higher potential “top-end” to them. WFTDA rules (as they stand at this moment in time, anyway) are written in a way that reward slow play, not letting a fast team use their outright speed to any kind of advantage. Instead, teams battle to out-slow each other. The only possible end result of that path can be ultimate slowness… also known as no movement. It was a result that was realized, to the displeasure of many.

However, in USARS rules, if someone is attempting to pull away from you in the pack with speed, it’s possible to out-speed them by going faster. There is no fixed “ultimate speed,” because someone who works harder can always go faster. For those that can’t be as fast, they can be better in other ways to neutralize and prevent that speed from breaking out by working towards attaining “ultimate blocking” skills, to which there is also no upper limit.

This is what too many people within the WFTDA community can’t seem to wrap their head around. People that believe the faster style of derby USARS is proposing is a one-dimensional “go fast, turn left” game. In reality, it is they who do not understand how roller derby is “supposed” to work as a sport. There’s way more to it than that.

But even so, if you don’t like these rules, or fast derby, or anything that isn’t WFTDA derby, there’s a really easy thing you can do about it:

Don’t play USARS derby.

If you don’t want to go through the bother of changing the style of play you’re used to, that’s perfectly fine. No one is going to take over the WFTDA and tell its players to roller derby in a way they don’t want to play it.

As long as skaters just want to play roller derby in a fun, competitive environment, the WFTDA (and the MRDA) will be there for them, just like the WAKA is there for people who want to play kickball. (You can watch their championship game online, too.) It needs to be, and I want it to be, because everyone who wants to play derby, regardless of skill, should have that opportunity.

However, there are people who want to play derby in a serious (and I mean fucking serious) competitive environment. This is something that WFTDA/MRDA cannot provide without lessening their focus on the core of players that just want to play derby. They should not be left behind at the expense of those wanting to push the sport forward.

If I have anything to say about it, they won’t be.

But by that same token, those wanting to play for fun shouldn’t be holding back the potential of those that want to push the sport forward, a consequence of trying to cram everyone into a “one-size-fits-all” concept for the sport.

Right now, USARS is the one willing to pick up the torch and take it all the way to the Olympic cauldron if the opportunity to do so becomes available.

But like any torch relay, the ones who started carrying it need to recognize when it’s time to start thinking about passing it to the ones waiting to receive it at the next level.