Victory Through No Pack of Effort (v2.0)

Working hard or hardly working? In the WFTDA, the latter way is, sadly, the only way to win.

This article was originally posted on November 6, 2011. It has been reworked for ease of reading and clarity, and updated with new examples and a more direct conclusion. It’s like a Blu-ray special edition!

During the the Windy City/Naptown game at the 2011 WFTDA North Central playoffs, there was a sequence of events that, as a sports fan and a roller derby fan, that I truly appreciated.

Behind on the scoreboard during the second half, Windy City sent Jackie Daniels out to jam. Jackie got a fiver on her first scoring pass, but as Windy City bench coach and DNN editor Justice Feelgood Marshall recounted, when she went for her second run at the pack…

…she tries to go around a nearly stopped Sarge[ntina of Windy City] to the right, just as Sarge moves to the right. Sarge is what the military would classify as a hard target. Physics happen and Jackie goes from like 60 to 0 in an instant, hitting the floor on her back super hard. Everybody in the room goes “OOOOH” at the same time. As any derby player knows, the collisions you don’t expect — the ones you’re not braced for — are the ones that fuck you up.

So Jackie’s on the ground. Doesn’t move for a couple seconds but it feels like ten. Her jam ref is standing over her and looks like he’s about to call the jam on injury. Sarge is also obviously concerned. I’m sure Jackie’s got to be relatively seriously hurt, because otherwise she’d call it off, right?

But no. Jackie slowly rolls over, slowly gets up, and keeps fucking going. Amazingly. She is really interested in that scoring pass. She’s slower than she was before and obviously in some pain, but she’s also Jackie. She gets the 4 points and calls it off at 9-0.

When Jackie gets back to the bench, our lineup manager Angel Dustt and I immediately check to see if she’s ok. She’s gasping and holding her chest and can hardly talk; she sits down heavily in the back row of seats and unbuckles her chin strap.

Angel says something to her right then, something along the lines of “Nice jam” or “Are you trying to kill yourself?” I do remember exactly what Jackie says back to her in between ragged breaths: “I wanna win. I wanna win.”

The final score of that game?

Windy City 128, Naptown 117.

Due to the extraordinary effort of Jackie Daniels, that 9-0 jam was damn near the difference between Windy City winning and losing the game. The team ultimately achieved victory through no lack of effort on their part.

A case like this is a reminder that team sports rely on individuals to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. From start to finish, an individual’s best effort is needed to help the team succeed. However, just like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, an individual not putting in their best effort, or effectively quitting on the play, can be disaster for the well-being of an entire team.

Had Jackie not dug deep to keep going, she could have left those points on the table. She could have also been given three jams off for a medical stoppage, preventing Windy City from using her in their normal jammer rotation and opening up the possibility of losing out on even more points in future jams through unfavorable jammer match-ups.

It just goes to show that effort in sports is rewarded. If you work harder than your opponent (assuming your opponent is of similar skill and ability), or at the very least give it your all 100% of the time, good things will happen to you and your team. Even when it looks impossible, you never know what can happen if you never give up.

As the saying goes, winners never quit, and quitters never win.

However, the current state of modern roller derby, both flat track (WFTDA) and banked track (RDCL), quitters can win.

The rules make it that way.

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In October 2011 at the MRDA Championships, the New York Shock Exchange defeated the Puget Sound Outcasts in the finals to claim the Athletic Cup trophy as champions of men’s roller derby. They were certainly deserving of that title, so congratulations to them.

However, how they won their earlier semi-final game against Magic City made me want to punch someone in the face.

This video will explain why.

As you can see, on two initial passes and five scoring passes during power jam situations, the NYSE blockers literally stood back and did nothing, watched their jammer push forward the Magic City pack, waited for the pack to split, and picked up lead jammer calls and a significant number of points due to the no-pack situation.

This pisses me off. Big time.

The NYSE pack blockers just stood there and didn’t even attempt to make an effort to engage the other team. This angers me, though I’m not mad at the Shock Exchange, of course. They know the rules inside and out and just used them to their advantage. If I were in the same position, I would do the same thing.

What ticks me off is that that modern derby rules allow such a tactic to not only be possible, but be extremely effective and successful. Even the announcers knew what New York was trying to do: They were just waiting for the pack to split and allow their jammer to break through scott-free during the no-pack (when all players are forbidden to engage) so they could collect their points and have another go at it on the next scoring pass.

As a sports fan, I have a big-time problem with the fact that there are derby rules that allow an entire team to effectively take a play off and show no effort or teamwork whatsoever…but still get a points bonanza.

Let’s take a look at these jams and see exactly what’s going on here.

First of all, the no-pack situations. It seemed as if Magic City had a very difficult time keeping the pack together. Had they been able to maintain pack integrity, the NYSE jammers wouldn’t have been able to get through so easily. Although, the rules say that both teams are equally responsible for keeping a pack, so NYSE was just as responsible to stay in pack proximity as was Magic City. So why didn’t they, and why the no-pack calls?

Once the pack has been slowed to a halt, either due to a slow start or through the course of blocking during general play, a team holding the back (New York) just needs to not move or creep forward very slowly. At that point, they’re moving at the established speed of the pack: Barely moving forward. The team at the front (Magic City) is forced to go the same speed to maintain pack integrity, even if they evade the other team’s blockers.

But this was a bad deal for the Misfits. No matter how hard Magic City worked or how effectively they blocked the NYSE jammer, there was virtually nothing they could legally have done to stop from getting scored on.

Think about it:

You can’t stop and legally block at the same time. If a Magic City blocker tried to stop the NYSE jammer dead on the track (to match the established pack speed of not moving) they would get a stop-blocking direction of play penalty (rule 6.9.1).  To legally block, Magic City had no choice but to creep forward to engage the NYSE jammer. Eventually this forward creeping would lead to either a pack split or 20ft out of play calls, making a matter of being scored upon a case of “when” rather than “if.”

If you did anyway, you can’t prolong the inevitable. Alternatively, Magic City could have committed a few stop-blocking penalties in a bid to prevent the NYSE jammer from pushing them forward…in fact, they picked up at least two minors, and I think a major as well, in their attempt to hold their ground during these sequences. However, this would only delay the inevitable five point pass that would come anyway. Regardless, doesn’t it seem unfair that one of the few options to keep a jammer from scoring on you in a stopped pack, would be to commit a stop-blocking penalty?

A 4-wall, becomes a 3-wall, becomes a 2-wall… If one of Magic City’s blockers remained within the 10 foot proximity boundary of the pack to prevent the a total pack split, that would turn MCM’s 4-wall into a 3-wall. That would also mean that lone blocker would need to willingly become a point. Though the thought of a blocker sacrificing himself to extend the engagement zone for his teammates is a noble one, but as the rest of the defense is forced to keep creeping forward, they’re going to come to the point where they’ll need to peel off another blocker to bridge the pack and further extend the engagement zone. So the wall is further weakened, all thanks to the effort (?) of the NYSE blockers.

You could try pinning the jammer out of bounds and then retreating backwards, but… had the Magic City blockers attempted to roll back behind the NYSE blockers to get the most distance out of the jammer recycle, all New York needed to do to neutralize that is to also go backwards to keep Magic City “pinned” at the front of the pack. If the pack was rolling backwards fast enough, the NYSE blockers could then simply and suddenly move forward directly into the path of the oncoming Magic City blockers. This would then give MCM direction of play (clockwise blocking) penalties, further weakening their defensive wall and making it even easier for NYSE to score points during the power jam.

No matter how you slice it, Magic City had no option. The split pack was going to happen, they were going to give up a lot of points, and there was nothing they could have realistically done about it, legally or otherwise.

What, then, about the Shock Exchange? If what they did—or didn’t do, in this case—led to a no-pack situation, why weren’t they penalized?

Section 6.10.2 of the WFTDA rule book (MRDA uses WFTDA rules) dictates out of play penalties during a no-pack situation. There are seven bullet points in this section, but here’s the thing that makes me laugh: Four of these points—the majority—dictate when creating a no-pack situation is not a penalty:

  • Splitting the pack during jam starts (6.10.2.1.2)
  • Forcing an opponent down or out of bounds, causing them to be out of play, if they are the only member on the other team within the pack (6.10.2.3)
  • “When no single skater or team can be clearly found responsible for illegally destroying the pack” (6.10.2.4)
  • “Gradually deviating from the speed of the pack as established through game play, unless said deviation is sudden, rapid and marked, leaving the opposing team no opportunity to adjust and maintain a pack.” (6.10.2.1.1)

That last point explains why New York was not issued a penalty for their role in the no-pack situations their inaction ultimately caused.

New York knew that loitering at the pack of the pack during a power jam would gradually cause the pack to split, owing to Magic City moving counter-clockwise in some fashion so they could legally block their jammer. New York didn’t do anything “sudden, rapid and marked” to destroy the pack, though; all they were doing was maintaining the established pack speed, if not “gradually deviating from the speed of the pack.” So, very correctly, no penalties were issued to New York.

Let’s take our noses out of the rule book for a moment, and think about the circumstances both teams found themselves in. No matter how much effort Magic City put in to their defense and no matter how well they (legally) blocked the New York jammer, they were going to be punished for it by being scored upon in at least some capacity. New York was standing around and doing nothing, and showed a complete lack of effort by doing nothing to engage the Magic City blockers. Yet, they were rewarded for doing this with easy points.

That a team could get even one point by doing nothing to earn it goes against the very definition of a sporting contest. No matter what, a team must overcome their opponent through force and effort to get what they want, either through their own actions or via a mistake on the part of their opponents. But here, New York’s pack players didn’t make an effort, and Magic City’s pack players didn’t make any real mistakes. Yet, Magic City got screwed.

What makes this even more infuriating to me is that the 23 points that NYSE picked up using this tactic was the difference between winning and losing. The final score of the game was 139-131 in favor of New York. Without those extra points (and without the 4 that Magic City “earned” via a pack split of their own) Magic City would have won instead, by the score of 135-116.

I know what you’re thinking at this point: Magic City was down a jammer through every fault of their own. After all, if you do the crime, you do the time and have to suffer the consequences of the penalty.

But does the punishment fit the crime? Magic City (and in fact any derby team giving up a power jam) is usually punished to the tune of an easy 5-15 points (or more!) for the crime of a one-player, one-minute penalty. That doesn’t seem to match up with a one-player, one-minute penalty committed by a blocker, which generally turns into the punishment of one or two extra ghost points, or maybe no points at all if the other team can keep pouring on the offense.

If two everyday American citizens committed the same crime under the same circumstances, but one got 30 days in prison, and the other got 25-to-life, that would be unfair. You can’t give different punishments to the same offense. If derby were truly fair, penalties would put a team at equal disadvantage regardless of who committed them—jammer or blocker. Lady Justice is blind, and should therefore not discriminate against the color of a person’s skin or the helmet panty they just happened to be wearing at the scene of the crime.

Let’s take a look at an extreme scenario to demonstrate my point. Imagine if roller derby was played with 100 players on each team. One of them commits 98 blocker penalties during a jam, while the other team only committed one penalty, albeit a jammer penalty that put the grossly penalized team on the power jam.

In the real world, one jammer and two blockers going up against the might of 100 blockers would have absolutely no chance of getting through. However, thanks to the strange rule (4.1.1) that requires the pack to have members from both teams in it, and the fact that if there is no pack, no one is allowed to block anyone…

(A) With the red team on the power jam, but at a 2-100 pack disadvantage, how will they ever score? Well, they can start by dropping 9.9 feet behind the blue team… (B) Oops! Looks like the blue team went an inch too far forward in their attempt to block the incoming red jammer, splitting the pack and causing their entire team to be declared out of play. (C) And so the red jammer can skate through the no-pack untouched to pick up 100 points, thanks to the “effort” of the red blockers. What’s the more ridiculous here: A 100 person roller derby team, or the fact that 100 blockers can be disallowed to block the other jammer through no fault of their own?

…the common sense notion that the 2 have no chance of getting through the 100 is turned on its head: During power jams (or any time, really) the 100 has absolutely no chance of stopping the 2..or in this case, the one jammer. The rules make it that way.

This leads to another strange quirk in modern derby rules: A team on the power jam has the negative effects of any current blocker penalties immediately neutralized.

Even if a team is very bad at following the rules and has two (or even three!) times as many players in the penalty box as a cleaner, more rule-abiding team, because power jams are so cripplingly unfair it doesn’t matter. All the shorthanded team needs to do is show no effort in assisting their jammer—or to put it another way, not bother using teamwork—to induce a pack split that can’t be prevented and pick up easy points hand-over-fist.

We can see a perfect example of this in a banked track game from the Pro Roller Derby Glendale (Ariz.) Invitational between Rat City’s Grave Danger and the Arizona Derby Dames Hot Shots.

In the jam prior to the one you’re about to see, two Grave Danger players committed major penalties, but only one AZDD player got sent to the box. With a 4-3 manpower advantage, Arizona should have an easier time of controlling play, right?

One problem with that, though: Grave Danger still has its jammer on the track, and the Hot Shots don’t. The GD power jam that ensues is quite easily the second-worst roller derby jam (in terms of demonstrating how broken modern roller derby rules are; the first would be the infamous Iron Maiven Incident) I have seen in my entire life:

The two Grave Danger blockers did not lay a finger on a Hot Shots blocker for the entire duration of the jam. They did not attempt to help their jammer clear out blockers ahead of her, nor did they even think about doing so. Meanwhile, the Hot Shots blockers had all of seven feet (pack proximity in banked track rules) to stop the GD jammer from splitting the pack, something that was doomed to happen from the start.

Once AZ’s blockers got pushed forward ahead of the GD blockers, they were left in an even more hopeless situation than Magic City found themselves in owing to banked track rules. Stopping or skating backwards on the banked track is illegal, so Arizona’s defense could get no closer than 6½ feet in front of the Rat City blockers—six inches away from being pushed outside of pack proximity.

I don’t care how good you are at roller derby: That is completely impossible to defend against. A player’s only hope at that point is to launch themselves at the incoming jammer in a desperate bid to take her out with a big hit. Not only is that reckless, and unfair, it’s extremely dangerous to the health and safety of the players on the track, if that hit Jackie Daniels took earlier is any indication.

(I need to get a scathing criticism in here really quickly: A lot of people like to say that say women’s roller derby is all about teamwork and finesse. However, I regularly observe an awful lot of jams where blockers would rather wait for the pack split then actively help their jammer, as well as situations where a big hit is the only realistic defense a team on the power jam has available to them. That’s teamwork and finesse? Really?)

This leads me back to the Windy City/Naptown game that took place last October.

Compared to most of the other games that happened during the 2011 Big 5 playoff season, Windy/Naptown was a close, exciting contest that was easily one of the top ten bouts of the year.

However, there was a moment that stuck out for me like a sore thumb. I saw that beyond a shadow of a doubt, under current WFTDA (and RDCL) rules, quitters can indeed win…or at least, directly benefit from giving up on a play and/or taking penalties while doing it.

Near the end of the first half, Windy’s jammer got sent to the penalty box, putting Naptown on the power jam during a 3-3 pack situation. Predictably, Naptown’s blockers drifted to the rear of the pack, which naturally slowed the pace of the pack down; Windy City’s blockers couldn’t speed up, or else they would get a destroying the pack penalty.

But then…

(A) The situation, as described. Windy City is blue and Naptown is red. The established pack speed is slow. (B) As the Naptown jammer gets into scoring position, the Naptown blockers accelerate to engage Windy City and try to help their jammer through. (C) Windy City anticipates this and accelerates forward at the same time. This reestablishes the pack speed: Fast. (D) Windy City’s smart play puts Naptown in a bad spot, as the fast pack makes it very difficult for their blockers to catch up. As Naptown starts to lose ground, the Naptown pivot whips her jammer forward. (E) However, this transfer of momentum causes the Naptown pivot to slow down quickly enough for her to fall out of the pack, destroying it. This immediately puts all blockers out of play. (F) The Naptown blocker is penalized for pack destruction…but her team immediately benefits as a result of the penalty.

For being singly responsible for destroying the pack in this situation, the Naptown pivot was correctly penalized and sent to the penalty box. Justice was served, right? If a player does something against the rules, that player’s team should suffer the consequences of the illegal action.

But Naptown was on the power jam, something we’ve already determined is a wholly unfair scenario. If derby rules were fair, that blocker penalty to Naptown would be of immediate benefit to Windy City, in some way, shape, or form. But in truth, the “consequences” that the Tornado Sirens had to deal with as a direct result of that penalty don’t seem quite right in terms of which team gets the advantage in this situation:

Pack speed: Once the no-pack is called, both teams are required to reform the pack. All Naptown had to do to meet that requirement was continue skating forward at the same (diminished) speed they were already going. Windy City, on the other hand, was by rule forced to slow down. Before the Naptown penalty, the pack was moving very fast, making it very difficult for the Naptown jammer to catch up and score. After the Naptown penalty, the pack was moving very slowly, making it much easier for Naptown to pick up a few more scoring passes. Advantage: Naptown

Ghost points: The additional Naptown blocker in the penalty box means Windy City can score more easily via ghost points. Alas, the Windy City jammer is still in the penalty box, so there’s no immediate advantage to WCR. When their jammer eventually does come back onto the track. she would still need to get through an initial pass and a scoring pass before she can pick up that ghost point, something that isn’t going to happen on account of of Naptown owning lead jammer status. Advantage: Naptown

Pack advantage on subsequent jam: Okay, at least Windy City has their jammer out of the box for the start of the next jam. However, Naptown’s blocker penalty gives Windy a lose-lose choice: If they don’t take a knee at the start of the jam, Naptown will be able to stand around—that is, show no effort whatsoever—and burn off that blocker’s penalty time, completely negating the effect of the penalty. They could opt for a knee-start or cause a split-pack start to begin the jam immediately…neither of those are good options. Hmm. Advantage: Naptown (or at best, a push)

The scoreboard: If Windy’s jammer was released with plenty of Naptown blocker penalty time remaining, that’ll be worth those extra one or two ghost points after all, depending on how many scoring passes they can get in. On the other hand, the destruction of pack penalty Naptown committed to make herself a ghost point directly resulted in her team scoring five points on that scoring pass. At the end of all the penalties in question, the Windy City may get 1 or 2 extra ghost points, while Naptown definitely got 5, and set themselves up to possibly get more than that. Do the math: Advantage: Naptown

During this sequence Windy City did everything right. They anticipated Naptown’s strategy perfectly. They sped up the pack with Naptown, as is within their rights to do. They maintained a fast pack speed without accelerating more than they had to hold up their end of keeping the pack together, as per the rules.

But in the end, because Naptown effectively quit on the play–their blockers didn’t try to make an effort to maintain the pack speed they initiated–it was instead Windy City that was punished.

Even though Naptown’s player got sent off the track, in the end it was Windy City that was penalized.

Does that make sense? Is that fair?

No matter how you try and justify it, rules that allow the tactics that NYSE used against Magic City; rules that let a shorthanded Grave Danger light up the scoreboard against a full-pack Arizona squad; and rules benefiting teams that commit a lack-of-effort penalty, make the game unbalanced and unfair.

It penalizes good teams for being good and allows teams who are not as good to not put in the same amount of effort as their opponents, but still keep games close. This problem is exaggerated when a good team exploit these rules to their most extreme, making them  literally unbeatable—in the same way that teams like the New York Shock Exchange and Gotham were literally unbeatable in 2011.

The rule that is the root cause of this no-effort, no-teamwork, no-pack power jam roller derby is rule 4.1.1, the rule which mandates that the pack have both teams in it. I’ve explained my reasoning behind this (and offered the fix) in The Pack Solution, so I won’t bother reiterating it here. As long as the rule exists in its current form, teams will have no reason and no motivation to keep the pack together; even if you penalize blockers for inducing a no-pack, the benefits will always outweigh the punishments, or at worst, cancel each other out.

So while the WFTDA rules update for this year will finally—hopefully—address the problem of jammer line rugby derby jam starts, until the pack rules are made so the faster, more elusive, better-blocking teams can have their way with the pack to their heart’s content—unless the other team stops them through no lack of effort—derby’s Next Big Problem, on both the flat track and the banked track, is going to come in the form of unstoppable, unfair power jams and victories through “no pack” of effort.