The Evolution is Complete

Just because the game is changing, doesn't mean it's changing for the better.

Spring Roll was this past weekend, which has become a showcase regular-season event for the Men’s Roller Derby Association. This year, 13 teams played 20 MRDA-sanctioned games over two days to effectively determine league rankings for the 2012 MRDA Championships, to be held this October in St. Louis.

Many men’s teams were seeing their first meaningful action of the year, including newer leagues like the Sioux City Kornstalkers, Portland Men’s Roller Derby, the Rock City Riot of North Dakota, and the up-and-coming Your MOM Men’s Roller Derby of Iowa.

There was a lot of great derby during the weekend. Though there were blowouts, there were also upsets, including a big one: Your MOM dominated the 2011 MRDA Champion New York Shock Exchange, soundly beating them in Saturday’s main event, 199-148, on their way to an undefeated weekend. The hosting Ft. Wayne Derby Girls also capped off Saturday’s action with a great (though lacking of defense) WFTDA sanctioned bout, taking a 215-185 victory over Killamazoo.

The Mother’s Day games on Sunday also contained some gems. The Central Mass Maelstrom held off a remarkable comeback by Rock City, barely hanging on to a 1-point victory after some intense final minutes of gameplay.

The Magic City Misfits, who also went undefeated, put up 617 points on a short-benched but hard-working Kornstalkers team, demonstrating to the derby world that the teamwork they were lacking last year has arrived in full force this year.

Finally, the marquee matchup of Spring Roll was the highly-anticipated rematch of last year’s St. Louis Gatekeepers vs. the New York Shock Exchange. The first 30 minutes of the bout went beyond everyone’s expectations—and quite frankly, even my own—and at just a two point game coming into the second half, it had the makings of an absolute all-time classic.

With all the great stuff that was happening during Spring Roll weekend, what happened in the first half was seriously a great way to put a cap on it:

…except that the ugly, ugly side of roller derby reared its ugly-ass head during the second half of the game, culminating in a last jam that highlighted how far the “evolution” of roller derby strategy has come.

Because when a team essentially cheats to win a game they had no right to win, and there is clear video evidence to confirm this, the game can go no further.

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Even with all the good stuff that happened during Spring Roll, there were just as many not-so-good things that one would be remiss to ignore.

First of all, the jammer line starts. They’ve got to go. They’re getting out of control. It got to the point where players were pre-scrumming on their way to wall up against the jammers even before the 4th whistle of the previous jam had sounded. I’m not the only one beginning to think these are ridiculous, as even the announcers calling the game began to revolt against them:

When the WFTDA releases its 2012 rules update in a few weeks, if there isn’t something done to directly address these types of derby-cum-rugby jam starts, a lot of people will be angry. Mark my words.

No-pack, no-effort power jams were also in full display. The worst offenders were, unsurprisingly (and disappointingly) some of the best skating teams in the country. St. Louis, New York and Your MOM, among others, had no reservations in giving their pack blockers the day off  from the moment the other team’s jammer got sent to the penalty box.

Sure, a team down a jammer to a penalty needs to suffer the consequences. But there were several comically bad sequences where four grown men on roller skates would be standing in place a few feet behind their struggling jammer teammate, knowing that eventually the rules will do all their work for them by putting their opponents out of play during the ensuing no-pack split. Again, the announcers at the event couldn’t help but wonder aloud about it:

Even the incredible NY/StL first half wasn’t without its downsides. Twenty of NYSE’s 45 first-half points came during power jam runs where the entire NY pack stood around at the back of the pack like a bunch of lazy boobs. Though, as much as I hate that, what they did was completely legal and preventable (albeit barely) by the Gatekeepers, who did yeoman’s work to limit the damage to just two 10-point power jams against.

It was much the same story in the second half. Multiple no-effort power jams by both teams turned into 15, 20, and 25 point scoreboard bombs. Just one of these boring no-pack power jams cancelled out five or six jams’ worth of exciting, hard-earned penalty-free points. It was if gameplay and scoring during the even-strength jams was almost doomed to be as pointless as Hogwarts’ Quidditch goals being cancelled out by Draco Malfoy’s grabbing of the golden snitch.

In fact, NYSE was even inducing no-pack calls during even strength play, using them to free their jammer—without contacting the Gatekeepers blockers—from the pack, second in line behind the St. Louis jammer. Sometimes this cost NY a destruction of pack blocker penalty, but sometimes too that penalty got washed out by a matching blocking out of play penalty to St. Louis at the front during the sudden no-pack situation.

This tactic didn’t always work for the Shock Exchange, however, as they lost a few points by putting themselves in the crosshairs of the St. Louis jammer at the back. But it definitely prevented St. Louis from getting in multiple scoring passes, something that would have happened easily had New York taken longer to try and physically clear the way for their jammer via blocking.

So despite the Gatekeepers thoroughly dominating even-strength play, the no-pack roller derby the Shock Exchange was engaging in was keeping the score uncomfortably close.

Which leads me to the incident that occurred during the last jam of the game.

Down 15 points going into the last jam and knowing that the game was on the line—as well as the possibility of a two-loss weekend—the whistle that sent the St. Louis jammer to the penalty box gave New York a power jam and a chance (a chance, not a guarantee; or so we’d think) to win the game.

But the 2011 MRDA Champs decided that legally splitting the pack during power jams or trading one penalty for a jammer break-out wasn’t enough for them to cash in on this “chance.” They wanted to guarantee victory. Suddenly, New York all the motivation they needed to do something that they have been probably waiting for just the right moment to do:

Cheat.

After scoring 5 points on a vaporized St. Louis pack, the NYSE blockers deliberately committed three consecutive pack destruction/failure to reform major penalties on three of their next four scoring passes. Each of these created a no-pack situation, making it illegal for St. Louis to stop the NYSE jammer from getting through and scoring points. Even though St. Louis quickly returned to full blocking strength, there was nothing they could do, legally or otherwise, to stop the NYSE jammer from passing them by during the no-pack.

The video evidence is indisputable, as you’ll see at the end of this video of the last jam of the game:

New York was deliberately letting the pack separate, intentionally skating out of bounds, and showing no attempt to reform the pack once it was destroyed by their actions. With each scoring pass, they were effectively trading one blocker penalty for a guaranteed 5 points.

Gatekeepers were also getting penalized for blocking out of play, but that was because that was their only, futile option to put up a defensive stand was to block during the no-pack. It mattered not that they enjoyed a significant pack blocker advantage for most of the jam—and indeed, superior blocking walls throughout the entire game—because all New York had to do was commit a penalty to make a no-pack and render it useless.

NYSE ended the final jam with one unpenalized blocker remaining on the track. They won the jam 25-4, and won the game, 131-125.

This dramatic points swing was a direct result of New York breaking the rules that require they maintain a pack and reform it when it is destroyed. Clearly, the rules (made “by the skaters, for the skaters”) were of no concern to the Shock Exchange, who chose to break them when it was most convenient for them to do so.

When you break the rules on purpose, and directly benefit from it, you’re cheating. Plain and simple.

…except, it isn’t cheating.

And they didn’t cheat.

Well, they did cheat. But it isn’t their fault.

This is what happens when you play roller derby under hopelessly flawed rules. Long story short, modern roller derby (WFTDA/MRDA/RDCL) is the only sport where a team can immediately, directly, and irreversibly benefit from breaking the rules. 

In real sports, it is 100% impossible for a team to score points if they commit a penalty on a scoring play.

In roller derby, it is 100% guaranteed that a team will score points if they commit a no-pack blocker penalty on a scoring pass.

Does this discrepancy exist because roller derby is unique from other sports? Or is it because roller derby has it terribly, terribly wrong?

The fact of the matter is, New York won (another) roller derby game because the rules gave them the opportunities to pile on the points without having to play by the rules. Or at the very least, the penalty for breaking the rules was not severe or effective enough to deter the offenders from doing so.

The discouraging thing about this past weekend’s turn of events is that it was something I saw coming over a year ago, forecasting in The Pack Problem (Chapter 7) that the rules made it plausible that a team could intentionally commit penalties and win a guaranteed points advantage during a jam.

This could have been prevented. This could have been stopped before it started. But no, some out there insisted it’s all about the “evolution” of the game, that counter-strategies would be developed, that it would work itself out.

Instead, it appears that the “evolution” of roller derby is complete: Teams are breaking the rules to score points, and teams have no choice but to counter this by breaking the rules to themselves to play effective defense. All of this, in a supposed “legitimate” modern version of roller derby.

We can do no worse. This is the end of the line. This is the ultimate.

This is quite a game you’ve created for yourselves, skaters.

I hope you’re enjoying it.

Because we’re not.

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  • PEARLE KEEFE

    Good article, Thanks!