2013 WFTDA Rules Analysis

Finally! The long-awaited, long-delayed WFTDA rules update has landed. Have improvements been made? Find out with our comprehensive analysis!

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Power Jams

The sausage—the power jam tactic where all blockers on the offensive team line up far behind the defense and bring the pack to stop—is not going away. But of course it wouldn’t, when the member leagues of the WFTDA have effectively voted in rules changes to make them even more powerful and lopsided to the benefit of the team with the jammer still on the track.

I’ll explain why shortly. But first, it would appear that the blocking contact penalties that will help regular gameplay move along might also make it harder for a team to deliberately slow the pack down. Even if a team does manage to induce a no-pack (legally or illegally) there’s this penalty rule, which has been upgraded from a minor to a major:

6.10 – Out of Play Penalties

Major Penalty

6.10.13 – After a warning, a failure to immediately attempt to reform a pack will result in a major penalty. This penalty includes failure to reform a pack by returning to in bounds from out of bounds. One penalty will be applied to a single skater per team, if applicable, who seems most responsible, or the Pivot.

This is an addition to the existing major penalty, sustained failure to reform (6.10.16). A team getting too far outside the 10 foot pack proximity zone, even for a millisecond, must now immediately make a deliberate attempt to reform the pack. If that attempt is not clear and obvious in the eyes of the officials, you’ll hear a whistle and see a blocker leave for the penalty box.

But notice: The threat of this penalty only comes after the deed of causing a no-pack situation is completed. The moment no-pack is called—even if the no-pack lasts for a millisecond—the blockers defending at the front of the pack will still need to react to the no-pack warning and immediately disengage all blocks to make their own attempt to reform the pack, per the rules. While they do that, they jammer they were trying to defend will get to go through untouched.

Perhaps realizing this was still a problem, the WFTDA downgraded a a semi-significant penalty from a minor to no-impact in the new rules:

No Impact/No Penalty

6.10.10 – Any illegal blocking while out of play that forces the receiving opposing skater off balance, forward, and/or sideways, but does not cause the opposing skater to lose relative position.

This appears to make it legal to let single blockers maintain a block while out of the engagement zone, or at least not get dinged for continuing contact. The defense can maintain their position without being forced to immediately let the jammer get through while the other team does their part to reform the pack, which should happen immediately. Perhaps, then, the sausage won’t be as effective.

Except, there are a few caveats about that.

Remember those direction of gameplay penalties that make it illegal to bring an opponent to a dead-stop in the track, without skating forward? Here they are again:

6.9 – Direction of Gameplay Penalties

Major Penalty

6.9.15 – A block by a stopped skater that includes physical contact which forces the receiving opposing skater off balance, forward, backward, and/or sideways, but does not cause the opposing skater to lose relative position.

6.9.17 – A clockwise block that includes physical contact which forces the receiving opposing skater off-balance, forward, backward, and/or sideways, but does not cause the opposing skater to lose relative position.

6.9.18 – A skater who comes to a stop while blocking an opposing skater but does not begin counter-clockwise skating and/or stepping again at the first legal opportunity.

During regular gameplay, these would work fine, seeing that both teams would have a jammer to block and would therefore not want to bring that jammer to a halt. They would get a penalty if they did.

However, during a power jam only one team has a jammer to defend, while the other team does not. The blockers on defense are now required, by threat of major penalty, to move forward while blocking. The blockers on offense have no such requirement and will use this discrepancy to slow down and ultimately stop the pack without having to worry about stop-blocking penalties. (They would have no jammer to stop-block!)

Once the pack comes to a halt, the team down a jammer has two options to put up a defense. Neither of them are good:

  1. Legally block the jammer while moving forward, quickly getting driven out of play or eventually creating a no-pack situation, enabling the jammer to easily complete the pass
  2. Stop-block the jammer to prevent #1 from happening, but get a major direction of play blocking penalty and get sent to the box, enabling the jammer to more easily complete the pass

Even in the small window of opportunity a defense has to engage the opposing jammer, the only thing a team can hope for is to (legally) block her out of bounds and retreat to force a track cut. But even then, the odds of that being effective are not good. A blocker skating clockwise will get an instant major penalty (6.9.17) should they make physical contact with a blocker in the back wall. Knowing this, that back wall that would be more than happy to be physically contacted.

And if you think the defense has any chance of working together to help make a stand while killing the power jam, you can pretty much forget about it:

6.7 – Multiple-Player Blocks

Major Penalty

6.7.8 – Maintaining a multi-player block to impede or block an opponent, including to prevent another skater receiving a block from an opponent for any amount of time.

It used to be a minor penalty if multiple teammates engaged in a block for less than three seconds. At least then, blockers had a chance to double-up on a jammer and trade a minor penalty to get a single blocker into better blocking position. (Unsurprisingly, multi-player block minors were right up there in the highest number of minor penalties during the 2012 playoffs, averaging out at just under 21 a game.) But now, they have absolutely zero wiggle room.

If two defenders team up to impede a jammer, such as to set up a “hammer and nail” combo block, if done incorrectly one of those players will be whistled off immediately. While good teams could avoid such penalties with practice, the fact of the matter is the blockers on offense—who will likely be walling or sausaging at the rear of the pack—don’t have to work nearly as hard, if at all, to avoid penalties, even if they have fewer blockers on the track as a result of them.

Potentially, this will make an already unbalanced penalty situation even more unbalanced. The defense will be required to skate on thin ice in an attempt to avoid several different types of major penalties to hold the damage to the minimum, while the offense only needs to worry about immediately reforming the pack after they split it and allow their jammer to pass through with no further effort on their part.

So what the new penalty enforcement rules look to do to improve regular gameplay may make power jam gameplay even worse than it was before. Not only will a defense have no hope of (literally) stopping an opposing jammer from scoring big on them, most realistic attempts to do so will likely result in a lot of blocker penalties being called on them. This could further compound things for the defense, who could give up even more points in vaporized packs on subsequent jams.

Power jams could become so much more detrimental, in fact, that you may see normal gameplay change to try and force jammer penalties more often. Blockers may become even more concerned with getting the opposing jammer to take a cutting major than helping their own jammer, making blocker vs. blocker apathy even more rampant. PJs may very possibly reap bigger points bonanzas than in the outgoing ruleset, making all of those improved regular jams obsolete compared to the scoring might of two or three solo jams.

However, this is only speculation until we get to see the new rules in action. But considering how things look like they might play out on paper—and because that blockers “standing” in proximity can be a legally defined pack—it’s not looking good for players and fans that like seeing physical teamwork take place on the track during one-jammer gameplay.

Additional Changes

Although the biggest aspect of gameplay looks like it may not be changing for the better, there are a few other notable changes in the WFTDA rulebook that should be considered improvements.

Section 3 – Skater Positions and Identification

3.2 – Pivot Blocker

3.2.3.1 – A Pivot may skate in any direction, including out of bounds, to retrieve the Pivot helmet cover.

3.5 – Passing the Star

3.5.8.2 – A Jammer or Pivot may skate in any direction, including out of bounds, to retrieve the Jammer helmet cover.

Previously, a position player could have only skated in the counter-clockwise to retrieve a helmet cover that may have fallen to the track. Had they not picked it up while skating in the “normal” counter-clockwise direction—which inferred skating clockwise on the track was abnormal, something I wholeheartedly agree with—it was an illegal procedure penalty.

Now that players can go any-which-way to pick up the panty, that penalty (and the notion that backwards skating isn’t derby) gets stricken off books.  A fallen helmet cover may still be defended by an opposing team wishing to prevent its retrieval, but since regular blocking rules apply they can no longer stand on top of it and not move forward to prevent its recovery indefinitely, as that would be a direction of gameplay major penalty.

Section 6 – Penalties

6.2 – Blocking to the Head or High Blocking

No Impact/No Penalty

6.2.1 – Contact to the head that is secondary or which results from legally initiated contact.

In the 2010 rules, any contact with an opponent’s head was an instant high-block major penalty. Even if that contact was not targeting the head, was incidental, or—as the updated rule now states—resulted from contact that was initially legal, it was still a trip to the box. No longer. This is a good penalty downgrade since there will always be incidental head contact between players of different heights (tall vs. short, bending down vs. standing up, etc.) and as long as there isn’t a direct head hit involved with a block, such contact won’t be penalized.

6.3 – Low Blocking

Major Penalty

6.3.12 – Intentionally taking a knee in an attempt to avoid a block.

This is a new penalty on the books that is also a good add. It’s not just so that a player could completely duck under a block by putting themselves out of play, but it was also a way for players, had they a reason, to slip back to the rear of a moving pack without having to worry about getting rammed out of bounds or otherwise bothered while on the floor. Presumably, that action would be seen as attempting to avoid blocks going forward, and should be whistled as a major.

6.15 – Delay of Game

Major Penalty

6.15.2 – Failure to be on the track for the next jam at jam start when currently in the penalty box queue. One penalty will be assessed to each offending skater.

6.15.3 – Failure to field any Blockers for a jam, preventing a jam from beginning. Penalty will be assessed to the Captain.

6.15.4 – A team successfully requesting a team timeout when they have none remaining. Penalty will be assessed to the Captain.

Delay of game is a new class of penalty, given to “actions which interfere with the standard progression of the game.” 6.15.2 seems like the main reason this section came about, as there was no real consequence for a penalized skater still on the track but waiting for a penalty box seat to open up to not be in the next jam. That’s now addressed, as are these other two rare, but completely possible situations.

6.16 – Misconduct

Major Penalty

6.16.6 – Initiating contact with both skates off of the ground that forces the receiving opposing skater out of established position. This includes forcing a skater down, out of bounds, or out of relative position.

This rule used to be an absolute: Any contact while both skaters were in the air, no matter how high off the ground and no matter how insignificant, was a major penalty. Now there’s a bit of leeway, with any minor contact not deemed a penalty in much the same way most contact penalties were downgraded from minors to no impact. Oddly though, it’s completely legal to barrel into teammates while airborne (6.16.5), even if it’s recklessly unsafe. Uh, okay?

Major Penalty

6.16.10 – Entry to the penalty box that causes another person to vacate their position to reasonably avoid being forcibly contacted. This includes people correctly positioned in their team bench area and is not limited to people in the penalty box.

6.16.11 – Habitual entry to the penalty box where contact, either actual or potential, by the skater’s seat to another person is caused by a structural failure of the seat and not the entry of the skater. Penalty is to be issued where proper precaution is not being shown by the offending skater, causing the habitual failure of a seat or seats.

Players booking it around the track to get to the penalty bench had better cool it before taking a seat, as these rules penalize a player for barreling into the box too fast or too forcefully, knocking down players, NSOs, bench personnel, or chairs. There is also a Gross Misconduct expulsion version of this rule (6.17.10) in case a player goes overboard with box entry. Better work on those hockey stops, kids!

Section 10 – Safety

10.1 – Protective Gear

10.1.3 – Optional protective gear such as padded shorts, chin guards, knee or ankle support, turtle shell bras, and tailbone protectors, non form-fitting clear full face shields, non form-fitting clear half-face shields, form fitting face shields such as nose guards may be worn at the skaters’ discretion as long as they do not impair or interfere with the safety or play of other skaters, support staff, or officials.

For those worried about getting their pretty faces wrecked: The WFTDA is now allowing face protection, provided the shields being used are designed to pair with the helmet being used (10.1.3.3) and are not cage-style shields (10.1.3.2) as you might see in junior or collegiate ice hockey. The safer, the better!

What Wasn’t Addressed

Two and a half years, the time since the last rules update in May 2010, is a lot of time to plan for and discuss potential rules changes and improvements. As above, a lot of things have changed for the better. However, the power jam problem (if you believe it’s a problem) did not quite get fixed, and may have very well gotten worse. This, despite all of that time to come up with a good solution for it.

Besides that, there are a few other issues that don’t appear to have been looked at, that will eventually need to be at some time down the road. Although these situations may be rare or may be low priority compared to other aspects of gameplay, as long as they remain in the rules, the rules themselves will feel incomplete.

And if you ask me, there’s one black mark in WFTDA rules that will forever render them incomplete as long as it remains:

Section 6 – Penalties

6.10 – Out of Play Penalties

Major Penalty

6.10.18 – Illegally destroying the pack: The act of illegally destroying the pack causes all Blockers to lose relative position. The skater responsible for destroying the pack receives a major penalty.

It is still possible for a blocker to intentionally take a major penalty to destroy the pack. Destroying the pack creates a no-pack situation. During a no-pack situation, no one may legally maintain blocks. Without the ability to legally block, a defense cannot stop an opposing jammer from scoring on them.

Therefore, the rules still make it possible for a team to directly benefit from an intentional penalty. A blocker destroys the pack; her jammer scores on the defenders that can’t legally block her. You can’t define the word “unfair” any better than that.

This mother of all loopholes has been exploited a few times in 2012, most notoriously at Spring Roll. Besides the incident at the end of the New York/St. Louis game, there was also a play in one of the women’s games that same weekend where a team fielded a single blocker to start a power jam, and had that blocker take a knee on every scoring pass to force a no-pack. She couldn’t be sent to the box since she was the only one on the track, so the pack stayed destroyed.

That a team can get as many as 45 points by intentionally fouling out one of their skaters is not something a complete ruleset should make possible.

The overreaching problem here (besides the obvious) is twofold. The first I mentioned before, that blocker penalties are meaningless compared to that of jammer penalties, causing power jams that allow for such potentially frivolous rule-breaking to be advantageous to a team.

The second issue: In the last jam of the game, there is no consequence to a team that does something like this. In fact, it’s all benefit. Although it’s highly improbable, a team on a power jam could erase a lots-of-passes deficit by intentionally destroying the pack, knowing that any penalty time served won’t have to be once the game ends; all that matters is that the points go on the board.

This has happened before, and it could happen again. Perhaps not in top-level games, but if a team ranked #41 before final playoff seeding, and they needed a win to sneak into the playoffs…

Well, it’s in the rules.

As is this still, for some reason:

Section 7 – Penalty Enforcement

7.3 Both Jammers Penalized/Both Jammers off the Track

7.3.1 If the first penalized Jammer is sent back to the box after being released from the penalty box while the second penalized Jammer is still serving their required time, the game will  continue without a Jammer on the track for the duration of any penalty time that is required to be served.

Jammerless jams are another particularly ugly problem. The whole point of the game of roller derby is to have a jammer passing people on the track for points. If there are no jammers, there can be no roller derby! Yet, the rules still mandate that in the event of extreme jammer musical chairs (where jammers enter and exit the penalty box in rapid succession) there will be no roller derby played. The pack will just stand there not knowing what to do, and the crowd will not be happy about it, as they tended not to be in the handful of times I witnessed this happen.

The silly thing about this rule is that in pretty much every other jammer down situation, things are handled with more common sense. If one jammer is off the track due to failing to start (7.3.5), self-removal from play due to injury (7.3.7) or indifference (7.3.8), or due to a seventh major foul-out (7.3.9), the play is whistled dead immediately upon the other jammer getting sent to the penalty box. Yet in 7.3.1 (and 7.3.6, jammer skate malfunction), the jam continues when there are no jammers on track.

(Related to that:

7.2 – Penalty Enforcement Procedures

7.2.2.3 If there are already two Blockers in the box from the penalized Blocker’s team, the third Blocker will be waved off by the penalty timer. If there are less than 10 seconds left on penalties currently being served, the penalty timer will hold the third Blocker in the box and start timing the penalty.

By extension, this means a potential fourth blocker could sit in the box, meaning it is still possible for zero team blockers in the pack for a few moments. This can be just as confusing as a jammerless jam, especially since the jammer for the non-penalized team won’t be able to score until one of the penalized blockers comes back in. Strange, and a bit unfair. Granted, this happening is extremely rare. But not rare enough that I haven’t seen it happen.)

This is a rule that needs consistency. That requiring all penalty time be served during live gameplay is one thing, but to effectively penalize the crowd by not seeing anything happen in the meantime is ridiculous. This is something that needs to be fixed soon.

One other potential loophole that has was not addressed isn’t something directly involving the rules, but is more a consequence arising from end-of-game situations. In very close games, seconds (saving them or burning them) can be just as important as scoring points. However, there are game scenarios where the rules do not account for this small, but critical change.

For example, in the dying moments of a close game, a jammer that gets a penalty while in the middle of the power jam can artificially create a jammerless jam situation to their advantage. By skating to, but not sitting down in the penalty box, the other jammer won’t get released. If this happens toward the end of a jam, that delay can prevent the jammer waiting to be released from going out and scoring the potential winning points. This has happened before, and there’s nothing in the new rules that would prevent it from happening again.

There’s also a situation where a team with no timeouts remaining can still stop the period clock to squeeze in last jam attempt. By using an official review, even if that review is for a B.S. reason, they can get an official timeout which can extend the game to a team’s benefit. Atlanta did this in their game against Naptown at Championships, to cite a recent example.

This is a problem, too. A team who didn’t need to use their official review in the 2nd half of a game effectively gets a bonus timeout, whereas a team that may have needed to use theirs earlier in the period to correct a ref miscall does not. That discrepancy in clock-stoppage abilities could adversely affect late-game strategies (i.e., when to call a jam off) and ultimately affect the outcome of a close game, something a mechanism designed to ensure game fairness should not and never do.

This kind of niche rules quirk, as well as that as the beneficial jammerless jam and the zero-blocker pack are little things that may seem unimportant. But if ignored for too long, they could, and probably will, flare up at the worst possible times for teams, particularly during the playoffs.

Happily, this time around the WFTDA looks like it’s trying to be proactive about potential rules issues to possibly head this kind of stuff off at the pass in future rules updates.

The Good News

The best change with the rules may very well not be in the 65-page WFTDA rule book. Rather, it’s the changes with the process of putting it together.

It has been 30 months since the last full and official WFTDA rules release on May 26, 2010. By anyone’s standard, that is far, far, far too long between a rules refresh. The WFTDA paid for that lengthy delay with many frustrated players, a lot of confused first-time fans, and a fair share of criticism from all sides. (Some of that criticism may have originated from this blog.) However, what came out of that was the need for the WFTDA to improve its rules revision process.

First reports seem as if they will be indeed doing that. The most immediate improvement is that anyone—skaters, refs, or fans—can directly submit rules issues they come across to the WFTDA, via the new WFTDA Rules Reporting Database. This feedback will give the WFTDA and its Rules Committee a quick look at any Unintended Weird Rules Thing that may be a universal issue which can then be something that can be fast-tracked for addressing in future rules updates.

That’s another thing: No more waiting 2 years for rules revisions! The WFTDA has made it known that there will be rules updates with much more frequency than in the past, perhaps starting as soon as a mid-2013 update. Whether or not this process will be robust enough to be proactive about rules-making decisions, rather than reactive to issues that have already passed, remains to be seen. But at the minimum, there will hopefully be no more than around a year between a rules issue happening on track and that issue resolved (or attempted to be resolved) on paper in the rules.

Ultimately, this is the best news that came out of this rules update. WFTDA rules were very, very broken, so broken that they probably weren’t going to be completely fixed for 2013. But at least now we can be assured that the game’s rules can at keep better pace with the players and teams that wish to take advantage of using them.

The Bottom Line

Taken on the whole, what do the newly updated 2013 WFTDA Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby mean for the game?

Overall, it’s hard to not say the new rules aren’t an improvement.  Though it could be said almost anything would have been an improvement over the 2010 rules, the fact of the matter is the 2013 document is a good step back towards moving the WFTDA version of the game in the right direction.

The no-minors gameplay environment will probably be the most noticeable positive change, in terms of it making games easier to follow. Simplifying jam starts, as well as the threshold for calling most contact penalties as majors, should make things still more manageable for everyone. And of course, the fact that future rules updates will come more swiftly to correct things that go wrong will make sure things don’t get too far out of hand again in the future.

Still, there are questions on whether or not the on-track product will improve. There’s no question the direction of gameplay penalties will keep packs moving during regular gameplay, but the harsher cutting penalties may put us in situations where the pack goes backwards as much as it does forward. There’s also the question of if power jams may not be improved at all, such as if teams will  have an even lower chance of defending against the sausage due to getting penalized left and right in stopped packs.

But I think the most interesting thing that will come out of the 2013 WFTDA rules is how teams will adjust strategies from the old gameplay environment to the new one.

It appears the rear-of-the-pack advantage or no-pack loophole isn’t going away, so how will everyone deal with that? Will teams that rely on rear-wall defense, such as Philly, keep resorting to knee-down starts on every jam to get the positioning they want? Will pack-split teams like Rat City find their tactics are less effective, or (God help us) more effective than ever before? And will the new rules make Gotham slightly less invincible, or will they just make them the default 2013 WFTDA Champions?

There’s really no way of knowing the answers to any of these questions right now. We can only speculate on their answers (not well, yes, more effective, Gotham 3-peat) until we start seeing meaningful interleague action; home team play can never tell the full story on a new rule set. So we’ll look ahead to the major multi-game events on the derby calendar: Wild West Showdown in early March; Spring Roll in May, East Coast Derby Extravaganza in late June, and the countless others in between.

Only after we start thinking about the top 40 teams in the WFTDA and their chances of making the Division I WFTDA Playoffs, will start seeing if the 2013 rules update has passed muster. Or, it might take longer than that; this is a pretty significant rules update, and it may take a while to see if anything in it didn’t quite work as planned.

In any event, although I believe the execution and overall effect power jams will have on games may make the 2013 WFTDA Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby an underwhelming effort, I’m still excited to see derby being played in a new (yet old) way. I’ll give the new rules a fair shake. If I like ’em, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say why (and submit my complaints feedback to the WFTDA directly).

So as far as I’m concerned, 2013 is a fresh start for the WFTDA. Let’s hope they decide to make the most of it!