USARS Derby 2014 Rules Analysis

How do you improve game flow and player safety by removing a common penalty? Find out how in our analysis.

USA Roller Sports has released the 2014 version of its roller derby rule book. This is the third major derby rules update for USARS, but the first that leaves the core components mostly intact. Though there are significant changes this year, they are more refined and focused than the wholesale makeover USARS rules saw in 2013.

usars-derby-rules--2014
Click to download the 2014 USARS roller derby rule book. (PDF)

Last year, USARS started to find its way with rules that did not conflict with the style of gameplay it is aiming to develop. But as USARS teams became familiar with the strategy behind the game, some of those rules showed signs of being incomplete. On top of that, the USARS game revealed that a lot of the players had incomplete skills to cope with the more challenging and tactical style of play.

This year, USARS has taken steps to fill in the gaps in both of those areas, albeit more in the former than the latter. Many weird (and boring) situations have been eliminated with a few simple changes. A much-needed dose of common sense has been introduced to reduce certain types of penalties. And a new way of calling off jams will help teams quickly learn the strategies they didn’t know they needed, as well as make games much more exciting…for the most part.

Despite the relatively small amount of rearranging done to USARS rules this year—of its ten significant pages, only about a half of a page was added or changed overall—the impact it will have on gameplay will not be small.

All of the rules changes in 2014—except one—appear to be immediate improvements in both writing and in practice. Even the one that seems a bit off in terms of gameplay on the track may be good for USARS teams and players in the bigger picture, although there is a small danger that the trade-off will not always be worth the potential headaches that could come out of it.

Before getting into the newest changes, here is a quick refresher of the major plot points of USARS roller derby rules for those that came in late:

  • Game roster cap at 15 players (Team roster is unlimited)
  • 90 second jams
  • Stopping and clockwise skating illegal (AKA required forward skating motion)
  • Pivots separated ahead of blockers in a separate box for jam starts
  • Pivots can optionally become scoring players by chasing the (opposing) lead jammer; no helmet cover pass necessary
  • Team at the front of the pack (if they can get there) is always the pack
  • 10 foot pack proximity—no extra engagement zone
  • The jammer/active pivot physically in the lead must always be lead jammer; status can (and often does) switch during a jam
  • Lead jammer/pivot must be inbounds and on skates to call off jam
  • Jam instantly over when both jammers are in the box (no musical chairs/jammerless jams)
  • 5-minute overtime, with sudden-death 2OT/3OT jams if necessary
  • Team auto-forfeits if injuries/foul-outs reduce roster to 8 players or fewer (for player safety)

The 2014 rule updates leave most of the above list unaffected, although USARS teams did trial a few things that would have but did not make the final cut.1 But as for what got in?

Read on.

USARS 2014 Rules Resources

USARS Roller Derby 2014 Rule Book (PDF) – Includes Minimum Skills and Addenda
USARS Rules “Cheat Sheet” Quick Summary (PDF Download)
Official USARS Roller Derby Rules Public Facebook Group
USARS Roller Derby Home Page on TeamUSA.org

Penalties: Fair and Balanced

Woo-hoo! Everyone jump on the short-penalty bandwagon!

USARS Rules 2014

Section RD20 – Timing

RD20.07 – Penalty Time. A player receiving a Penalty will serve thirty (30) seconds in the Penalty Box.

All penalties used to be a minute in length, obviously. Little needs to be said about the thinking behind reducing them to 30 seconds.

Shorter penalties mean more full packs. Getting penalized players back in the action sooner will limit the damage that any one penalty may create without spoiling game balance, as a player will still foul out after committing his or her seventh penalty. A team with extra skaters on the track will have less power play time to work with, creating a bigger sense of urgency (and more action) to take advantage of the situation.

Of course, penalties will always be a bit longer than the 30 seconds of butt-in-seat time. Adding the loop-around to the penalty box and the return trip upon leaving it, any major penalty will realistically see a team disadvantaged for 35~40 seconds. Given the quick-hitting nature of USARS games, this interval should see a player off the track for just about half of a jam.

If there is a sweet spot for roller derby penalty time, that may very well be it at the moment. But there’s more to the story than just cutting the penalty clock in half.

A jammer penalty can have a hugely disproportional effect on a game than would the exact same penalty committed by a blocker, as we know. Although, losing a jammer in USARS still forced the other team to play defense, owing to the offensive significance of the pivot position and pack definition. So even though power jams were less of an issue in USARS, a different-but-still-significant issue appeared when the pivot was sent to the box instead.

But what really made things bad was when a jammer or especially a pivot started a new jam in the penalty box, giving the other team a huge starting advantage. This imbalance created many scenarios in which a team with fewer players on the track had a much better chance of scoring or preventing a score than the team with more players.

No matter how you try to justify it, that ain’t right.

USARS fixed this in its 2014 rules by normalizing penalties at the start of every jam. To achieve this, it is now all but ensuring that each team will get to start every jam with both their jammer and their pivot, regardless of whether or not they were sitting in the penalty box at the end of the preceding jam.

Section RD55 – Penalties

RD55.01 – Player/Position Penalties. Penalties are effective as to the individual player for the duration of the penalty as well as the player position for the duration of the jam, except as set forth in RD60.04.

Section RD60 – Serving Penalties

RD60.04 – Jammer/Pivot Penalty. Jammers and Pivots serving a penalty at the conclusion of a jam will remove their helmet covers and will serve the remainder of their time during the next jam as Blockers. Each team may field a new Jammer and Pivot at the start of the next jam.

For those used to a position serving a penalty for as long as the player that committed it, giving stars and stripes a get-out-of-jail card at the end of a jam will seem strange. However, this is the only true way to solve positional penalty imbalance issues, in a real-time penalty enforcement environment.

How many penalties a team commits, how many penalties an opposing team can force, who goes to the box, when they go to the box, why they went to the box, or what position they were playing at the time of the penalty—no matter what, both teams will be virtually guaranteed a fair chance to play offense on every jam, in every possible scenario, from start to finish. This, naturally, puts both teams into a position where they must play defense on every jam, in every possible scenario, from the start of a jam until its finish.

In other words, they must play roller derby all the time. Which is kind of the point of playing roller derby.

A badly timed jammer or pivot penalty will still hurt a team in a 90-second jam, but it still has the opportunity rally on defense—and offense—to make do until the penalty expires naturally. However, if a jammer/pivot penalty gets cut short by the end of a jam, that won’t necessarily get the team out of the woods.

Rather, it will be like jumping out of the fire and into the frying pan. Now that outstanding helmet cover penalties revert to blocker penalties at the start of a new jam, a team with more penalized players will always be at a starting disadvantage. Period.

With fewer blockers lining up between the jammers and the pivots, the more-penalized team will always have a more difficult (but never impossible) time getting their jammer out of the pack first. Conversely, a team starting with a power play will never get an uncontested lead jammer call or an academic jam win due to late penalties from the previous jam. But those penalties will make the work they need to do that much less difficult (but never automatic).

This makes sure every penalty has the exact same weight, pretty much solving the penalty imbalance issue. As a bonus, this change will also make life easier for everyone on the benches and on the infield.

Teams will know the jammer and pivot they have queued up for the next jam will be going out no matter what, making lineup rotation a snap. Penalty box management will be easier, since there will be no more confusion as to what helmet covers need to stay in the box between jams. There is even the possibility that this streamlining will reduce dead reset time between jams and allow for more jams in a game, which is always a good thing.

Officials will have less to deal with, too. USARS is adopting a simpler penalty box layout that eliminates the now-redundant jammer/active scorer penalty seat:

RD60.02 – Penalty Box Capacity. No team may have more than three players seated in the penalty box simultaneously. If there are already three players from a team in the penalty box and another player is then penalized, the player will stand beside the penalty box until a seat is available. …

This rule also means that penalized players sent off the track will not be directed to return to it if the penalty box is full. This harbors a potential game flow issue, with the possibility of a penalty-heavy sequence leading to a long wait time before a player can begin serving his or her full 30 seconds. There is also the question of what happens when a jammer or pivot is standing in queue at the end of a jam; how can they take off their helmet covers if they technically have not yet started serving their penalty?

But with shorter penalties, the chance that all three seats of a team penalty bench will be occupied for a significant amount of time is very small.

A rule change elsewhere will also help to make this a rare problem. Shorter penalties are great, but the shortest penalty is the one that can be avoided altogether. Teams will still need to do their best to skate clean, but now they have a little bit of help thanks to USARS almost completely eliminating the most harsh and unfair penalty in roller derby.

Cut It Out

The cutting penalty is the bane of roller derby players everywhere.

A player getting hit in the wrong place at the wrong time can inadvertently send them to the penalty box on a track cut that they had no intention of committing and no chance of avoiding. Worse are the so-called “gotcha” cuts, where a player gets penalized for advancing position on an opposing player that was not part of the original play.

If you think about it, it’s a bit daft that a player would be penalized for gaining relative position on an opponent that deliberately surrendered relative position to that player in the first place. How can a player illegally cut an opponent who wanted to be behind them?

This is sort of a strange thing about the cutting penalty in roller derby. The whole idea of penalties is to deter illegal actions from impacting the opposing team, and not penalize actions that do not impact the opposing team. Yet cutting always seemed to be an exception to the No Impact/No Penalty standard, particularly when a player cutting the track immediately stepped back out of bounds in a way that did not disrupt the positioning of the other team. (No Impact/Yes Penalty?)

Still, it is important to stop players from illegally gaining relative position. But it needs to happen in a way that is consistent with every other impact foul in the game.

Taking this to heart, USARS has made a fairly significant change to the nature of track cuts. In looking at the issue holistically, it has made sure that the actual impact of a cut is given an appropriate level of punishment.

Notice I said punishment, not penalty. This is because USARS has introduced a much more fair system for cutting infractions.

Section RD40 – Game Play

RD40.08 – Returning to the Track from Out of Bounds. A player may re-enter the Track at the same relative position at which s/he left the Track, but must not advance his/her position in the Pack. A player re-entering the Track who advances his/her relative position against any player who has remained in the Pack … will receive a verbal warning and a hand signal for “Cutting the Track” from the referee. The player must then exit the Track and then slow down or stop in order to yield his/her position to all players in the Pack before re-entering the Track.

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A) The blue jammer cuts around a red blocker. The official warns the player that they cut the track. B) Instead of getting sent to the penalty box, the cutting player is directed to skate out of bounds to recycle to the rear. C) Once the pack skates by, the blue jammer can rejoin.

Now, the cutting the track signal in USARS is primarily a non-whistled warning to a player from a referee that he or she must exit the track. It is no longer an instant and automatic trip to the penalty box—the new “penalty” for a harmless, no-real-impact cutting infraction is a rules-mandated recycle to the rear of the pack.

If a cutting player comes barreling back in-bounds in such a way that creates a meaningful gameplay impact, the player will still whistled to the box. If not, the player will only get sent to the back of the pack.2 Given the chance to rectify the situation, a player that cut the track would prefer to recycle every time.

In enforcing track cuts this way, USARS has separated the action of a cut from the impact in a way that makes a lot of sense. The cut itself is not the thing that determines whether or not a player gets a full penalty. Instead, whether the whistle blows will be determined by any gameplay impact caused after the cut.

In a way, this is just like how Out of Play hand signals are a warning to a players that they need to return to the pack to avoid penalties. With those, players would recognize they were too far ahead of the pack and take the appropriate corrective action (disengage, return to the pack) to avoid getting sent to the box. If a player does not significantly impact gameplay while out of play, why should there be a penalty?

In USARS 2014 rules, when a player cuts the track around an opponent, they will be informed that—for all intents and purposes—they are out of play within the pack. They can then take the appropriate corrective action (exit the track, recycle to the rear) to avoid getting sent to the box. If a player does not significantly impact gameplay after cutting the track, why should there be a penalty?

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USARS now treats Out of Play and Cutting equally: Warnings that still can turn into penalties, but only if there is gameplay impact.

Re-purposing the track cut as an on-the-fly correctable violation can work in the USARS gameplay environment because every single forward position gained in the pack by any player, not just the jammer, is extremely valuable. Losing all of that position via a track-cut auto-recycle will put an individual, and generally a team, at a disadvantage severe enough to deter players from illegally advancing their position.

This setup also has safety advantages. The best path to take to avoid a cut may not always be the safest one. If a skater has to do the High-Speed Hokey Pokey to not cut the track, an errant right-leg in or left-foot out could be fallen on awkwardly. Crawling on hands and knees, another trick to try and avoid cutting penalties, is a tripping hazard to any player or referee coming in hot.

The new USARS cutting rules allow a player to remain upright and in control of themselves without risking a penalty doing so. If a player knows that a cut can’t be avoided and a trip to the back of the pack is coming no matter what (via opponent recycle or rule enforcement), it’s nice for them to know they don’t have to risk self-harm doing so.

But the best part of the new USARS cutting rules? These improvements and simplifications in game flow, penalty enforcement, and player safety were achieved by eliminating a whistled penalty. Not adding one. Nice, huh?

Such a major shift in procedure for such a common roller derby happening will inevitably take a while for USARS teams and officials to come to grips with. It will be shocking if this year there are no instances of officials accidentally calling immediate cut track penalties due to force of habit, or players skating to the box after receiving a cut track warning even though a penalty was never whistled.

But once everyone gets used to it, this should be the type of change that makes so much sense, it should have been put into the rules a long time ago.3

Forcing the Issue

This next major rules tweak to the 2014 USARS rules, on the other hand, it makes just enough sense to be a part of the USARS game as it exists today. But maybe it shouldn’t be there for the USARS game of the future.

A major problem with USARS derby, particularly at this stage of its program, is the lack of complete understanding of game strategy among its teams. These gaps in knowledge have led to some pretty big strategy mistakes, mistakes that often led to boring sequences of gameplay.

The biggest mistake happened when teams chose to call off jams far too early, without ever getting themselves into scoring position. Jams called were often called within a half- or quarter-lap of jammer breakout. These quick-calls were so frequent, a regional qualifier game from last year4 had many more 0-0 jams than scoring jams.

Needless to say, this kind of “action” was pretty rough to watch from a fan perspective. And it all was because players severely lacked the experience (and balls) necessary to succeed in what is arguably the most important phase of the USARS game: Offense and defense in the pack leading up to and during a contested scoring pass.

The whole idea of putting an active pivot in play is to make it very likely that there is a close jammer (or in USARS parlance, active scorer) race to the rear of the pack. When a significant number, if not the majority of jams in a game are going to be neck-and-neck, it is logical to assume that the team that has the best strategies in those situations will have the best chance of scoring more points in that type of jam, thereby increasing their chances of winning a game.

However, the trend in USARS derby last year saw teams choosing to avoid this critical phase of play altogether.

Defensive call-offs are good if a team wants to prevent its opponent scoring, sure. But they are very, very bad for a team if it is the one that needs to score. A team down a lot of points should be doing everything it can to try and score something. But they never did, either for a lack of their own jamming abilities or lack faith in their blockers to make a defensive stop.

This year, USARS is giving teams a chance to learn what to do in those situations, and get better at them. They won’t have a choice!

A change to the 2014 rules adds a new restriction on when a player with lead status can call it off. As a killer-cool side-effect, this change is liable to make USARS jams some of the most exciting you’ll see in all of roller derby…but with a major caveat.

Section RD40 – Game Play

RD40.12 – Lead Scorer May End the Jam. The Lead Scorer may end the Jam by placing his/her hands on his/her hips in rapid succession; however, the Lead Scorer must pass at least one opposing Blocker (during the first scoring pass only) and must be in the Upright Skating Position and in bounds in order to do so. …

In plain English: The lead scorer can only call off the jam after he or she scores at least one point.

If your first thought is to be suspicious about this rule change, don’t be surprised. You’re not the only one that will raise an eyebrow at this. There are one or two potential problems with forcing a team to score points before they can end a jam, which I’ll get to shortly. But first, let’s talk about the benefits this new restriction will bring to the table.

When everyone knows that someone must score in every contested jam, both teams are going to make absolutely sure that their team is the one that does the scoring. This will require an extremely aggressive and proactive approach, since any moment of passivity or any mistake made during the initial pass will come back to bite a team during the scoring pass.

As a jammer race comes streaking around the track into scoring position, a player that drops to the rear of the pack (or gets walloped by massive block that sends them to the ground) (or is being goated by opposing blockers) (or is sent to the rear on a cutting violation) will turn into a nice, juicy point waiting for the opposing team’s jammer to score on—whether they are the lead jammer or not. This is a situation that is to be avoided, obviously, so both teams will want to figure out the best strategies to avoid being the caboose in the pack.

Or will they? Because maybe a team has an all-star blocker that might prefer to stay back in the pack, to be in the best possible defensive position to stop the opposing jammer from scoring anything. A good initial block would then allow their own jammer to catch up (which would only take a moment), re-take lead status, and score some points herself.

Oooh! Or maybe the other team let that all-star blocker drop to the rear of the pack on purpose, to set up a blocking trap strategy that would take her out at the perfect moment to steal away the point that everyone thought was going to be easily defended.

Ahhh!! But maybe the all-star blocker saw the trap strategy coming from a mile away and then initiated a counter-strategy with her teammates to get through it and take full control of the front of the pack. From that superior position, her team could potentially pick up all four points on the jam. Maybe more, if the front 4-wall holds strong for a try at another scoring pass.

All of these potential strategy permutations, and the very exciting action sequences that would come from them, are never seen when a lead jammer chickens out of a close race and calls off the jam before getting into scoring position. But now that USARS 2014 rules give the lead jammer no choice but to put their head down and tear ass, a lot more of these happenings and the necessary strategies that come out of them will be revealed.

And you know what? It is going to be AMAZING to watch.

I can’t even imagine what games between equal teams will look like when every point is contested like this. Every. Single. Point. I just about had a heart attack watching the incredible men’s championship game between Your Mom and Oly’s mens team at USARS Nationals last year, and that was even with many stretches of boring play. These rule changes will eliminate 98% of the bad stuff that showed up in that game and turn it into the good stuff that drove everyone in the building bat-shit insane with excitement. (Defibrillators, please stand by.)

But that still leaves the question about what to do about the other 2% that is still bad. This is where there should be reservations about the must-score call-off provision.

The “front of the pack is always the pack” pack definition rule allows a team, if desired, to execute a defensive pack pullaway (or as some might still refer to it as, “runaway pussy”) if the other team fails at team defense to the point where they can’t block a single person.

Last year, they happened seemingly without reason, especially right as a jam got underway. This year, that particular issue should go away since both teams will always have a defensive presence at the front of the pack (pivots) to contain the pack, and an offensive threat at the rear (jammers) to want to break out of it. When pullaways happened outside of that scenario, they were generally short-lived due to the other team calling it off and therefore not really a problem.

But under 2014 USARS rules, the lead jammer won’t have the ability to call off the jam if they had not yet scored—meaning there would be nothing to stop an endless pullaway, if one happened, until the jam ended after 90 seconds. Yuck.

There are also the completely legitimate reasons why a lead jammer would want to call off a jam prematurely that would no longer be allowed under the new rules. For example:

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If the lead jammer is stuck behind a forward wall on a scoring pass, not being able to call it off defensively may cost them a lot of points.

Having the ability to call off the jam defensively is a key tool in a jammer’s (or active pivot’s) arsenal. If a lead scorer found themselves up against a defensive wall with no chance of assistance, either through penalty trouble, bad strategy, or bad luck, they should be able to call it off to limit the damage. That’s one of the perks for earning, and keeping, lead status.

But this year’s change to USARS rules mean that a lead jammer cannot call it off defensively. Only offensively, as it were, by scoring at least one point on the first scoring pass. Only then have they earned the right to stop the jam—even though they should have earned that right by getting out of the pack in the first place.

Then again, that is exactly the reason why USARS made this rule change in the first place: If you give the lead jammer the ability to call off the jam defensively at any time, the lead jammer will call off the jam defensively upon immediately breaking out of the pack.

Which is why the problem of too many boring instant call-off jams has always been a strategy/skill/trust/confidence problem, not a rules problem. If jammers were more comfortable with plunging into the pack with a bogey on their six, and blockers had better strategies to know how to cope with those situations more often, teams would do it more often. But because they didn’t, and appeared to not want to do so anytime soon, measures had to be taken to kick-start the process.

In addressing a strategy problem with a rules fix, USARS is betting that the small, ugly issues that may occasionally pop up as a result of it will be worth the huge boost in competition, discovery of uncharted strategy options, and overall entertainment value of games for the fans that support the leagues and clubs that play by USARS rules.

I am inclined to agree that the trade-off is going to be worth it.

Not to say that there will not be jams where things get ugly in a hurry, because they will happen in 2014. However, they should be infrequent enough to not distract from the rest of the gameplay improvements, which should be obvious to everyone: Players, officials, fans, and maybe even a USARS cynic or two.

I just hope this rule exists for exactly as long as it needs to, and no longer. It may need to get tweaked before not-too-long; eventually it should get stricken from the books altogether. Although this rule will benefit teams by making them learn how to play a complete game of roller derby, eventually they’ll have to play the game for real; when you learn to ride a bike, the training wheels need to come off eventually.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

There were a few more minor rules changes for USARS roller derby this year. Captains and alternates can now call a team timeout from the penalty box and (temporarily, obviously) leave it to talk to the head referee. An extra timeout will be given to teams for the 5-minute overtime period. Complex alphanumeric jerseys numbers are being phased out, to the joy of NSOs and announcers; this year, no letters are permitted on the backs of skaters, and in 2015 numbers switch to the 2-digit standard that is universal in sports.

A key change outside of the rules should also be noted here: USARS has significantly updated its minimum skills requirement to include, among other things, the 27/5 endurance test. But it has also upped its speed requirement to the breakneck pace of nine laps in 90 seconds. That’s nine 10-second laps. For all players, not just jammers. (Seriously.)

The focus in 2014 will be on the major changes, however. Shorter, simplified penalties. The change in track cuts. The always-must-score jam call-off provision. These aren’t really rule changes as they are additions that are putting greater emphasis on the style of roller derby USARS wants to promote: Hard, fast, competitive, and exciting.

usars-roller-derby-logoI think that all the points that USARS needed to address from the 2013 rulebook were handled about as well as could be hoped for, except that they’ll need to keep an eye on the new jam call-off rule to make sure it doesn’t backfire on them in an unexpected way. I don’t think it will initially, but the longer it goes without refinement…you never know.

But what USARS knows for sure is their vision for roller derby. It has clear goals in mind. Everything it has been doing over the last three years (when its roller derby program officially started) seems to be making progress toward those goals. It’ll be a while longer yet before we can see if that work is bearing any real fruit—real progress takes time to see.

As for the USARS roller derby ruleset itself, by the time 2015 hits we should see if it has passed its initial three-year test. That’s long enough to see if their form of the game is progressing enough to be viable as a long-term roller derby option in the United States—and maybe, the world. USARS derby has already been played in South America; just this past weekend, it was trialed in the United Kingdom for the first time.

That’s the future. As for the present, it should be pretty damn interesting, and exciting, to see roller derby played under USARS rules in 2014. By the time the USARS regional and national tournaments hit later this year, we’ll see how many teams and skaters agree.