WFTDA Wrong-Way Worries

A scary hit at Spring Roll last weekend during a jammer runback continues a dangerous trend in the WFTDA. Unless something big changes, it may get worse.

When you watch a lot of roller derby over a lot of years, you notice a lot of different trends. Some good, some bad.

One good trend is the increasing proliferation of star passes in the WFTDA. Teams are rightly recognizing that it’s much easier to get just the jammer helmet cover through a defense than the person wearing it. (This is something we pointed out in 2013, well before the strategy took off.) Giving a team more offensive options makes it much more difficult for teams to play defense, leading to lower jam scores, more jams, and ultimately more competitive roller derby.1

On the other hand, a trend that has been not so good lately has to do with an unintended consequence of one of the things that makes the WFTDA variant of the game unique.

Skating clockwise on the track is seen as an important strategical tool for WFTDA teams. It’s used most effectively when a defense manages to block the opposing jammer out of bounds, allowing those players scramble backwards to force the jammer to the rear of the pack. This keeps the opposing jammer out of the play for as long as possible, hopefully (for the blockers) resulting in a jammer track cut and a power jam for their team.

A jammer, of course, wants to do the opposite: Go forward through the pack. The faster she can do this, the better.

When you isolate them, both of these strategies are the right thing to do during a WFTDA game. But when you put both of these ideas on the track simultaneously, you get a problem.

The problem started off as a conceptual one. Blockers sprinting clockwise and a jammer sprinting counter-clockwise is a recipe for a potential disaster. We noted this as far back as two years ago.

This particular scenario is relatively harmless. Blockers don’t do much during their own power jams, and their jammer will always see them coming. The risk of a bad collision here is pretty much non-existent.

Any significant wrong-way contact that could happen would be more likely to be between opponents. However, WFTDA rules make it clear that blocking while stopped on the track or moving in the clockwise skating direction is illegal. No one wants to get sent off the track for an avoidable penalty, the theory goes, which should be enough of a deterrent to keep blocking safe.

Except, it’s not. And it doesn’t.

Check out this sequence from the start of a WFTDA-rules game from March 2014 between the L.A. Derby Dolls and Rose City. Focus on the Rose pivot as the L.A. jammer gets recycled, and what happens when she runs into resistance from an L.A. blocker skating towards her.

This is easy to miss, so focus on the bottom-left of the video a few moments after the jam begins.

The Rose player threw her shoulder, in a clockwise direction, square into the chest of the L.A. blocker, who was moving fast in the counter-clockwise direction. The resulting contact led to a completely laid-out L.A. blocker, who might as well have been clotheslined with the amount of force she received.

The Rose pivot was correctly whistled off the track on a direction of play penalty for the illegal hit. She went to the box, and after a few moments of dusting off cobwebs, the L.A. blocker managed to get back in the play.

Still, this was a very dangerous situation, one that the threat of a penalty didn’t do much to prevent. In fact, statistics from the WFTDA playoffs prove that penalties are not working to deter dangerous contact between opponents.

Between the 2013 and 2014 Division 1 playoff seasons, direction of play fouls increased by 12.5%. Other classes of “dangerous” penalties followed the same trend: Forearms were up 21.7%, back blocks went up 24.2% and high block penalties shot up a very worrisome 74.4% over the year before.2 Penalties in general increased by 13%, continuing the years-long trend.

If some of the best derby skaters in the world aren’t playing the game more cleanly and more safely, you have to wonder how much worse the situation may be in the lower ranks—and how oblivious the derby community may be about it.

The rdjunkies blog, which pulls clips from many WFTDA games and analyzes them for strategy purposes, put the microscope on the L.A./Rose incident. It chose to focus on the “insanely smart track awareness” by Rose City blockers.

Which is a very strange assessment of the situation. Wasn’t it Rose City’s very poor track awareness that led one of its blockers to illegally, and dangerously, make a run through an opponent? Why not mention that?

In a good majority of WFTDA games I’ve watched this year, there have been a lot of close calls that could have easily created bad hits, be they legal or illegal, like the one above. Blockers are desperate to run the opposing jammer back through opponents who are more than willing to stop them from doing so. Often, forcefully.

It looks as if people are not noticing how big of a problem this has become, and yet has the potential to become further. Add a jammer racing in on a scoring pass to this mix, and it’s only a matter of time before something goes very, very wrong.

That time has come to pass.

At Spring Roll last weekend in Ft. Wayne, Ind., Calgary and Dallas were playing against each other on the morning of day 3, as might any two roller derby teams be doing on any given day.

With about 10 minutes left in the first period, this happened.

Here’s the video. The incident happens 12 seconds into the jam.

This was bad. Really bad.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine what might happen if someone hits the back of their head on a hard concrete floor without wearing a helmet. The reaction of the announcers and the silence that befell the arena in the moment immediately after the hit might indicate that the worst-case scenario was the first thing that came to their minds.

Thankfully, Anita Riot, the Dallas jammer who was shoulder-blasted into next week by her own teammate, was extremely lucky that her back broke her fall instead of the back of her unprotected skull. But the hit clearly dazed her, still affecting her as she crawled to her helmet—which was knocked a good 10 feet clear.

While this situation was an accident, it’s one that was bound to happen given the trends seen in WFTDA gameplay over the last few years. The singular focus blockers are putting on recycling jammers as far back as they can are starting to make them completely oblivious to their surroundings, even if those surroundings may include a jammer moving at them at a high rate of speed.

As we see in the video, Guillotine Grace, the Dallas blocker who was attempting to pull back the Calgary jammer in turn 1, was so worried about what the opposing jammer was doing, she unwittingly skated into the path of her own jammer—who was coming in fast. Moving in opposite directions, the effective closing speed between Anita and Guillotine was even faster.

Once they realized a potential collision was imminent, the point at which it could have been avoided had long passed. The aftermath is a terrifying glimpse of what happens when a close call, isn’t one.


WFTDA gameplay incentivizes teams to skate in the clockwise direction as often as it is strategically sound to do so. But in continuing to promote this, the WFTDA is keeping high the probability that very dangerous collisions like the one in the Dallas/Calgary game will keep happening.3

If the WFTDA wants to reduce this probability—and if it is as concerned about safety as everyone else, why would not want to?—it’s going to have to do something more about it than what it has been doing.

Trends over the last several years yield clear evidence that penalty enforcement is not preventing dangerous situations. (Penalties certainly can’t help when teammates are inadvertently throwing dangerous blocks against each other.) Accidental collisions, ones where penalization can’t do anything to help deter, can only become more preventable by reducing or eliminating the circumstances under which they might come about.

If you want to reduce the potential for skaters colliding into each other while skating in opposite directions—thereby making the game safer—completely eliminate the possibility that skaters would ever skate in opposite directions in the first place.

That’s right: Make skating clockwise on the track completely illegal.

Do that, and these types of dangerous hits would never even get near the “close call” state. Anyone that skates in the opposite direction of jammers coming in fast should be sent to the box for putting those jammers, and themselves, in a potentially dangerous position.

If there’s any question this would not make the game safer, consider the roller derby organizations that have already banned clockwise movement or stopping on the track.4 The RDCL, which plays exclusively on banked tracks, knows firsthand what happens when players clash face-to-face at high speed.

RollerCon Poobah Ivanna S. Pankin recently posted to Facebook about a potential event on the banked track at RollerCon this year. While all of the slots for RDCL bouts and challenges on the track have already been scheduled, she is still open to the notion of changing up the rules for a scrimmage that may take place on it.

To answer her question: Yes, a lot of people have thought about what WFTDA-style derby would look like on the banked track. And they don’t like what they’re imagining. Here’s a comment from one of those people, a long-time member of the L.A. Derby Dolls, the biggest, most prominent, and most experienced modern banked track league in the world:

Click for bigger.
Emphasis added. Click for bigger.

When skating clockwise was tested on the banked track, she says, there were many “gnarly collisions.” If RollerCon were interested in doing this, she says, there would be a “higher accident risk.” The L.A. Derby Dolls and the RDCL wanted neither of these things, so they immediately scrapped the idea from its rules.

The WFTDA and the skaters it represents is still interested in keeping strategic clockwise skating in its game. However, as pack speeds seem to be improving, making the game somewhat faster than it has been lately, “gnarly collisions” and the close calls that narrowly avoid them appear to be increasing.

The resulting “higher accident risk” to come from this may have been a factor, among others, that forced the WFTDA to make its accident insurance cost more and cover less in 2015.

USARS, which also makes stopping and skating clockwise illegal in its roller derby rule set, recently showed concern about the impact this may have on junior roller derby.5 In speaking of insurance, it said that “based on the numbers, the sport is not safe and the numbers of claims [junior skaters] have are high.”

USARS is currently working on a way to differentiate the claims between those skaters playing by WFTDA rules and those by USARS rules—something USARS is likely doing because it feels its manner of gameplay is much safer and much cheaper to insure than the prevailing alternative.

From a safety standpoint, it’s logical that mandating forward movement makes the game less dangerous. Besides eliminating wrong-way collisions, it makes any hard collisions that do happen much less severe. Back blocks, for example, aren’t as hard when a player moving at speed hits a player moving slowly in the same direction.

While hard hits can and do still happen in other gameplay environments, they are less likely to be face-to-face or of the effect of a clothesline; and more likely to be lateral and shoulder-to-shoulder. That’s much safer on the people taking the hits, even if the initial contact is just as hard.

One of the hardest banked track hits I have ever seen happened at the beginning of last year, when Team Wolfpack took on the L.A. Derby Dolls. Playing for Wolfpack, Charm City’s Holly GoHardly got hit so damn hard that her helmet cover couldn’t keep up with her as she careened to the infield.

At the time, this was comical. But knowing now what can happen in the WFTDA skating environment, where hits can be so ferocious that they can take a jammer’s securely-fastened helmet clean off her head

I can only worry what might happen to a very unlucky skater who winds up in the hospital—or worse—because the WFTDA prefers to promote the strategy of skating backwards over the safety of forbidding it.