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.

  • TheOriginalDonald

    Game? This wasn’t meant to be a game. NEVER #RollerBall #JONATHAN! #JONATHAN! #JONATHAN! #JONATHAN!

    • Given the context of this article, I cannot upvote your comment. However, I will acknowledge that is one of my all-time favorite movie quotes ever.

      • SebasTián Andrés


  • Derby America

    While the run back can be dangerous, so can… I dunno… roller derby. Maybe penalties have gone up, but have you looked at how many new refs there are calling sanctioned gameplay, or were you just analyzing playoff data? I don’t want to argue that running backwards doesn’t have its dangers, but so does the ability to run into a wall full force… on rollerskates….. I’ve seen helmets fly off (more than once) in hockey, football, and baseball. Often from completely legal, well-timed hits.

    Sometimes, physics happens. I don’t think the immediate answer needs to be “REVISE THE RULES” (why is that always everyone’s answer? OMG THIS THING HAPPENED THE RULEZ ARE BROKN. LEZ MAKE IT LIKE USARS THAT 5% OF THE DERBZ LIKES).

    Bank track should absolutely not play with the same exact rule set. Going backwards, or even just stoppign on a bank is asking for extra trouble (again, physics).

    Should we look at tightening direction of gameplay penalties? Sure. I think it could be up for consideration, we’ve already clarified that section a few times. Nothing says we can’t do it again. Should we eliminate the practice altogether. No, I don’t think that (at this time) there is any reason to eliminate it from WFTDA/MRDA completely.

    PS I am not sure why I felt so inclined to respond….

    • 1) The penalty stats are taken from the WFTDA Division 1 playoffs and championships. The best teams, best players, and best referees in the world. You can’t blame an increase in penalties on shoddy officiating unless you acknowledge the best officials in the WFTDA are as bad as the rest of them.

      2) Hockey and football players wear heavy protective padding, since violent collisions are an integral part of those sports. Baseball has moved to eliminate dangerous home-plate collisions (from “completely legal, well-timed hits”) via a rule change that almost completely bars them. If you say “physics happen” in roller derby, and that violent collisions on the order of a football tackle or a hockey check are acceptable in the WFTDA, why doesn’t the WFTDA mandate the same level of safety equipment as seen in those sports?

      3) Sometimes, a rule change is the only thing that can work. WFTDA’s own history supports that, as does that of other forms of roller derby and other sports. Being of the mindset that a rule change should be an option of last resort is a very narrow-minded way of looking at problems, especially when WFTDA derby hasn’t quite emerged from its “we’re figuring stuff out” phase.

      4) I can think of a perfectly good reason to eliminate clockwise skating: It’s fucking dangerous.

      • Scott C

        While I don’t disagree with your stance on the heightened danger of cw/ccw collisions, do your statistics account for the greater time on the track in 2014 accounted for by the reduction in penalty times from 60 to 30 seconds?

        Less time in the box per penalty equals more time on the track per skater. More time on the track per skater means more opportunity to earn penalties at the same rate, accumulating more total penalties per game despite the rate of penalties per time on the track not increasing.

        • I am aware of the reduced penalty time. Though penalty whistles increased by 13%, actual penalty time served decreased by approximately 43%. I honestly don’t know how much of a factor the reduced penalty time would be, and if that alone can account for some of or all of the increase in penalties.

          I’m going to think about this, do the math, and post it on my Tumblr once I figure it out. Should be interesting!

  • Jordyn Blanson

    So, out of ALL those increases in penalties, you focus on the one with the least amount of change? I feel high blocks are much more dangerous, and clearly are much more common.

    I have also never seen a properly fastened helmet fly off of a player. Perhaps the offending skater hit her perfectly on the latch and the combination of force released the helmet. How old was her helmet? Were there any problems with the latch before she was hit? The statistical likelihood of helmets flying off due to directional is doubtfully going to be significant. ARE there statistics on how often helmets get hit off? Because if not, then we can rule that risk out pretty quick. 1 example isn’t enough statistical evidence. If anything, the increase of High blocks would have the greater effect on helmets getting hit off than directional. Perhaps instead more efficient gear checks would be in order? Oh wait, rule change. Now refs only have to perform a cursory glance over equipment. Sooo, maybe there are more fundamental rules you should be addressing if safety is truly the concern.

    Also what you aren’t considering is that there is no current scale to measure the impact of the hit going directionalyl. So while you picked some extreme examples, every other hit could simply be a trifling matter. An awkward bump that throws a skater out of position is THE SAME on paper as this dreaded clothesline you fear. To make the assumption that all 12.5% increase of directional penalties are gigantic clotheslines that knock off helmets is laughable.

    I see the slight danger you speak of, but are you aware we strap skates onto our feet and hit each other for fun? If we didn’t want an edgy sport we wouldn’t be playing roller derby. I also don’t think this penalty is intrinsically more dangerous than any other penalty. Seriously, see high blocks. Those suck a lot.

    Also, maybe, just maybe there is an increase of penalties because the refs are getting more efficient at making calls? That doesn’t mean more penalties are committed, just that more are CAUGHT. You should also examine this before throwing in meaningless statistics.

    If there is ANOTHER WFTDA rule change, i will freaknout. Have you considered what that would do to our credibility as a sport? “Oh, honey, those were LAST YEARS rules. This year we changed them again! Sorry fan’s who already need a full season to understand them the first time round!” Even I get confused half the time with all these damn rule changes, and I’m a skater! So, stop it. Just leave the rules alone for at least another 5 years.

    • Jordyn Blanson

      Oh, also a big one I forgot. Penalties went from 1min to 30 secs. That’s a huge thing to take into consideration when looking at increase of penalties

      • Bellers S

        Is it though? Be it 30 seconds or 1 minute, you still foul out in 7 and the game is 60 minutes long.

  • captainlouelbammo

    1) The insane hit was a friendly fire incident. The blocker was not watching for her jammer and the jammer was not expecting her blocker to try and kill her accidentally. If they had been opposing players, the jammer would have been in full avoidance mode and likely have moved out of the way before the last second. If they were on opposing teams, the blocker likely would have been expelled for reckless, negligent play and I suspect serious consideration would have been given to a suspension. The worst direction of game play collisions I have seen have all been friendly fire.

    2) Your penalty comparison is flawed on several levels. People have pointed out some of the switches between rule iterations which cause differences in penalty total. More on track time, change in impact spectrum, increased experience of reffing, etc. To state a raw number and not analyze the details behind the data is bad research.

    3) The skaters in the WFTDA are the ones who vote on the rule changes. If they consider this to be a problem, they will fix it. They will likely do it in a measured and logical manner rather one that is full of hand-wringing and hyperbole as you recommend.

    • In reply to your point #3: How can they start that process unless they know what points need to be discussed and debated? Like this one, for example?

      • captainlouelbammo

        Are you really so arrogant as to think that not a single person within the WFTDA has bothered to bring up this topic up over the years? Do you really think you’ve created an “eye-opening exposé” that will change the way derby is thought about? Your statement is borderline misogynistic, though typical of your mansplaining tendency.

        • If what you’re saying is true, I’d love to know what the 12,000 people (and counting) are doing reading this article, if they aren’t finding it interesting to read and noteworthy enough share and discuss with their friends. Unless you think it’s all hate-reading?

          Because I have no idea. I didn’t expect this article to get half of that in its lifetime, let alone the whole lot in less than 24 hours. That’s a lot of people in a very little amount of time that have apparently haven’t thought about this topic in the way it is presented here. Especially those that aren’t “in” with the WFTDA and its non-disclosure discussion club.

        • captainlouelbammo

          It is a click-bait article with a big, crazy hit. You really think most people are reading all the way through? I suspect most are clicking on the pictures and then walking away.

        • Not according to Google Analytics:

          In addition to this article being insanely trafficked, it’s also being fully read by more people than most other long articles on the site, and virtually no one (less than 250 people) has bounced out upon coming to the page. On top of that, it’s driving people to other articles; the average pages per visit is over 2.5. Apparently people are appreciating what they are reading, and want to read more.

          Your suspicion is incorrect. Have another one for me?

        • captainlouelbammo

          Average time on the page is 1:11. That is people viewing the footage.

        • Which means more than half the people are doing more than viewing the footage?

        • captainlouelbammo

          5 people visit your page. 1 spends 30 seconds. 1 spends 45 seconds. 1 spend 1 minute 1 spends 2 minutes. 1 spends 4 minutes.

          The median time spent is 1 minute. Half spent more than that time. Half spent less than that time.

          The average time spent is 1 minute, 39 seconds.

          You are looking at the average, not the median.

        • captainlouelbammo

          If 100 people spend 30 seconds on the page and I spend an hour on it then the average time spent is 65 seconds. One person reading through can skew the average greatly.

        • captainlouelbammo

          Hell, I’ve had your page open most of the day on a tab. If Google has been counting that the whole time then I’ve accidentally messed up the numbers all by myself.

  • SebasTián Andrés

    Every sport is dangerous. Roller just need to develop a little more, to become a professional and well respected one.

  • Faster PushyCat

    Petition WFTDA for a new rule — “Anyone who skates clockwise forfeits their position”. Voila, no more dangerous run backs by blockers with tunnel vision, and without prohibiting clockwise skating.

    • Bryn Stephens

      Exactly. Take away the strategic motivation for racing CW on the track and it simply goes away. You’ll also have the side-effect of a faster moving, more forward flowing game. That might even start to pull larger numbers of non-derby connected fans back in.

      I know why this will probably not happen; skaters love their soul-crushes too much. They don’t want to give them up. Change is scary, but there could even be dynamic, forward moving strategies that are more rewarding. It’s possible.

      • Hellslinger

        If this was so popular of an idea USARS roller derby would have more fans. However, it does not because just watching 2 teams sprinting laps and occasionally hitting each other isn’t very entertaining. USARS also has basically 2 teams at the top and HUGE blow outs worse than WFTDA.

        I prefer a game that is full of strategy. Playing D & O at the same time. A game that is evolving via the people playing it and not dictated by some old dudes who DON’T PLAY THE GAME telling the athletes how it should be done.

        • Bryn Stephens

          I didn’t say make stopped or clockwise skating illegal like USARS. There’s a good reason WFTDA took runaway pussy out of the equation many years ago. Anyone who likes that can just go to speed skating meets. and hang out with their huge fan base. Oh, wait…

          The fact is, the moment CW skating appeared as a major strategy element and the packs stopped moving forward as much (sometimes less than a lap per full jam) is the moment that the non-derby connected fan based started to dramatically dissipate. Taking away position superiority for any CW movement would simply shift the game and strategies into more forward movement and make it more exciting to watch for regular sports fans. It’s a matter of priorities and the overall health of the sport, which necessarily includes the fan base. Even large numbers of retired OG skaters refuse to watch the game the way it’s played today. I still mostly love it, but I’m on the inside, not sitting watching with the eyes of a regular person going to see a sport.

        • TheOriginalDonald

          If there WAS a USARS league within 50 miles of me I’d attend their bouts. Heck, if it weren’t for TXRD I’d NEVER go back to Austin on an annual basis

  • Suicide_Seats

    Steven, I can’t agree more. The whole idea of allowing skating clockwise and counter-clockwise on the same track is inherently dangerous. The problem is WFTDA teams from the top down have invested most of their defensive energy into forcing jammers off the track and making them recycle through the pack. In their eyes, forcing them to move counter-clockwise at all times sets the game back 5 years. They have invested too much in this strategy to even consider the idea of change. It doesn’t matter that it makes sense. As much as I love roller derby, WFTDA has issues within its rule set that it refuses to acknowledge. Its kind of sad to see the league that was so fresh and innovative a decade ago become so resistant to common sense changes today.

  • jerry seltzer

    Jeezus, so Steven brings up a valid point that many agree with and right away you want to tear him a new one…..And I reposted and all of a sudden I am anti-Roller Derby. it seems that many have made this a WFTDA vs USARS thing which is ridiculous….it has to do with player safety in a dangerous amateur sport. I have suggested that maybe derby follows the path of hockey: different rule sets for different levels of skills; the NHL allows things that are not in kids hockey. Sounds like many want to play the game as is, so do so, but players who aren’t as skilled should be protected as much as possible.

    • TheOriginalDonald

      It’s the drama llamas, Jerry. They’re gonna ruin the sport if they haven’t already

  • chokabitchski

    That was my comment about the collisions about clockwise skating
    “testing” on the bank. Please do not embellish and speculate further into my comment to help your viewpoint or make it read like I speak for any organization, which I do not. I need to say it was far from an involved lengthy
    testing. We were screwing around with some ideas that day. Just 1 day.
    Testing with skaters that usually don’t skate clockwise in game play. In
    that particular scenario, skaters were not mentally expecting the
    clockwise skating. That combined with the banked speed caused some
    issues. It was more about chaos and lack of experience. Also, as far as
    I’ve been involved, us rejecting clockwise skating on the bank has been
    about us WANTING TO KEEP THE GAME MOVING FORWARD, AND LESS ABOUT FINDING THE IDEA UNSAFE. Ok, so my comment about the gnarly pile ups… yep there were pile ups. and they were rough. BUT I HAVE SEEN WORSE, with regular game play. We play an aggressive sport on skates. It is dangerous. I mentioned it in my comment because when you add inexperience (with skating banked) to the natural speed of banked shit can happen.

  • How about making hockey helmets with simple dome clasps illegal? I’ve never seen a helmet with a proper two-piece clasp fall off before.

  • captainlouelbammo

    From the skater who lost her helmet in the collision, “…i appreciate the concern. but i’m fine. and so is my teammate. i actually feel safer now than i did playing before clockwise motion was an allowable strategy, but i play knowing the risks. rugby players wear less gear than we do and they run into each other on purpose. accidents happen. my helmet did not malfunction–the snap must have got caught or the impact hit just right to throw it off my head. i tie it on now, nbd. i still stand by wftda rules, because they foster the evolution of the sport, which is what we–the skaters–want.”

    • captainlouelbammo

      and with that, Anita Riot dropped the microphone and walked away.