Derby’s Four-Letter Word

This past weekend, CCDD’s Dolly Rogers competed in the RDAC Eastern Tournament. The Dolly Rogers came in 7th, losing all three games by just a few little points. While this was terribly frustrating, the overall experience allowed this budding travel team to taste real competition. It was an honour to play teams whose skills matched ours, that it inevitably came down to the last jams. And due to such close results, it was agreed, after all three games, that the teams should meet again. In derby, this is regarded as making friends and CCDD’s relatively recent arrival on the derby scene makes such friendships invaluable. It breeds respect on and off the track and that off-the-track respect builds the sport’s credibility overall. But there is one relationship that continues to be a challenge and this challenge was exceptionally evident all weekend, with so many players (myself included) repeating derby’s four-letter word under their breaths, in anger and frustration. REFS.

Every sport has referees. If I were a pro-level ref, I’d probably sleep with a gun under my pillow because that player-ref relationship can be SO volatile. The ref’s your best friend when the call’s in your favour, and when it’s not, you’re making a ref Voodoo Doll on the bench between shifts. One need only scratch soccer’s surface to see how unpleasant a ref’s life can be. And while players lament after games, rehashing bad calls, refs defend their actions and, like players who exercised poor judgment, refs must also live with their mistakes. Players and refs have more in common than they realize.

BUT. There’s always a BUT. And when it’s a player (me), writing about refs (them), there’s definitely a looming sense of doom. Do I blame some of this weekend’s results on poor reffing? I sure as hell do. I got two majors that upon video replay (damn technology), these majors were most definitely not warranted and changed the course of our first game.  One of our jammers got a major during the last jam of the second game. Was the penalty warranted? Possibly. But had all the jammers on the other team committed the same foul without it being called? Absolutely. So was her call fair? Yes, as far as the scope of the rules go; no, as far as the way the game was being called. So, now that I’ve (fairly) managed to enrage any zebra reading this, I will now attempt to explain that as much as I’m bitching about the level of reffing at this tournament, I would also now like to take responsibility for it. Under no circumstances should the refs be blamed for this weekend. Nor should they be blamed for a game you played last week. Or a game you played last season.

Derby is in its infancy. These are the dirty beginner years, where the rules are constantly in a state of flux. Derby is fighting some harsh stereotypes, trying to establish and perpetuate legitimacy, all while training athletes, using coaches with little experience (compared to other sports), and trying to establish some kind of reliable officiating. This is a tall order for both the establishment of derby and for each struggling league, with a shoestring budget and few committed volunteers. It takes years to develop solid refs, just as it takes years to truly develop solid skills as derby players. And right now, the sport is booming, with thousands of women (and men) strapping on skates and giving this whole crazy mess a shot. But derby reffing just isn’t attracting the same level of interest. And because it’s up to leagues to ensure its refs are trained, we have no one but ourselves to blame for any unsatisfactory reffing in this sport.

Each league owes its refs the same level of attention it attributes to its players. Each league owes it to its refs to challenge them, the way each league challenges its players. To achieve this, leagues need to commit to a common standard and they need to enforce that standard. And leagues need to exercise a lot of patience in the meantime because this will take a lot of time. And it’ll be worth the investment. Right now, I know that one of CCDD’s refs calls a short 20 feet. So when he’s on the track, I tell my players, dude calls it short. Stick together. Another of CCDD’s refs calls a long 20 feet, so when dude’s on the track, I know I can tell my players to take some chances. It’s unusual for a team captain to base game strategy on how she knows refs will call stuff. Such knowledge gives you an advantage over another team that should actually never factor into a game situation. The game should depend on the team’s skills, their ability to adapt and their ability to pull out all the stops within the scope of the rules. Period.

So what does all this mean? It means that this tournament taught CCDD that ref development has been overlooked. That refs are key to the game, not just in helping it run, but in developing players. By enforcing the rules in terms of a common standard, the sport can achieve a level of consistency that will contribute to its legitimacy and its development. Reliable, solid calls build better players. Accepting that neither reffing nor playing will ever be perfect is accepting a climate and a culture that is present in sport. Accepting and adhering to a standard means that teams won’t have to be told to “cut the refs some slack cuz they’re new and this is their first time reffing.” We heard that this weekend. I can’t imagine how those new refs felt dealing with such fast-paced games. We met one poor girl who walked out of a game because it was too overwhelming. That shouldn’t happen. It’s like throwing a freshie into an RVRG Vixens game. If you want to break and discourage people, that’s the way to do it.

So, derby world: CCDD would like to shoulder some of this responsibility. We will train and develop our refs. We will use leagues like RVRG and MTLRD as examples. We will seek to provide our refs with a place to learn and we will run events to help our refs build their skills so that they are fully prepared to take on bouts and tournaments. We will encourage our refs to invite more experienced refs into our ranks to see how it’s done. And we will encourage our refs to go out into the derby world and get whatever experience they can. And when we’re ready to serve as a true example of reliability, we in turn will provide the expertise and knowledge we gain to assist those who are looking to improve their own skills. This us-against-them culture has to come to a complete stop and “refs” should just be a regular ol’ word.



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3 thoughts on “Derby’s Four-Letter Word

  1. Mech says:

    Roller derby has a very large and complicated rule set compared to other sports. Some rules apply to opposing players, and some apply to all skaters. These distinctions can happen within the same set of rules. Most cutting the track penalties apply to all skaters, but a major is given if the front-most opposing blocker is cut. That’s a lot of information a referee has to sort through in a split second decision.

    Some facets of the game are entirely in the referees’ hands. If two jammers make it through the pack on their initial pass at the same time, lead jammer goes to the jammer whose referee calls lead first. That’s pretty arbitrary if you think about it.

    It seems that in discussions after each bout, there is a new strategy the players have seen which they think would be illegal, but after pouring over the rules, is not. The most contentious of these strategies usually cause the addition of a new rule, further complicating the whole rule set.

    Consider that it takes seven referees to properly officiate a bout. That is seven pairs of eyes scrutinizing the action and seven brains interpreting what is seen. The game has plenty of opportunity for inconsistency. Even the best and most experienced referees in the game see themselves regularly making mistakes in judging distances.

    In one instance I was a jammer referee. I was watching skates for a track cut and saw a major low block made against my jammer. One of the inside pack referees saw the elbow thrown by my jammer which caused the blocker to fall. If I had been the only referee watching the action, the wrong player would have been sent to the penalty box.

    I would say that the advantage in knowing a referee is offset by that referee’s knowledge of the players. We know what our league’s players’ tendencies are. We know what penalties to watch for based on the players on the track. We won’t know the other team as well, and have to take the larger view of them. This is why we want referees from the visiting league to officiate. This is why we avoid having two jammer referees from the same league officiate the same game.

    I believe there is room for standardization in the officiating. But it is the nature of the game and the rules that so much is left up to the judgement of the referees that I don’t think the level of consistency that players want will ever be possible.

  2. A Player says:

    As someone who has been in this sport a long time I have seen refs do some pretty bad things that quite frankly take away from the sport. I have heard refs make biased comments against players and begin games with the intent to eject the player. Some refs think they know it all and won’t take critisism when video shows them to be in the wrong. Sometimes it feels that some refs officiate with a clear bias towards a team. Don’t get me wrong, there are refs out there who work hard to better themselves and would never stoop to such levels. There clearly needs to be higher standards set to prevent refs from just doing whatever they want instead of following the actual rules of the game. Yes, refs are volunteers and they will make mistakes, but there was a very poor level of reffing at the RDAC tournament

  3. As a longtime coach I’ll admit I am the bane of most refs existence. The primary issue with poor reffing are the derby rules themselves, but bias is also a recurring theme. “Mech” mentioned his “missed call” in the comment above, but by current rules his scenario of a jammer elbowing a blocker who then falls and low blocks that jammer is a scenario where you would award both players a penalty. The jammer is responsible for the elbow, but the blocker is responsible for her fall, even if caused by an illegal action. This is the frustrating state of the current rules. Hopefully time and further rules modifications can help solve this problem.
    Having said that I’m willing to address the elephant in the room. I have often seen clear evidence of ref bias influencing derby bout outcomes. Ref crews are going to have to shame and name refs who are guilty of this if intentionally done or help re-train those who do it unintentionally. Take a look at any game where a known “experienced” team plays an “inexperienced” team and you will see what I mean. There will be more often than not calls that favour the “better” team because refs, players and even fans are more inclined to “believe” that, that team is “doing it right”. As for intentional bias I know many would argue that refs would never do this, and although I cannot go into another persons head and know what they were thinking I have witnessed reffing tantamount to cheating and it’s definitely happening out there. More commonly though, it’s what I’d refer to as incidental bias.
    eg. Ref A attends Team A’s practice regularly. Player A becomes known as an elbower at Team A’s scrimmages. During a game Player A is being assessed multiple elbow penalties by Ref A. Is Ref A being unfair if Player A is in fact repeatedly committing elbow infractions? Not really, but if the ref becomes pre-occupied with Player A’s elbows and misses multiple other game changing actions, then the game itself has been negatively impacted.
    The future of derby reffing, must be established by severing the league/ref relationships and insisting refs form an independent body that governs and polices itself. Refs can have score cards scored by teams and other refs following a game and gain their reputation for the right reasons. Reliable and unbiased refs will be fairly rewarded by both their peers and the teams they ref. These score cards can be used as a way to rank the ref and give them first pick of the games they wish to ref and have them more often be selected for head ref etc. Until this kind of independent peer-reviewed Reffing crew can be formed then the integrity of the sport will continue to be at risk. The added benefit of such a system is that it will make the ref crews accountable, and they’ll still feel a sense of ownership over what they do. That will help give them an opportunity to feel the satisfaction of doing their job well, just as players get to when they play well. It will put the focus on being a great ref and not about satisfying a league with the outcome they want.
    In the meantime as leagues, we need to reward those refs that play fair and point out those that don’t. We need to have the integrity to even address incorrect calls
    that could give your own team an unfair advantage.
    I would like to add that the Misfit Militia, Dolly Rogers and Sister Slag that the G-sTARs met on the track at RDAC were great examples of teams that put fair play ahead of outcomes on the track. If we can all be ambassadors for the game as they were, then in the end derby will continue to be the amazing sport it is and get the respect it deserves.
    Finally, thanks to the refs who continue to persevere at what is often a thankless job. 😉

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