Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Practices can be a tricky balancing act. They are only ever so long, and stopping to talk to one group, be it refs, practice leaders, or skaters, invariably takes time away from the other groups. Of course you're at practice to help everyone, including yourself. A referee who thinks they are above practicing is one who doesn't understand the importance of the position or how much work it actually takes to create consistent reffing in a group of referees. So, how do we balance everyone's needs fairly and still do a good job?*

Some leagues have set up strict rules about who can talk to whom, when. This ends up being counter-productive to our goals though. Despite sounding reasonable, in practice it is closer to a game of telephone. The more direct and immediate we can make these discussions, the more they will benefit everyone, the skaters, referees, league, sport and fans. Like any dialogue this should be respectful, but taking that as a granted, now a skater can ask why she got called on something that another skater didn't, which to her seemed identical. The ref can then explain what they saw or didn't see, and where the difference was in their call. Now the skater better understands the reffing and that the ref is calling things as they see them; that it is not a personal vendetta. Further, if the other referees, particularly the head referee, listens to the exchange and the original ref is wrong, then everyone can have the rule explained clearly by the head referee, and everyone improves. It's why we practice.

Sometimes though this won't work, the skater may not understand the rule or may disagree with the interpretation used by the referees. At times like this politely acknowledge the need for further discussion and explain the need to keep moving or scrimmaging, for instance with a quick, "OK, well this is going to be a longer discussion and we need to keep the scrimmage moving, can we continue this during cool down or after practice? Just remind me". Maintaining a system like this requires work; with captains to keep their team's tone civil and with refs to make sure they're not too defensive to answer. However, the rewards are notable and almost immediate. Refs start being addressed with respect and being appreciated for the answers that they are giving, as a result they enjoy doing their job more and do not snap on skaters or are not as rude in their communication, which results in the skaters being more willing to talk with them, socially and professionally. Ultimately this leads to better reffing and better skating, which leads to better run bouts and happier fans. The alternative is that skaters don't get answers to questions they can't ask, and issues fester until erupting at a bout. This obviously results in huge amounts of stoppage and discussion, which is boring for fans, frustrating for skaters and antagonizing for you, the referee.

The ultimate problem with this though is that as a referee, it's unlikely that you have much say in how practices are run. With that in mind, consider the systems as laid out: what's the purpose of each decision and how can you adapt it to work in the systems your league currently employs? Talk to the people in charge of running practices, can you make changes? Can you let skaters know that you're available after practice to discuss calls or rules? The more communication you enable, the better.

*Of course, regular reffing in bouts is a form of practice, but unless you're reffing every week or so, that doesn't really work.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Game Journal - WFTDA National Tournament

WFTDA 2008 National Tournament - the Northwest Knockdown

Incident - During the course of the tournament, it became clear that my personal tolerance or threshold for what was a minor or major with regards to "refusing to reform the pack" was slightly tighter than that of my head referee. During our first bout I'd accepted that and over the course of the weekend I'd kept in conversation with him to make sure I was reffing as he liked, and I feel we worked well together. Nevertheless, there was a part of me that felt like skaters were abusing what is arguably one of the hardest calls to make, and while I've been trying not to let things like that affect me (they don't change my ability to referee), this was a situation where I clearly felt like it was affected by my reffing, which I think understandably was aggravating to me in this situation. But this is not about my interpretation versus someone else's (since both were correct interpretations), this is about my response to that. Because it came out a little bit during the final bout we reffed as a crew. During our last bout I was discussing a different interpretation with our head referee, and ended up being more forceful in my disagreement than I wish I had been in front of skaters.

Comments - Obviously, I regret that I did that. I don't know that it was as jarring to anyone else as I felt it was, or could have been, or even that it was noticed, but even if it wasn't that wouldn't make it ok. This continues the problem I've had in the past, which I've discussed before, of accepting roles other than head referee, with adapting to another referee's interpretations. In this case my emotions over one interpretation fed into my reaction over another interpretation. When I'm not head reffing, my reaction to my head referee's interpretation should only ever be "OK, I'll do that, let me know if I need to adjust more". But I'm also confident I'm getting better with this problem, I spent the weekend adapting to an interpretation other than my own, and reffing successfully within that system, on a crew that I think was extremely successful in every bout we reffed. In this instance I realized as soon as I started that I was in front of skaters, I hope that next time I realize that right before I start, so I don't do it at all, instead of apologizing for it later.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Officials are People Too

And not just are they people, they're people who help people, on the track and in real life. Meet Scorey Feldman, NSO extraordinaire for the Windy City Rollers.

A Discussion - Assigning a Penalty for Failure to Reform

At a recent interleague scrimmage a skater asked me about the penalty I'd given her for failure to reform the pack, and why she'd gotten the penalty rather than anyone else. This turned out to be a lot longer than I'd expected, but thus is the price for clarity and thoroughness.

Before we discuss who one would assign a penalty to and what that penalty might be for failure to reform the pack, we must first discuss when we would assign a penalty for failure to reform the pack. This is really the problem with enforcing this rule consistently amongst referees, more than is deciding who deserves what degree of penalty. As has been pointed out in other places by other fine referees, the problem here is that this penalty is unique in penalizing inaction, where every single other penalty penalizes action. I have in the past explained myself in making this call by pointing out that the players penalized made eye-contact with me during my calling of no-pack*, and then still did not skate. This however cannot be a necessary road sign on the path to calling this penalty every time, not if we're to call it correctly. Because, just as a skater cannot be guaranteed a warning at twenty feet before being penalized, neither can a skater require a warning of no-pack (or be required to see that warning) before being penalized. It is ultimately always the skater's job to know where they are in relation to the pack. So, what do we need to make this call?

Simply, we need inaction. That is, we need someone to have the opportunity to do something and then fail to try and do it**. So that need for inaction means we need an opportunity for action, which means that the penalty cannot come at the moment the pack splits. A good guide is thus - notice that the pack is split, now check to see if either group is already working to reform it, at the same time, check to see if it is still split. If you've taken the time to check these things, then enough time has passed and, if the pack is still split, you should feel comfortable assigning a penalty.

So now, what penalty? You should, as stated in the rules, default to a minor. There are certain circumstances though that will justify a major immediately. One prime example that comes up often is a team intentionally destroying the pack in order to free their Jammer. But how do you judge intent? The rules tell us that if we have to infer intent, we're to infer legal intent, so it must be totally clear to us. First, where is the skater's attention? Is everyone looking either at the other group of skaters and their Jammer or at the referee calling "no-pack", or are they focused on opponents and actively blocking? It should be clear which of these would indicate intentionally refusing to reform the pack. Secondly and related to the first, what are they doing? Again, are they actively blocking, or are they snow-plowing, holding each other back or taking a knee? Again, the two options seem to clearly indicate two different intents. And of course, even if you were to start with a minor, one should always be willing to upgrade that to a major in response to continued or repeated failure to reform.

The last part of this equation then is who should get the penalty. Sometimes it will be obvious who is "most responsible". A Pivot snow-plowing and spreading her arms to hold her teammates back, a skater up front ignoring the referees and yelling at her teammates to "Come on! Speed up!" or a skater in back grabbing her teammates' uniforms and keeping them from skating forward are all pretty reasonably the "most responsible". However, there are other times when everyone seems to be acting the same independently, who should we penalize then? The rules say that if no individual player can be singled out, then the Pivot or Captain gets the penalty. While that could be an easy out, wouldn't we like, shouldn't there be, a better solution? What if the Pivot's in the box and the Captain's on the bench, who then would we penalize? My solution has been to never resort to the Pivot or Captain in this case, but instead to assign the penalty to the player closest to the "other pack", as they are, in some way, most responsible. This is because they, more than anyone else, could reform the pack quickly. Anyone else would have to do the work of passing them, so if everyone acted the same, the closest player would reform a pack first, and so they must engage in the most inaction for the pack to not reform. Going back to our original discussion of why this penalty is unique, we see then how this player is most responsible.

As I started out saying though, this is a tough call to make, especially if a referee has not made it before. Indeed, it might be the toughest call to make in the current ruleset, if not all of derby. But like any call, practice, and more importantly, a thorough understanding of the rule and it's enforcement make every call both easier and more correct than the previous.

*note that during this discussion, I will consistently refer to no-pack, but the same general rules would apply in a split-pack situation, and indeed, there are even examples I'll use that must be a split pack situation and not a no pack.

** It is important to note here that it can sometimes be the person physically working the hardest that is doing nothing. For instance, if the pack is split, it might be the skater in the front racing away doing the least to reform, do not make the mistake of mistaking physical activity for working to reform or of assuming it is always the rear-most portion responsible for reforming a pack.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Personal Presentation

Similar to choosing a derby name, personal presentation presents a balancing act unique to the roller derby referee. Here though it is important to consider the much larger implications your choices in this matter have. Officials in all other sports have very strict dress codes, down to how many stripes their socks should have. In roller derby, where not even team uniforms are necessarily uniform, that sort of absolutism finds little foothold, which can be counter-productive if abused. We have a responsibility to the sport, the players (not just in our own leagues but in other leagues) and to other officials to act professionally. What that word means is different depending on whom one talks to, but it's hard to believe that anyone considers looking unkempt, disheveled or generally like a slob is professional. One should look neat and in control, as your appearance affects people's view of you. Your apparent effort in preparing physically presumably reflects your efforts to prepare mentally.

Again, some might say that that sort of thing doesn't matter, what matters is making the right call, and of course making the right call is important, it is absolutely important. But consider also that as a referee you are the authority in the game, and the ramifications of not being taken seriously. If you don't seem like you know what you're doing, your calls will be questioned more, right or wrong. That means more time-outs for challenges, which means stoppage of the game-flow, one of your responsibilities as a referee. Poor presentation will also result in skaters not taking you as seriously, because why should they respect you or your position if you don't respect your position? This will lead to insubordination, related penalties and all the fall-out of that, all because you were too cool to just wear a regular referee's shirt. This theme, of the ramifications of presentation and behavior, is a very real concern. While it's acceptable, in derby more so than any other sport, to not take everything seriously, and while that might even be encouraged, one should consider where they feel comfortable drawing that line, and where the people they work with feel comfortable having that line drawn for them.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Future Skater?

Either way, good advice for referees, old or new. Also, remember that there are bears on roller skates at most carnivals, so this is more than just an idle threat, two words: Bear Derby. Yeah.