Previously, we have featured our opinion on the elimination of minor penalties from roller derby rules, and after the WFTDA ran it’s first public test bouts we ran some preliminary opinions. Now, we feature a story on the topic from the perspectives of skaters, both in the game and in the bleachers. This comes from Steel City’s Cruisin’ B. Anthony, a veteran of all three of Steel City’s competitive teams who also happens to be a great writer. We hope this is the first of many contributions to RDIT from her.- RDIT Editors
On a warm Saturday evening, on a vendor-lined rink of the Sportsplex in Featserville, PA, a crowd of derby devotees gathered at the 2011 East Coast Derby Extravaganza to watch Charm City face off against Windy City. I elbowed through the crowd and wedged myself into an empty few inches of space on the floor at Turn 3. The game was about to start, but something was missing. I saw the two team benches, the penalty box, the jammers lining up, the pack lining up, a few infield refs skating into position … and then I realize what’s so different: I could see everything. Goodbye giant whiteboard! Hello, no minors beta bout!
Windy and Charm gave the crowd a great close game under the beta ruleset, followed the next day by River City vs. Lehigh Valley and Steel City vs. Maine. What surprised me the most, as a spectator, was how much the games played smoothly, just like “regular” derby. I had been one of the skeptics: My first reaction to the idea of eliminating minors was that I didn’t want opponents able to elbow me with impunity. That sounded unsafe, and would just encourage dirty play, I thought.
But the picture at ECDX was not what I expected. The games were fast and physical, but in a good way. Penalty boxes neither sat empty nor overflowed. I decided to track penalty box trips in my notebook, and found that I, and the announcers, almost always knew when and why a skater was going to the box. You hear the whistle, look at the ref, and you know exactly what (allegedly) happened.
My Steel City teammates confirmed that the simplicity of penalty calls was good for the skaters too. Double Destroyer said, “you knew that if anyone called your number, you were going off to the box,” and Athena added that “it was easier for me to know when a fellow player was being called off to the penalty box, which really elevated my awareness and playing. I knew they were going off the floor and that I would have to fill in that position.”
“It felt less legalistic (enforcing rules for rules sake) and more sensible,” said The Crippler. “The very concept of spending time in the box for minor penalties, penalties that literally have a minor impact on the game, seems silly. In the no-minors game, I felt time in the box was deserved because the penalty genuinely impacted the game in a significant way.”
Many of the teams’ captains said they were prepared to see their players serving more major penalties, in total, and risking ejection, since the ejection criteria stayed the same at 7 total trips to the box. In the end, the extra majors and the lack of minors seemed to balance out, with the overall box time per player staying in a normal range.
Without a need for counting minor penalties, bookkeeping challenges that are now necessary evils to coaches and officials simply disappeared. I don’t have stats on official timeouts, but Steel City and Maine both remember their game as having none, and Lehigh Valley said it seemed like fewer than usual. Ol Drrrty Go-Go of Windy reported: “I talked to one of our refs and he said that at halftime the ref crew was like ‘so what do we have to discuss?’ and they all replied, ‘Nothing.’”
Polly Gone of Maine echoed a common refrain when she said: “We never had a jammer on the bench with 3 minors, that was great. No skater should ever be encouraged to take a penalty on purpose.” That means the bizarre custom of poodling was eliminated, where a player deliberately false starts to get a fourth minor so she can serve her penalty and start over with a clean slate.
…the bizarre custom of poodling was eliminated…
Also gone was the tendency for penalty boxes to fill up late in the game, when players who got their first, second, and third minors earlier in the night finally incur their fourth and go to the box. Ally McKill of Steel City spoke for players and fans alike when she said “it’s more intuitive and easier to understand to see a player going to the box immediately after committing a penalty rather than later on, when she has accumulated more penalties.”
“I don’t know if the average derby fan would notice much of a difference,” said Scariett Tubman of River City. She agreed that ECDX fans seemed to love the beta bouts, but they were all players and superfans. “In smaller markets, the average fan doesn’t really understand much more than the person with the star on their helmet scores points.”
The subtleties of the change may be lost on those fans, but I’d say they could still benefit from the lack of a whiteboard and fewer official timeouts, as well as any overall changes in game flow or speed, if those turn out to be real. On the other hand, second-half penalty trouble probably contributes to the excitement toward the end of some games, when a team may be trying to defend a slim lead, or steal one away, with only two or three players on the floor. Balancing out penalty time between the halves of a game may change the dynamics of that situation – for example, it may change our perception of whether a team is good at rallying in the second half.
How the rules changed
Of the six official test bouts, four were public and three of those took place at ECDX, the East Coast Derby Extravaganza in Feasterville, PA in late June. The teams chosen had volunteered to be guinea pigs, and the games were 100% real – as a WFTDA representative told the All Knowing Derbytron, “[public, sanctioned bouts give] an opportunity for us to observe games played with the beta rule set when there is something on the line, as opposed to a friendly scrimmage where the intensity of play may be different than in sanctioned play.”
There’s no guarantee yet that minors will officially be removed, or that, if they are, the ruleset will be the same one used in the tests. WFTDA is currently collecting feedback from teams who participated and hasn’t made any announcements about the results. That said, my impression is that skaters and fans liked the simplicity of the new system and I wouldn’t be surprised to see minors gone from the next official ruleset. I spoke to some skaters who loved it, and some who were ambivalent or said that their team had mixed feelings about it, but nobody outright said that it was a bad idea or that they felt unsafe.
“I pessimistically thought there would be several ejections from all teams and that was just full on incorrect,” said Grim D. Mise from Maine. “It felt like a more aggressive game of roller derby and I liked it. It inspired me to become a super-duper clean skater and it got the gears turning in my head.”
The beta bouts used one particular modified ruleset that WFTDA published before the bouts. It’s not the only way of removing minors from the game, and it definitely didn’t amount to just crossing out the rules dealing with minors. That was a disappointment to one vocal heckler at the River City / Lehigh Valley bout who kept screaming “I wanna see some elbows!”
The modified Section 6 (that would be the section on penalties) is available at wtfda.com/rules with the changes highlighted in red. The new beta rules did downgrade all minor elbows, forearms, low blocks, and back blocks to “no impact/no penalty” status. Majors in those categories are still majors. Meanwhile, other penalties were upgraded – most notably multiplayer blocks, clockwise blocking, and track cuts on a single opponent.
The harsher penalties for clockwise blocks and track cuts may have been why packs seemed to move faster than usual – or perhaps it was adrenaline from the more physical contact allowed. Double Destroyer of Steel City said of gameplay, “There’s a lot less confusion on the floor, believe it or not. You have to be aware of yourself and where you are relative to the pack at ALL times … and it forces you to increase your agility.” Ally McKill agreed: “It was a very fast-paced, hard hitting game. I think the elimination of minors helped contribute to both the fast pace and the hard hits.”
OK, but is it safe?
“I don’t believe the elimination of minors necessarily makes the game any less safe,” said Ally McKill of Steel City. “In fact, since many actions are actually upgraded to majors, I can envision players really making an effort to not take unsafe action they may have been willing to accept a minor for previously.”
The ECDX bouts seemed safe enough, but three bouts – or six – are what a statistician would call a “small sample size.” Would the injury rate skyrocket if the ruleset were adopted by the derby world at large, including newer leagues, or ones with a reputation for playing dirty? Scariett Tubman of River City said, “Our opponents at ECE played with respect, but there are many ways it could get downright ugly.”
Skaters’ skill and experience levels may contribute to how safe or unsafe the rules are. Scariett’s teammate Paris Kills said, “It was a lot grabbier and reminded me of when I first started playing and jamming. It enabled me as a jammer to get through a pack but I could also see how it could be used to hold a player or could cause a pile up that could end up unsafe. It seemed to encourage play that we grew out of as we developed in our skating skills.” Paris also cited the increased forearm contact as one of the hardest things to adjust to in her team’s bout.
“I think skating against newer skaters, just learning how to skate, is a lot more dangerous than a couple elbow and forearm pushes,” said Ol Drrrty Go-Go of Windy City. But she went on to suggest that minors may have a role in keeping the game safe. “I think a good course of action would be for WFTDA to make class A&B leagues … more skilled technical skaters, less injury. Then have the lower class leagues play with minors and majors.”
A lot of players’ safety concerns boiled down to the greater elbow and forearm contact that was allowed under the beta rules. Still, skaters saw positives to eliminating those penalties. Paris Kills of River City said, “Not having to keep track in your head whether or not you chicken winged or ‘was that a minor?’ helped a lot of my players and myself included go for hits and other moves we wouldn’t have any other time.” Her teammate Scariett Tubman saw another positive side to the changes: “I didn’t focus on how they grabbed more, or if I got an extra elbow, I was primarily focused on using it to my advantage.”
Ol Drrrty Go-Go of Windy had a similar thought: “I myself really tried to push the limits of this, like I would stiff arm people and forearm opponents’ chests, wasn’t that the point of the beta test? To see just how ‘dangerous’ it really is. In my mind it was not dangerous at all. I think it just made people’s mental games more tough.”
Lehigh Valley’s Vanilla CreamHer said her team was still trying to keep grabbiness to a minimum. “We enforced in practice that just because you are allowed to do some back blocking and use your hands, doesn’t mean that you should. Most of the time it really doesn’t get you any better position in the game.”
By the letter of the rules, of course, gaining relative position from an illegal block (say, with your hands) still earns a major penalty. The downgraded actions are ones that merely “[force] the receiving skater off-balance, forward, and/or sideways.”
Scariett again: “I think minor elbows are subjective and irritating so I enjoyed seeing them dismissed. I personally enjoy loopholes, I like seeing the strategies that spring from them throughout the season. In the Windy City vs. Charm bout, the exploitation of where the pack can start, behind the jammer line? Sure! Love it.”
On Loopholes & the Windy start
Windy’s infamous start, which they used in just one jam that night, was to line up all of their blockers just behind the jammer line, while Charm’s blockers were between the pivot and jammer line as usual. That meant there was no pack at the start of the jam, and Charm’s skaters had to catch up to the Windy blockers, who were at a standstill most of a lap away, before they could legally engage the jammer.
“The point of beta testing is to expose problems and that is why we did this,” said [Windy co-captain GoGo], noting that the strategy was also possible under regulation rules at the time, so long as you were OK with all four of your blockers getting a minor. WFTDA issued a Rules Publication shortly after ECDX to make that start illegal, effective immediately. Score one for Windy’s strategy of spotlighting a loophole with a high-profile bout.
The strategy hinged on the elimination of the illegal procedure minor (aka false start) for a player being out of position. July’s Rules Publication, while presumably aimed against creative starts that are in use under the current ruleset, also neatly solves the problem of out-of-position blockers under a no-minors ruleset: Instead of just doling out false start minors, the refs are instructed to call off the jam immediately. I, like Scariett, love a good loophole and love watching teams evolve new strategies, but this one could have gotten real weird real fast – imagine one team chasing the other at high speed during the 30 second pre-jam period. It’s a moot point now.
Ally McKill, Steel City: “The overwhelming majority of the feedback I’ve heard from my skaters has been positive. Personally, while I think the no-minors ruleset could still use some tweaks and further beta-testing, I’d love for WFTDA to go this direction.”
Ol’ Drrrty Go-Go, Windy City: “I have been wanting to play derby with no minors for about 2 years, so it was kind of a dream come true!”
Li’l Punisher, Maine: “Overall I enjoyed it but I think there needs to be some stuff smoothed out before implementing it as a permanent ruleset change.”
Vanilla CreamHer, Lehigh Valley: “Our team is split on this issue. Some skaters believe that the minors hold the skaters more accountable for their actions. Others thought it didn’t affect the game other than to simplify things.”
Paris Kills, RCR: “[Our skaters] are split. Some love the freedom of not having to worry about minors but some also worry about the grabbiness.”
Scariett Tubman: “Bottom line – yes it is a good direction. I think it needs to be explored more, perhaps tightened up a bit.”