Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Worst Parade Ever

This next blog is by request.

All refs are dumb, blind, liars and biased, right?
In sports, the players get all the glory and refs get all the ridicule. Athletes train to learn the rules and perfect their skill in order to play a fair and safe game, and the refs are there to help ensure that that happens.

Roller derby is of course, a unique sport. (how many times can I say that?) The athletes are amateur, the officials are volunteers and most of an audience for a bout is relatively new to the game. It’s safe to say that not every bout is pretty, especially non-WFTDA sanctioned bouts. For newer leagues, most are lucky if they can find someone to learn the rules and join their league to ref, and even luckier if they can find multiple people interested in reffing.

As I’ve also said before, derby is newest in the Midwest. There have been about five new leagues on the scene in the past couple years; lots of freshly tenderized meat. Of most of these leagues I have seen few with more than one or two regular refs attached to their team. It shows in their playing because they don’t have that constant eye on them at practice to help evolve their game. Newer skaters are going to be sloppy already, but if they aren’t getting the feedback of a ref at home, game day becomes a real eye opener for them. 

I think our league has developed so fast because we can boast a large ref crew. If you check our brand spanking new website, we have 11 zebras listed in our herd. That is more than enough to ref a bout, meaning that we have a full ref crew at almost every practice. From the time our league began, we also had close ties to certified refs which gave us good roots from which our league could grow. Howie Swerve, a level 2 ref, comes around from time to time to help mold our refs and to make sure everyone is on the same page. The Gorram Reaver, also a level 2, has worked with us multiple times and provided us with VERY thorough discussions. Some of our refs have attended the recent officiating clinics to further their knowledge of the rules. I am not a ref, nor a certified WFTDA member, but I feel confident in saying that we have a very good ref crew at our disposal. The lack of refs in the Midwest has also led to a plethora of reffing opportunities for them across a range of skill levels.
The Gorram Reaver is a tough ref, and I may not always like her during a bout, but that's because she's doing her job.
This weekend I was told that I should blog about how one ref was a cocksucker. I don’t find this as an indication of bad reffing, I actually find it quite the opposite. When I hear people complain about the officiating at a bout, I ask them why they thought it was so bad. The response is usually that they made bad calls or they “only called elbows on such&such team and didn’t call ANY on so&so team.” Well… maybe such&such team was throwing a lot more elbows that so&so team? I find that latter complaint usually about teams that are playing on a fresher level. A penalty on a newer skater is going to look a lot different than a penalty on an experienced skater. I might come up behind an all-star skater and run into her back, but she is a strong player so she doesn’t fall down. That is a minor. I do the same on a fresh meat skater, and she might fall down making it a major.

I hear these accusations and usually just step back because it’s not my sandbox. I have a pretty decent understanding of the rules because I make sure I understand them completely when I get called for something. I’ve toyed with the idea of even trying out reffing, to get a better understanding of the rules, but just watching in practice it looks extremely tough to judge impact and intention of action on the track.

Saturday night I got a bit of a peek into officiating from the middle of a zebra pack. I helped jam time at the Your Mom bout in Des Moines against the St. Louis Gatekeepers. I had jam timed for Your Mom once before in a relatively closed interleague scrimmage, but working at a bout with an audience is a whole different experience. The crowd can be vicious and distracting. I fumbled with the whistle a few times in the first half because the roar of the crowd was so overwhelming.

Jam timing is an interesting job, and very systematic. Everything I do is according to a clock: jam time, period time, in-between jam time, time outs, etc. I also have to respond to a few certain ref calls. Jams run two minutes long unless the jammer calls it off. The jammer signals this to the ref, the ref calls the jam, I stop the clock, start 30 seconds until the next jam, which I give a five second warning and then start the pack. The next whistle, per the rules, sounds when the last pack skater crosses the line. Simple enough, right? Well with all the new pack strategy off the line, it gets a little more complicated.

If the black team decides to take a knee, I sound the first whistle to start the jam, and then I must wait for the refs to call no pack, in which I immediately release the jammers. If not everyone takes a knee before the first whistle then a pack would still exist and I must be cognizant to only respond to the call of the refs. It’s a little tricky and takes a lot of focus and attention, and once I pushed the yells of the crowd out of my head it all became much smoother.

My job is not much different than a ref. A wise ref by the name of Umpire Strikes Back once said that a ref “describes what the skaters are doing, they do not prescribe.” Meaning, they take in all of the information that lies before them and respond with an appropriate call. There are also different ref positions that are responsible for making certain calls. A jam ref may see a pack skater commit a penalty, but they are relying on their pack refs to call it because they must remain completely focused on their jammer. (What jammer likes it when they call off a jam but get too much lag time from their ref because they were not making eye contact?) There is a very specific flow to how a ref crew works a bout, and experienced and certified refs have it down pretty well.

There's a difference between team douchebag
and just being a douchebag. Hellarad knows.
I’ve listened in on enough zebra chat to know that most refs have little emotion tied to bouts. They call the penalties they see and they see the penalties they call. There is a check and balance system amongst them, as the outside pack refs call into the inside pack refs to acknowledge that was indeed a track cut or a no pass/no penalty, etc. The jam refs have lots of communication as to whether their jammer got lead or lap points. It’s amazing to experience a ref crew up close and personal and to see the action from the infield of a track.

To hear some of the nasty comments this past weekend was just baffling to me. When they are only booing the calls against their league and only cheering for the calls against the opposing league, they lose credibility when they approach a ref after the bout to claim that they were the worst fucking ref they had ever seen.

Like I said I am not a ref, but from my experience and all the information I gathered through my position on the track, the refs called what they saw, and saw what they called, and a crowd claming differently is going to have no impact on the game. If you disagree, I would like to see you put on some stripes and do a better job. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of how a game goes or what they think of the officiating, whether it’s an educated opinion is a different story. Either way, it is just plain rude to mouth off to a ref in this sport since they are all here voluntarily, and without them our game would never improve. 

Your Mom vs Gatekeepers Pictures by  Maharry Photography


  1. Refs are critical to what we do as skaters. I play in a recreational league, and as such, we don't have our very own refs. We are fortunate enough that the ladies and gentlemen from UDOG (Utah Derby Officials Group) are willing to come out and ref our scrimmages for us. The first time we had a full crew, it was like a whole new world opened up for us. Many of the ladies hadn't even read fully through the rules, let alone made time to understand them. I have decided that I will be training as a referee as soon as my skating skills are up to the challenge. The folks from UDOG are kind enough to take me on once I'm ready. I can't wait for this next step of learning in the sport I love so much!

  2. Your blog is wonderful. As a ref I will say you can't see everything and you can't please everyone. I too was at the bout last weekend and I might not have made some of the same calls. How ever men's derby is sooo fast paced people just don't understand. As ref we watch 100 things going on simultaneously and have to make split second decisions on what we are observing. "If you don't like the way we do it PUT ON SOME SKATES" is the motto I stick with.Thank you for sharing your incite.

  3. thank you for a wonderful post. I'm sharing this with my league.