Thursday, October 6, 2011

Slow Derby to No Derby.

A year ago, slow derby was on the rise and the shouting match between the ‘slow derby sucks’ and the ‘it’s just strategy’ crowds began. SDS proponents think derby should be all fast all the time and don’t like any clockwise or slow, stepping action. The pro-strategy group think it is all just part of the game. I’m torn between whether a majority of the strategists really feel that way, or just find themselves feeling defensive. I think I kind of fell into the latter part of that crowd because I felt like derby was mine and anyone who criticized it should just burn in hell.

So let’s review.

In my last slow derby post, the conversation broke down into three main concepts, but the prevailing criticism is about slow or stalled action at the start of a jam that prevents the release of the jammers, and thus scoring points. (The objective of the game.)

The first form of stalled action was after the first whistle blew: team A would move forward slowly or not at all. It might catch team B off guard when they jump off the line, giving A a solid back wall. Then it became about burning time if A had a blocker or jammer in the box. A way to deal with it was for all of B to just skate forward, causing a ten foot separation and no pack; jammer whistle blows. Since this is the beginning of the jam and they are not racing away, there is no penalty given for essentially destructing the pack. B is just setting a speed, whereas A is not really moving.

This counter-action may still eat a few minutes, especially if team A sees it happening and bridges the pack. So in anticipation of a stall, team B can all take a knee BEFORE the pack whistle blows, there will be no pack, and the jammers are realeased right away. Since there was no pack to break at the whistle, and if B resumes standing position right away, there is again no penalty issued.
Bridging 101: Arms do not bridge, refs measure distance from a skater's hips.
During all this stalling and non-skating forward, skaters realized they could skate back towards the jam line before the jammers were released. Now, team B decides A shouldn’t get the back wall every time. When the jam timer declares “5 SECONDS!” all of team B rushes the jammer line and takes a knee. This is usually done if B’s jammer is the only one on the line, so when she is released right away, team A is recovering from the sudden plan change or almost immediately get pushed ten feet out, causing no pack. A will have to stop engaging and the jammer gets to slide right through. It can also be done just to fuck with the other jammer since you’re lining up in her way with an immediate wall.

Team A sees this happen again and again and decides they better line up by the jam line too. If they see B sprint back, they know to go back with them so they don’t get called for no pack so easily. This still takes some scrambling and awareness, so they just beat B to the punch and start the jam back there from the beginning and everyone starts to forget about the pivot line. B sees A at the jammer line and lines up there too. Now we’re back to the stalled starts scenario, only we’re at the jammer line and not the pivot line. Again, a knee can be taken before the whistle to instant-start the jammers, but now they’re unleashed into a mosh pit of blockers.

What if no team takes a knee before the whistle? No one wants to skate forward to break the pack because then they will lose their position. This went on for awhile and everyone stared at each other wondering who was going to make a move first. Born were jams that never were: two whole minutes of skaters standing around as if their skates didn’t exist.

At this year’s Eastern Playoffs, it seemed there was a way to counter-act this stalled jammer line after the whistle. All but one blocker on team B would take a knee and then the last B blocker would casually skate forward until there was no pack. No one is issued a penalty and B still has a strong presence at the back.

At Westerns this counter-strategy didn’t get used and multiple jams went the full 2 minutes without any skating. There were obvious downfalls for each team to not skate, but each also felt strongly enough to stand their ground. Rat knew they couldn’t out skate Rocky, so they ate up time and messed with their heads. So why didn’t Rocky skate? According to some feedback on Derby Deeds, they felt by skating forward they were more likely to get called out of play and that Rat would hold the dominant position at the back.

Do I even need to mention the spiral staircase clarification?

So what’s the problem here? All of the fast, roller derby action is being traded for stopped, roller derby strategy. A year ago, I felt that the kinks would work out and eventually we would all skate again, but instead it got worse. Everyone is still complaining and demanding a rule change, but what should change? My sentiment was to just tell skaters to skate! Don’t get pulled into this stopped strategy by the other team. There seems to be a counter-action for each strategy, it just results in a mosh pit between the jammer and pivot line.

After dealing with this strategy in practices and bouts, and even with trying to move the action forward and counter-act the stalled strategy, I always felt at a disadvantage. Whoever was at the back had the advantage, and I could quickly be called out of play at the front. The most frustrating part is that the other team doesn’t even have to have a goat. It felt like strategy when you had to actively hold an opposing blocker to control the pack, but now they don’t even have to exert themselves to hold the pack slow. How is this fair?

This frustration is outlined in the Windy Man’s post “The Pack Solution.” He completely nails what the problem is with roller derby. It can’t necessarily be fixed with a jam line shot clock, required forward motion or one whistle. The jam might actually get going, but not much else would change. The solution is to not force the skaters to skate but to motivate them to skate. His proposed solution is explained in detail with diagrams and videos and is definitely worth your time to read. It doesn’t go without its own flaws, but it helps you think about roller derby in a different way, or at least it did for me.

In the current strategy style of WFTDA roller derby, you can get away with leisurely skating in a pace line at the back of the pack and that is called offense. You could even have only 2 skaters on the track, what should be a disadvantage, and you can still hold control of the pack. How does this seem fair? I often boast while explaining roller derby to newbs, that "it is a unique sport because we play offense and defense at the same time." We’re losing that strategy and putting stalling and standing in its place. That is the spirit of roller derby that I’m worried about losing. It doesn’t have to be all fast all the time, but I have always enjoyed its complexity and physicality, and we’re losing that.

Roller Derby is broken. The object of the game is for the jammers to lap the pack and score points. Simple enough. When the objective of the game is not being reached because standing around by the jam line is an effective strategy (and it is), something is wrong. When this strategy is used so much that fans don’t even want to watch, something is wrong. (And lets get real, most of our fans right now are die-hard followers or skaters themselves, I’d hate to know what an outsider thinks.)

A lot of people in the derby community get offended by fan criticism because this is “for the skaters by the skaters.” I even fell into this category, but am starting to understand how this whole production works. Matt Faure spells out what he think is wrong with roller derby and it makes sense. “…roller derby is a spectator sport and as such owes a certain degree of responsibility to the people who patronize it.” Yes we own our leagues and run them by democratic principles with a DIY aesthetic and train ourselves... but we also rely on our community to help us grow and improve, and in return we should in the least play roller derby for them.

Just because on some level we need to appease our audience doesn’t mean we have to sell out and put on a variety show for them. Their reaction should just be an indication that something is not making sense and we should address it. It becomes about give and take, and the continual growth of our sport is going rely on us being open to change while maintaining control.

I don’t have any real answers but I hope things change for the better and roller derby continues on its growth spurt across the globe. Now that we have junior leagues popping up, we are becoming responsible for laying the path for these young boys and girls who look up to us. I guess my biggest request is that we all calm down a bit and look closely at the conflict. If you are unhappy with what you see, contact your local league or WFTDA representative. Send in an official rule complaint or change request to WFTDA as they talk about in episode 75 of Derby Deeds. If you feel strongly one way or the other, start a discussion! Write about it. Talk about it. This post was inspired by the growing wealth of words being written on the subject, so please read all the articles I’ve linked. 

Long live roller derby.

My roommate Animal Mother's take on slow derby. "In Defense of Slow Derby"
RDIT: Guest Writer Persephone of Philly Roller Girls "Victory Through Destruction: A Look at Game Play Destroying Strategies"
RDIT article by Quad Almighty. "One Whistle to Rule Them All." 
RDIT article by Mike Chexx. "The Message: Gotham v. Philly at ECDX"
Harrisburg Roller Derby Examiner by Kristie Grey. "Small League, Slow Derby?"


  1. here's an option:

    since the "non skating offense" happens primarily when there is a power play, what if the boxed jammer gets released when the jammer who is still on the track gets her 5 points? It would be similar to hockey, when the power play ends when one team successfully takes advantage of the situation.

  2. Good post. 5 years ago I saw my first derby match and it was awesome and there were 1000 people in attendance. I became a fan and caught every bout I could. However, ove the last few years it's turned into a joke. Last night I went to a derby match and saw nothing but skaters standing on the track motionless. There were maybe 100 people in attendance. Derby is strangling itself.