Monday, October 21, 2019

Skaters, Bench Coaches, and Officials, oh my!

So let me preface a lot of this with the idea that I give a ton of respect to those who put their bodies on the line, who train constantly, who watch and learn and scheme and plot and strategize about derby. I feel like I am, at least, in a small way, very much the same, but with a different design and end-game in mind. So this is all coming from a deep and abiding love for the sport and all participants thereof. So when I make a post like this, and it feels like it's attacking you, keep that baseline assumption in mind--I come from a place of love and community, not of attacking or better-than-thou-ism.

So. That all being said.

I want to see this community flourish. I want to see roller derby become the next great sport. I want to see the grassroots community come up in a way that no other sport has come up before it. And we have the ability to be something special, to be better. So, that's what I'm aiming for with posts like this. But when I see poisonous attitudes, don't I have an ethical impetus to speak out about it? I don't know, maybe I'm wrong. But I needed to vent. The idea is this:

Officials aren't your punching bags.

Let me back up. 

Let me give you a story, and see if you've seen this.

Team A is a higher-ranked team that has been working hard to be technical and controlled. Big hits, but more and more strategic about when to place those hits. How to save energy by pulling punches and being technical when need-be.

Team B is a lower-ranked team that has a long history of being a scrappy team. Big hits, sometimes-wasteful hits. But their strategy is "get under their skin" or "move for chaos' sake" and it seems to be relatively effective, because the moment the opposing team gets frustrated at the uncontrolled nature of the game, they get momentum. Unless the opposing team keeps their head and plays by their own rules; then this team becomes frustrated and does a lot more last-ditch stuff. But they know how to pull their activities so that they're just this close to the line of a penalty (versus no-impact) that they stay under the radar, penalties-wise. Crappy gameplay (from a human-to-human perspective)? Maybe, but while it's illegal, it's not penalty-worthy.

In the game, Team A handles the game. Though they start getting frustrated. Why aren't those penalties being called?

This is where the behavior starts branching. The next step usually determines the outcome and behavior of the game.

If Team A keeps their minds, understands that the officials are watching and looking for events that actually are defined, in the rules, as penalties... And that they're watching for unsafe actions (those who fall severely over the rules, not just those who are "illegal derby behavior that doesn't have impact"). They'll probably keep the spread and control the game.

However, if Team A completely thinks that the officials are throwing the game in the opposite direction, or are ignoring safety concerns, or decide to "take matters into their own hands," that's when the severe stuff starts happening. Generally the Team A is stronger, so the same hits have more impact, therefore the penalties start accruing. The frustration builds, because now not only were the penalties not being called from the weaker, scrappier, arguably-crappier-playing (from the "sporting" angle) team, but now they're getting penalties for the same actions. And the gameplay devolves into screaming at each other, screaming at refs, and now-unsafe gameplay.

This becomes even worse if the bench staff for either (or both) teams are not keeping their benches calm, collected, and rational about the gameplay happening.

Now, you might be thinking--wait, are you thinking of a specific game, Ria? The answer, unfortunately, is no. I can count on two hands the amount of games this could describe, in the last 18 months, and it's giving me a serious crisis-of-faith about the sport. Mainly because of the underlying assumptions that the now-frustrated teams have about the game.

Some Misconceptions

Let me list those misconceptions about the game that I think when we're in the thick of it, we lose sight of

  • Refs don't care about safety: Uhm. No. I don't even know how to respond to this in any way that doesn't make me look like a frothing lunatic. But safety is our number ONE priority. Above the game, above the rules, above anything else, we want everyone to leave the event as well and whole as they came into it. Any time we overlook a interpreted-safety-violation action, it's because we're judging it to be game play that the rules have said is a "reasonable expectation of gameplay" that isn't penalty-worthy. A full-contact game comes with some expectations, and were we to make the game 100% safe at all times, it would require 100% safe skaters playing within the rules (never illegal, not even to touch impact spectrum) and about three times as many penalties. I don't think the game (or skaters) would support that.
  • Refs don't listen to bench coaches or skaters: This is also false. We listen and want to let the game play by the tenor of the two teams playing it, within the rule set both teams agreed to play under. Experienced referees know that (most times) when a bench coach comes in hot, that is the kabuki-dance people play. The bench coaches are there to fight for their team, to be the hot one so the bench can stay calm. We get this. And there is always a nugget of truth to what anyone says, but as "arbiters of the action" and "trying to be as objective as possible" (which is the antithesis of biased officiating), we sometimes have to keep-on-keeping-on during situations of high stress.
  • Refs turn a blind-eye to penalties: This is an understandable thought, but you have to look at it from our perspective. This is a feature of the system, not a bug. We are trained to watch gameplay, watch actions, know the game intimately, and let the skaters skate. When it passes pre-determined thresholds, and we have seen all of it, then we can call it. If any of it breaks down, we can't call it. Even if it was a decidedly-crappy action. We don't make things up, we don't call things we don't see, and we don't just assume things are violations if they can be explained by another, not-illegal action.

Some things to remember

Part of the idea behind officials' behavior can be easily explained by what we're actually doing.

  • There is an impact spectrum: Read the rules. We do actually look for impact to the game--down, out of bounds, out of play, loss of position, severe impact to established position or trajectory. These are explicitly stated in the rules. If it doesn't hit that, we don't call that penalty.
  • The same action doesn't have the same impact: Player A uses a forearm against Player B. Player A doesn't go down, out of bounds, out of play, lose position, or their established trajectory or position wasn't significantly altered. However, Player C hits player D with a forearm that causes them to go down, or out of bounds, or out of play, or lose position, or it significantly alters their established trajectory or position. These are separate outcomes from the same style of action. The first is a illegal/no-impact scenario, which is not a penalty. The second is an illegal/impact scenario, which is a penalty. Unfortunately the reality of the scenario is that sometimes a stronger initiator versus a weaker recipient warrants a different outcome (penalty vs. no penalty) than a weaker initiator versus a stronger recipient.
  • We don't call things we don't see: If we didn't see who initiated the action (which determines its legality), we can't call it. If we didn't see what impact it had (which determines penalty-worthiness), we can't call it. If we can't assume negligence, egregious behavior, or reckless intent, we can't upgrade any penalty to an expulsion. This may have been moved out of the 2017 WFTDA rule set, but it's still core to our mission. Look at the 2015 rules edition and look under "Officiating Discretion." You'll see what I mean.
Additional thoughts:
  • We're here for the same reason: I've banged the "there's no real reason to officiate derby unless you love derby" drum for many, many years now. If we didn't love the sport and want to help it and try to do the job right, we wouldn't be there. There's no "rockstar status" for an official. In fact, considering how much we get berated for "throwing a game" or "letting people beat up on other people without penalties," I'd posit that there's not much reason to try recruiting people (although I do). Why spend the money, and the time, and the effort, to do this thankless job? Why are we here, even? We're here because we love the sport and want to help. Bottom-line. Expect fewer officials if aggressive disrespect is the tenor you want to set.
  • We're just another boundary of the gameplay: Do you yell at the track boundary when you cut? Do you yell at the jammer line when you get a false start? Do you yell at the floor when it's too sticky, too slick, or inconsistent? Sure, a little bit. But they're just boundaries the rules set out for you. Officials are the same thing. In a game, we try to be as consistent to the rules as possible. But just like floors you don't like--and because we're humans--we don't always do it 100%. We don't see everything; we can't see everything. But we try our damnedest. The best teams are able to work on any floor available. The best teams are able to understand the boundary the officials put on the gameplay, and continue to play their game within those bounds. Some commentary and feedback is appropriate; we're all humans and we make mistakes. But at some point, you have to lean in, and play the game, whatever the boundaries are on it.

Some Closing Thoughts

The first and foremost, as I've said in other posts, is that we're human and we need basic respect from both sides. Assuming we're being the bad guys all the time is not a healthy way to play the game. You don't have to like me, but you do have to respect me enough for me to keep coming back. Understand where officials are coming from, and give us the benefit of the doubt when something happens. 

Second being, "it happens in all sports, grow a pair" (outside of the frustration of the gendered-language) is also unhelpful. Isn't roller derby supposed to be about making sports better? How is this better

Third, is that if this behavior doesn't get corrected, the "lack of officials" everyone is feeling, is going to get worse. Then you'll get more frustrated at things not being called, and people not behaving, et cetera. And if we lose too many, where will your games go? Who will be there for them?

On a personal note... This is not coming from a toot-my-own-horn thing, but as I'm finishing season 13 of my officiating career, I've been feeling more and more frustrated. And I've lasted more than most. So if you are taking someone who can and will put up with more and more frustration, and making them not want to continue with this, how can you get a fresh up-and-comer, who is unlikely to have that "thick skin" everyone touts, to stick with the sport long enough to do it in an experienced, calm, dispassionate manner? You won't. 

I try my hardest to be the best ref I can be. I respect what skaters, bench coaches, announcers, photographers, tournament heads, games oversight, and the association all do as part of their goals in this sport. And I'd love to get the same sort of understanding and respect. I try to let the frustration roll off my back--it's a full-contact, adrenaline-fueled sport, after all, right? But there's a point at which it goes way too far, and I think I've seen too much of it recently.

Again I'll say it: Let's be good to one another, ok?