The Rules Within the Rules: Officiating and You

I’m not good at titles, obviously. You’ll just have to deal with that fact as I continue to write nonsense. This is yet another thing that’s been on my mind a lot recently and something I’ve been ranting at afterparties to my skater and bench coach friends.

So. You’re playing or watching, or whatever, Roller Derby. You think you got a pretty good handle of the rules. You get a penalty. You’re wondering, “What the hell, ref? That’s not a thing!” Well, I’d like to think that it’s less “not a thing,” and more “not what I’m used to being called on.” Whether the call is right or wrong — it’s not what you’re used to hearing. OK.

Sometimes this leads to a blow-up. Screaming on the track. Insubordinations. Bench coaches yelling. Social media posts about how the officiating was so garbage they never want to see those officials again. Ranting that the entire association is garbage, rules-wise, and that they should leave.

So let’s have a little thought experiment.

In this world, imagine skating in a rink without any rules whatsoever, like at an open skate… It’s an empty field.


OK so we deal with the rules of this game. This “Flat Track Roller Derby” world. The written rule set. That’s like having a fence.


That looks pretty good. Everyone agrees that this is how “the game should be played.” The rosters are assembled. The games are sanctioned. Rankings are built on top. Meta is determined by the way these rules are developed. Great! This is pretty standard stuff.

Now imagine the following elements:

  • The gray areas of the rules — as humans are wont to do, they don’t have full coverage written (not a knock at Rules Theory or Application, just the fact that it’s almost impossible to predict all things).
  • Seven humans trying to enforce these rules, just basic humans trying to do their job in this game.
  • Seven humans trying to watch ten people skate in circles, essentially the mixture of entropy and chaos theory together inside the conceit of a full-contact lap skating game.
  • Seven humans trying to remember all 70+ pages of rules, casebook, and meta-game. The strategy. Et cetera.
  • Human beings trying to teach other human beings in an oral tradition, the way those gray areas are supposed to be handled. The history of these rules. The “spirit of the game.” The ideas surrounding “not impacting the game as an official;” instituting mutable concepts like fairness, safety, respect, consistency.

And you’ll see that there’s an invisible fence inside that fence. That’s where the REAL boundaries of the game are.

Imagine the blue is where the rubber meets the road, from a written-to-enforcement standard

OK So. Once you understand that that’s where it is. And given that you’re giving the benefit of the doubt to seven humans who are volunteering to help you run a game, what is your first reaction?

Well, if you’re a bench coach or high-level skater, the idea is: How do we game this boundary?


This isn’t a problem — that’s the way all sports go. Every single sport or game I’ve ever seen, there’s an element where “the core of the game” (full-contact lap skating) is just as important as “getting away with as much as possible.” Sometimes it’s considered meta-gaming. Our nerd friends call it min-maxing. That’s fine. That’s the way we do it, as humans. We test boundaries, we see what we can get away with.

As an official, this is something I’ve accepted as part of the job.

However, that mixed with the variability of the “invisible fence” leads to some very confused people. “Why is that an insub? I got off the track!” — well, you got off after skating almost a half lap. “Why is that a forearm?” — well, I saw you impede another skater from being able to block, with your forearm. And let’s not start with the impact-versus-initiation thought (where the same action may not be a penalty depending on who’s receiving the action).

And when you’d rather be playing (as I’d imagine everyone does), being pulled to the penalty box when you didn’t mean to do something wrong… When you’re putting your body on the line… And your team is counting on you… And your adrenaline is running high… And when you’re not used to that particular action being called as a penalty…

Well, I’m assuming that’s the core part of the reason why people get so frustrated.

And I get it. I understand.

But what should we do to lessen this? Well, I think cooler heads can prevail. I think we should keep some things in mind, perhaps, when we think about the relationship between skater and official:

  • The rules were developed in order for two teams to be playing the same game.
  • Officials are there to enforce the rules so that the two teams are playing the same game — that they agreed to.
  • Officials generally don’t go into this thinking that they want to impact the game one way or the other. They just want to enforce the rules as written, and as understood.
  • Officials may have slightly different metrics for different things. That’s where all those bullet points I mentioned before cause that “invisible fence.” Should it be that way? Probably not, but it is.
  • Sometimes officials get used to seeing certain things versus other things and their observational scope isn’t as all-encompassing as possible. Think about the meta of the game in different regions. Northeast USA doesn’t play the same as South USA doesn’t play the same as Northwest USA. If we don’t get a lot of exposure we don’t keep that in mind.
  • The meta of the game is changing with rules changes, JRDA skaters ageing out, MRDA changing the physicality of the game… And some of that stuff is going to change the way it’s played, the way it’s officiated, and the way it’s gamed. That invisible fence isn’t just changed by officials.

Sometimes, just sometimes, we should go back to that whole full contact lap skating thing. And maybe remember that orange fence from the picture above? That’s a perfect world. And we don’t live in a perfect world.

The best players and coaches of any sport realize that there’s that invisible fence. That the game must be played within that boundary, not just the one that “should” be there. The one that is there. Some bench coaches come up to me and ask me why a thing is X versus Y because they’re trying to get the lay of the land — to know where that invisible fence is. To make it so that they get back to the full-contact lap skating. That they know how to game the system that’s in play, not just the one that should be in play.

Anyway, for what it’s worth… I will always strive to do my best to have my “invisible fence” be the “visible fence,” but it won’t always be. I’ll do my best to make it right, make it transparent what I’m doing, and apologize and do better when I screw up. But in that same vein of “I’m doing my best to officiate in a respectful, fair, safe manner,” maybe we can start giving officials the benefit of the doubt?

That they’re doing their best?

And that they’re trying to help?

And that they’re also trying to make the invisible fence the visible fence?

I mean, maybe keeping that idea in the back of your mind might help that huge blow-up response from being as huge-and-blow-up-ey?

I mean, maybe. What do I know, I’m just a ref.

Thanks for reading my words and potentially considering them.