Do you understand what it takes for a jammer to score a point on another jammer in roller derby?
Okay, but do you really understand? Like… fully understand? Are you sure?
If you answered, “Yes,” there is a good chance you are lying, but it’s not your fault. I don’t mean to open up this way-too-long article by insulting you, but I certainly do not want to bury the lede.
Jammer Lap Points and Jammer Not On The Track (NOTT) Points — which I’ll refer to collectively as “Jammer Points” throughout this article (as opposed to “Blocker Points”)— are not only widely misunderstood, they are inconsistently scored by officials, and no one really notices these mistakes when they happen. These should be good enough reasons to get them out of roller derby.
I posted about this at greater length on the private WFTDA forums in early 2017, unfortunately in the immediate aftermath of a rules update when not a lot could be done. As we get further from the last rules release and conceivably approach a time when we could see leagues voting on rules changes, I thought now would be a good time to try to convince even more people Jammer Points are dumb. So let’s go.
Laying Out the Issue
The rules for scoring a Jammer Lap Point (JLP) can be boiled down to two key points:
- If Jammer A passes Jammer B twice in a row, Jammer A gets a JLP. (The first time A passes B, A is earning “lapping position.” See Rule 3.1.)
- If Jammer B goes to the penalty box, Jammer A must pass Jammer B twice in a row upon Jammer B’s return to the track to get a new JLP; the first pass upon return will not be a JLP, but just A earning “lapping position.” (See Rule 3.4.)
Let’s take a quick look at other sports’ methods of scoring:
- Soccer (Football) and Hockey: player puts the ball/puck in the goal
- Baseball and Cricket: player runs to a certain place and/or hits the ball over a fence
- Basketball: player puts ball in the basket
- American Football¹ and Rugby: player carries ball over end line or kicks ball through uprights
In some cases, the number of points one receives for these actions may vary depending on context (e.g. foul shots in basketball, extra points after touchdowns in American football), but in all cases, one could turn on a television right as these events are happening and know that points are being scored at that moment.
This makes roller derby Jammer Lap Point² scoring different. If we turn on WFTDA.tv and immediately see a jammer pass the other jammer, we do not know if that is a point or not. We need other pieces of information:
- Which jammer was the most recent to pass the other one? (Who has lapping position?)
- Has one jammer been to the penalty box since the last time they passed one another?
So while scoring in other sports is a single event that does not require much context, Jammer Lap Points require knowledge of two separate events (and some of what happened in between) to know if scoring has taken place. For a spectator, memory of the first event occurring (a jammer earning lapping position) can be hazy if it has been a long time since it happened. Perhaps one did not even notice the first event happened at all, so they are not equipped to identify the second event as being worthy of a point. That first event is often pretty mundane, so it may not stick out in the viewer’s mind as being worthy of remembering.
Jammer Lap Points require knowledge of two separate events.
Click this link for a video example illustrating how hard the dual-event nature of the Jammer Lap Point can be for a spectator.
When the video starts, the red jammer (Red) is in the penalty box. Red comes out the box behind the purple jammer (Purple) as Purple finishes a scoring trip. Red finishes their initial trip right behind Purple. Neither jammer has lapping position at this point.
The video then switches to a different camera angle that puts the jammers out of frame.
Purple and Red come into frame at 0:59 left in the jam with Purple ahead. They remain ahead the whole time. Purple finishes their scoring trip to earn 4 points while Red gets held up.
Their next time around, Purple passes Red with 0:44 left in the jam. Should this be a point for lapping the other jammer? We spectators cannot possibly know! It depends on what happened when they were both off-screen during the [SCENE MISSING].
We have two possibilities for what happened when the jammers were off-screen:
- Red passed Purple, and then Purple passed Red, giving Purple lapping position when they come into frame at 0:59.
- Purple remained in front of Red, meaning when they come into frame, no jammer has passed the other since Red came out of the box.
If #1 is true, when Purple passes Red at 0:44, this is the second time in a row, giving Purple a Jammer Lap Point.
If #2 is true, when Purple passes Red at 0:44, this is the first time a jammer has passed the other since Red came out of the box, so no Jammer Lap Point is earned.
Because we did not get to see this mundane event happen when the jammers were off-screen, we cannot know if the pass at 0:44 is a point or not.
Tracking when a jammer will be scoring a Jammer Lap Point is very hard if you have any desire to pay attention to anything else.
Now think about all the other things that we are paying attention to when we watch roller derby. Blockers are doing cool things. Skaters are being knocked to the ground. Penalties are being committed. Dozens of things are happening on the track. If we are paying attention to anything else going on in the game, we end up with a lot of potential [SCENE MISSING]s in our memory.
Spectators Are Kinda Crappy at Tracking Jammer Points
The dual-event nature of Jammer Lap Points makes the sport’s scoring fairly inaccessible to someone watching. Even if they have mastered the scoring rules, tracking when a jammer will be scoring a JLP is very hard if you have any desire to pay attention to anything else.
To try to figure out how well the community does at tracking JLPs, I distributed a survey/quiz on Jammer Lap Points that was taken by various members of the roller derby community in December 2016. I could not share this survey too widely out of fear some might discuss their answers openly and ruin the integrity of the data collected; I instead got in touch with individuals at various WFTDA leagues to share it internally and ask that people not talk with one another about their answers. The lack of controlled environment, among other things, makes this survey rather unscientific, but it is interesting to look at the results.
Note: In summarizing these mistakes, I am not looking to disparage any group or individual.
The survey showed a video of a single jam and asked the respondent to watch it once and identify how many Jammer Lap Points each jammer scored during the jam. After they submitted the answers to those questions, I gave them the option of watching the video as many times as they liked before answering the questions again. The respondents did not know whether or not their first set of answers was correct when answering the second set. Some chose to not watch the video again or answer the second set of questions.
How did the respondents do? We will look at how well they fared on their first viewing/submitted answers, and then break out those who were incorrect the first time and opted to watch the video more to answer the second set of questions.
We can drill down a little deeper to see how various groups did. Let’s first take a look at the results of everyone who identified themselves as a Skater primarily for a WFTDA league’s All-Star Team³:
Only 2 of the 56 respondents identifying themselves as All-Star skaters got this correct the first time, and none of them who took a second attempt at it got it correct. (If you are wondering who these “All-Star skaters” are, they come from a wide variety of teams. I made an effort to include those at the top of our sport: we got 22 skaters from teams that went to Champs in 2016, and 44 of them were from teams that went to some sort of 2016 Playoff tournament. You can see a list if you click through to the data visualization.)
How about those who identified themselves as certified referees³?
While better than the group as a whole, it is telling that certified referees, even when given unlimited time and viewings of the jam, were not getting it correct 100% of the time.
How about every respondent who was NOT a certified referee³?
When they filled out the survey, I asked respondents to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 on how well they felt they understood rules for jammers scoring on jammers, with 1 being “I barely understand” and 5 being “I am a master.” Let’s take a look at those who rated themselves as either 4 or 5 on how well they understood rules for JLPs.
Even those who believe they understand the rules well are not getting it right with any regularity.
It takes far too much focus for a spectator to know if a jammer is scoring a point when they pass the opposing jammer.
If we look at the distribution of the answers chosen, we don’t see incorrect respondents all falling on a single wrong answer. They are scattered.
While this survey is unscientific, it does provide some small amount of evidence for two things: (a) many stakeholders do not understand the rules for jammers scoring on other jammers, and/or (b) even to someone with a bird’s-eye-view of the track and an unlimited number of opportunities to watch a jam unfold, Jammer Lap Points are very complicated for a viewer to track. As I talked about earlier, it takes far too much focus for a spectator to know if a jammer is scoring a point when they pass the opposing jammer.
(How did you do when you watched the video? Answers are below.⁴)
Where does that leave us? We must rely entirely on the Jammer Referees to get Jammer Lap Points right without a great way to consistently check them on it. Unfortunately, Jammer Referees are too often getting it wrong in real game situations.
Referees Are Kinda Crappy at Tracking Jammer Points
Jammer referees (JRs) are the officials tasked with tracking jammers and awarding points. While they are getting it mostly correct, mistakes are being made: JRs are missing Jammer Points when they are deserved, and they are awarding Jammer Points when they are not earned.
Every referee makes plenty of mistakes. The roller derby community seems to have accepted the human element of officiating that leads to errors related to, say, not seeing a low-block or calling a cut whenthe skater was just behind that other one when re-entering. The good referees do what they can to reduce the chance these mistakes happen.
So if to officiate is to err, why am I focusing on Jammer Points? These mistakes are not a result of looking at the wrong thing or having a bad angle on some action: it is most often pretty obvious the jammer passed the hips of the other jammer. (While video is often inconclusive with, say, potential missed Cutting the Track calls, we can often explicitly identify when a Jammer Point has been missed or erroneously awarded.) When one jammer is passing the other, JRs too often are mixing up if this pass should earn them a Jammer Point or not. The mistakes are a result of the JR not knowing where the other jammer is or some failure in either memory (think about the [SCENE MISSING] from earlier) or official-to-official communication.
Moreover, every player/coach/fan will complain about bad low-block calls or missed back-block calls. I never really hear much complaining about Jammer Points being awarded incorrectly. As far as I can tell, there was a single Official Review used in the 118 games at 2016 Playoffs/Champs to challenge the awarding of a Jammer (NOTT) Point, and that point had been awarded correctly during the jam. I can understand teams would not want to burn an official review on what amounts to a single point, but even an anecdotal lack of complaints relative to the number of errors occurring is an indication to me that it is difficult for a spectator to notice these errors if they are paying attention to anything else in the jam.
Why It’s So Hard for Jammer Referees
Have you ever seen the video in which you are supposed to count the number of passes of a basketball the white team makes?
This is a great demonstration of what it is like to count Jammer Points. Tracking basketball passes is like tracking a jammer passing blockers when you are a JR, and noticing the moonwalking bear is like noticing the other team’s jammer. If you know to look for it ahead of time, you can figure out a way to divide your mind between counting those basketball passes and noticing the moonwalking bear.
As a JR, one needs to both visually follow the basketball (the assigned jammer) and mentally follow the moonwalking bear (the other jammer). To add to the complexity, the moonwalking bear is rarely in a JR’s field of vision on the track. If you do not know where the moonwalking bear is at all times, there is a solid chance you are messing up Jammer Points. This includes both noticing the physical passing of the moonwalking bear and knowing if the moonwalking bear is in (or has returned from) the penalty box.
And to be fair, counting basketball passes is significantly easier than all the things one must track as a JR. It would be more appropriate to say a JR is counting the number of basketball passes, ensuring the person holding the ball is not fouling anyone, ensuring the person holding the ball is not being fouled, identifying who has not yet held the ball, etc. So even if one knows the moonwalking bear is there, how well can that JR identify the moment the person holding the ball moves past the bear without sacrificing one of those other tasks?
And knowing the location of the moonwalking bear is only a portion of tracking Jammer Points! You also need to know whether your jammer or the other jammer (or neither) has lapping position to know if the next pass of a jammer will be a Jammer Lap Point or not. As I laid out earlier, this can prove difficult even if that is the only thing we need to watch.
Jammer Referees are tasked with tracking and scoring two independent games at once.
The opposing jammer moonwalks around the track independent of the group of blockers, and each scoring trip for a jammer may or may not encounter the opposing jammer. When it comes down to it, Jammer Referees are tasked with tracking and scoring two independent games at once: the lapping of opposing blockers and the lapping of the opposing jammer. (A dependency comes into play only when the opposing jammer moonwalks to the box, and that is information a JR needs communicated from someone else). The limitations of the human mind with respect to both awareness and memory make it rather difficult to mentally store of all the necessary information for both independent games, thus leading to errors in scoring.
Video Evidence: How We Know Errors Are Happening
To confirm these errors are happening, we went to the best place for evidence: video from WFTDA.tv. Game footage was reviewed from all 118 games at the WFTDA’s Playoff/Championship Tournaments from 2016, and each identified mistake with Jammer Points was recorded.⁵
Note: As I summarize the mistakes of individuals or groups, I am not looking to disparage them.
In the 118 games at 2016 Playoffs/Champs, 191 mistakes with Jammer Points were recorded, though 61 were corrected after the jam. Why do I count it as an error if it was eventually corrected? The scoreboard showed the incorrect score for at least some time. In the last jam of close games, the score being 100% accurate all the time absolutely matters for the lead jammer to know when it is appropriate to call the jam.
Within the 118 games, 87 games (73.7%) had at least one error (corrected or uncorrected), leaving 31 games (26.3%) error-free.
71 games (60.2%) had at least one uncorrected error.
Who are the referees messing this up? It’s everyone. If you are ever a JR, I would wager you made a mistake with Jammer Points in a recent game.
Across the 7 tournaments in 2016, there were 21 pairs of JRs, and each pair made at least one uncorrected mistake. Most pairs made a lot more than one uncorrected mistake. I attribute a mistake to a pair instead of a single JR because it is up to both of them to communicate properly with each other to get Jammer Points correct. A lot of errors can be chalked up to lack of good communication.
Each column in this chart represents the number of mistakes a Jammer Referee pair made during a tournament. (Please note some pairs got 5 games while others got 6 games; in order to keep some level of anonymity, I am leaving out that information.)
The good news is it is rare for these to actually have an effect on a game’s outcome: games generally do not end with a close enough score for a few Jammer Point mistakes to make a difference. There were 14 games out of 118 that were decided by a margin of 1–4 points. Each column in this graph represents one of those 14 games and shows the number of Jammer Point mistakes during that game.
It is hard to say which officiating mistakes throughout a game make a team win or lose. If a Jammer Point is missed in the first jam of a game and that team goes on to lose by 1 point, was that miss really the cause of that loss? There were so many other things that happened in between that miss and the final whistle (maybe even missed Jammer Points for the other team!), and there is a very good chance a lead jammer called off the final jam by looking at the scoreboard and seeing they were in front by 1 point; had it been tied, they would have kept going and called it off later.
Jammer Point mistakes can happen in the final jam, though. If the scoreboard shows a team is up by 1 point and that jammer calls off the jam, it would be terrible for a Jammer Referee to realize there was a mistake in that jam and the score is actually tied. While it is not a likely thing to happen, it can happen, and on a long enough timeline, it will happen.
And if we are seeing these mistakes from the referees supposedly at the top of the sport at WFTDA Playoffs and Champs, what are we seeing from referees elsewhere?
They Need to Go
Just to sum things up for those that scrolled all the way here:
a. The rules for scoring Jammer Points, while simple in description, are quite complex in practice. While every serious sport has a long, complex rule set, how many are so cryptic that seasoned viewers can’t tell whether or not a point was just scored?
b. Referees are messing them up. Errors are occurring consistently even at the highest levels of officiating, but they have gone largely unnoticed up to this point.
c. Spectators and teams will never notice these errors unless they devote an inordinate amount of attention to just Jammer Points.
A lot of people around the community have said they wish Jammer Points were simpler to score, but it is not possible to simplify them further while keeping the same core principles. However we adjust the rules for Jammer Points, we are still expecting referees and spectators to always know where both jammers are relative to one another if they can hope to know when Jammer Points occur. This makes scoring confusing and the sport less accessible than it should be.
So if you find yourself in a position to make a decision on whether or not to keep Jammer Points in the rules, ask yourself this: how important to you are Jammer Points if you can’t even track them?
1. American Football can have some very strange scoring, namely the one-point safety after a touchdown. This is such a rare occurrence, though, the referee in this situation had to explain the rule to spectators.
2. I understand scoring on blockers is also a two-event thing, but once a jammer’s initial trip through the pack is completed, all we have to remember is “the jammer is now eligible to score on blockers.” Outside of very rare circumstances involving a jammer being pulled down a lap (“eating the baby”), that cannot really change the rest of the jam. Furthermore, lapping position on blockers does not reset when either a jammer or a blocker goes to the penalty box.
3. I asked survey takers to identify themselves using the following list, potentially selecting multiple options: Skater primarily for All-Star Team, B-Team Skater, or C-Team/Home Team Skater; Coach primarily for All-Star Team, B-Team Coach, or C-Team/Home Team Coach; Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, Level 5, or Uncertified (but active) Referee; Level 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 Certified or Uncertified (but active) NSO; Announcer; Other Volunteer; or Fan. Someone could, for example, identify as both a B-Team Skater and a Level 3 Certified NSO.
4. Solution to survey: Black gets 3 JLPs and White gets 2 JLPs.
2:00 left in jam — jam starts
1:57 — BLACK jammer gets in front of WHITE jammer, gaining LAPPING POSITION
1:34 — BLACK passes WHITE, earning a JAMMER LAP POINT and maintaining their lapping position; they soon complete their first scoring trip, earning 5 points
1:20 — BLACK almost passes WHITE, but gets knocked out of bounds before they can do it; no JLP earned yet
1:12 — BLACK passes WHITE, earning their second JAMMER LAP POINT; they maintain their lapping position
1:09 — WHITE passes BLACK, meaning WHITE IS NOW IN LAPPING POSITION
1:01 — WHITE passes BLACK, earning their first JAMMER LAP POINT
0:52 — BLACK passes WHITE, gaining LAPPING POSITION; they soon complete their second scoring trip, and because they still has that JLP gained at 1:12, they earn 5 points for the trip
0:44 — BLACK passes WHITE, earning their third JAMMER LAP POINT; they maintain their lapping position
0:34 — WHITE passes BLACK, gaining LAPPING POSITION; they soon complete their first scoring cycle, and because they still have that jammer lap point gained at 1:01, they earn 5 points for the trip
0:02 — WHITE passes BLACK, earning their second JAMMER LAP POINT
0:00 — jam ends
5. The errors were identified by careful viewing of available game tape — sometimes using the Stats Repo (https://stats-repo.wftda.com) to verify what was ultimately recorded on a given scoring trip — and are only reflective of errors that I have a high level of certainty did occur. I acknowledge the possibility some errors were missed, though I am confident we have recorded the vast majority of those made explicit by the WFTDA.tv camera angles. There are several instances of a jam ending as a jammer is scoring within a large group of blockers: if a Jammer Referee holds up 3 points, there is no way for us to know if that is for 3 blockers or 2 blockers + 1 jammer without being able to know which blockers the Jammer Referee thought the jammer passed.
In some cases, a JR might miss a Jammer Point on one scoring trip and then independently award an erroneous Jammer Point on a different scoring trip in the same jam; I counted both as “corrected” mistakes, as the score was ultimately accurate.
I must acknowledge there may very well be cases when a JR held up the appropriate number of points but the scorekeeper recorded it incorrectly. Within the video, we do often have either the JR’s hand within frame or an announcer saying the number of points being awarded by looking at the JR’s hand before the points go up on the scoreboard, so this acted as a confirmation of JR errors in most cases. Moreover, this type of scorekeeper error at the playoff level is extremely rare in my own experiences as a JR, and a JR is often using the scoreboard after a jam to confirm the appropriate number of points went up in the previous jam. Ultimately, my assumption is the error lies with the Jammer Referees.
6. Here is a link to all the data visualizations on Jammer Point errors at 2016 WFTDA Playoffs/Champs: https://public.tableau.com/profile/adamcz#!/vizhome/JammerLapPoints/Story