Published on October 7th, 2011 | by Curtis E. Lay1
Curtis E Lay by Jules Doyle
You Suck, Ref!
I am watching a bout at the 2011 WFTDA East Region Playoffs. From my high vantage point, I can see the front pack ref blow call after call. “You are freaking HORRIBLE,” I roar. Another jam, another bad 20-foot call, this one issued at about 17 feet (as opposed to the previous jam, when he issued it at around 31 feet). He is maybe getting some of the interior, chippy stuff right that I can’t see from up high, but…blaarggh, another bad call. I am seething. “You suck, ref.”
Full disclosure: the ref I’m berating is actually myself. I am reviewing DVD footage of bouts I worked, in search of ways to improve after what I know was not my best weekend. The bird’s eye view from the camera well is giving me plenty to think about. As I watch myself repeatedly screw the bed or shit the pooch or whatever, I’m reminded abundantly of what I’ve known all along: officiating modern roller derby is hard.
As I am refereeing each of this year’s Big 5 tournaments, this thought has reared its head often of late. In fact, at Easterns I went out for lunch with two other experienced, highly decorated refs. One of them, a friend who is not at all prone to hyperbole, proposed that modern roller derby may be the most difficult sport in the world to referee.
It’s a metaphysical debate, I suppose; like trying to sanely argue that a polar bear could beat up a tiger or that it’s harder to play the oboe than the French horn. (What, you never had that debate? Loser.) Few of us have ever officiated another sport at a high level, or even a low level, and we probably never will. All the same, my friend backed up his statement with some indisputable facts that derby crews face. Let’s scroll through a few of the big ones.
1. The worst seat in the house
Friends often tell me I have “the best seat in the house.” Right. A fan booing me from the stands can see most of the track without turning his irate, reddening face. I can see a small patch of the track, and my eyes must zoom in and out on the skaters who occupy it. I often must look away to other patches of track or to make eye contact with another official. There is no panoramic perspective, and something is always happening in a direction that you’re not looking.
Other sports rely on distances, typically fixed and demarcated by hash marks, blue lines, bases, three-point lines, and so on. Distances are rarely relative, with a few exceptions like off-sides in soccer. In derby? A referee, in motion, might be trying to reasonably judge that a player in motion is less than 20 feet in front of another player in motion who is less than 10 feet in front of another player in motion who is less than 10 feet in front of a cluster of players who are all in motion. Just writing that made me throw up a little in the back of my mouth.
3. The show must go on
Baseball plods and football marches, one play at a time. Free-flowing sports like hockey, soccer or basketball come to a halt when an infraction occurs. At that point, a single official reports the violation to everyone watching. In derby, however, refs keep the game moving while typhoons of penalties pelt the NSOs from every direction. Jams are rarely called for penalties, but a misfire in penalty communication can stop a bout in its tracks and eat away at the patience of a fan base. Officials take this responsibility very, very seriously.
(Fun aside: Every league should have a hot dog company sponsor their bouts, so that during long ref huddles, the announcer could say, “This sausage-fest is brought to you by…”)
4. Information overload
Fortunately we work in teams of up to seven refs and perhaps a dozen or more NSOs—bright, dedicated, and exceptionally talented people, instantly processing massive amounts of information. Our jobs require mind-reading and precise communication, and one loose thread can make it unravel. At tournaments, we often team with officials we just met a few hours earlier. When it works, it’s an amazing feeling. When it doesn’t work, it’s obvious to the whole building.
5. Rapid evolution
The modern game is young, and changing before our eyes. Many of the tactics that you sneaky rollergirls use to outwit your opponents are, by definition, very hard to officiate. The combinations of strategy, speed, athleticism, ferocity and sheer randomness that you put on the floor are growing more limitless by the minute, if that makes any sense. We have no option but to adapt as quickly as you do.
Add a few other key elements (skating ability, potential for injury, reams of tribal knowledge not found in the rule book, etc.), and we certainly have a unique and formidable challenge before us.
“Modern roller derby is the most difficult sport to officiate” is a statement that probably cannot be tested. Still, it is worth thinking about. Not as an appeal for sympathy, nor as an appeal to change the system, nor as leverage when disputing a questionable call. It encourages, I hope, an honest and fair reckoning of what officials have decided to take on in lieu of sitting in the stands.
The inherent difficulty certainly doesn’t make us any less accountable for working our asses off to be as good as we are able. The sport we love, and the players that we so respect and admire, deserve at least that much.
Back on my television screen, the little image of me whirrs around the track, watching a blocker chase a jammer toward the front of the engagement zone. The little me cranes his neck around and raises the “out of play” warning hand, like a scythe. I hit “pause”…the little frozen people are about 15 feet in front of the pack.
You suck, ref.
Perhaps. But I guess it’s all relative.