Officiating Curtis E Lay by Jules Doyle

Published on May 3rd, 2012 | by Curtis E. Lay


Curtis E Lay by Jules Doyle

You Suck, Ref! Part 3: Where’s the F@#%ing Call?

Read You Suck, Ref! Part 1, or Part 2.

A nearly universal complaint about roller derby is the difficulty of providing real-time explanations of calls and no-calls to skaters, coaches and fans. Whether it moves at the speed of light or the speed of rubber cement, a bout accumulates reams of penalties, many of which are subtle and baffling. Just as baffling, a bout racks up a fair number of actions that sure look like penalties, but don’t get called.

Apart from the “no pass/no penalty” hand signal, which looks rather like a lame disco dance move (hey wait, so do all of the hand signals!), there is no way for a referee to indicate why no penalty was called on a play. When an action has every appearance of being illegal, but yields no penalty call, it leaves many to wonder—or yell—“Where’s the F@#%ing Call?”

One convenient answer to the call’s whereabouts is that the ref sucks. That’s frustrating for refs, but we grow thick skin. More frustrating is that ideally, we’d have a quick, easy way to explain why no call was made. But we don’t, which breeds yet more frustration—for skaters wondering if the rules are being applied evenly, and for fans who don’t understand what’s going on.

Here, then, are a few common scenarios for no-calls.

1. The ref wasn’t 100% sure.

If a ref is not completely confident about who initiated an action, whether or not it was legal, or whether or not it had any impact, that ref should make no call. That’s pretty clearly explained in the rules: the benefit of the doubt goes to the skater whose action is in question. The alternative would be the ref assuming or inventing the call, and nobody wants that to happen.

While “I wasn’t 100% sure” is a valid answer in the face of angry coaches or captains, it is not an answer that any ref should get too comfy with. Why? Because it might mean that the ref could have been in better position to observe and assess an action. Refs who use this answer often may want to ask themselves what they can do to improve their angles and sharpen their instincts.

In other words, this has NOTHING to do with the ref sucking. It does have to do with a ref growing and developing.

2. Another ref had a better angle.

A close cousin of the “I wasn’t sure” no-call is when a ref defers to another ref who has a better look at a play. In this case, the ref closest to the play, the one whom skaters and fans expect to make a call, might actually be in the worst position to make it.

Here’s an example. A jam ref, let’s call him Sucky Suckerson, and his jammer are nearing the front of the pack. An opposing blocker moves between Sucky and the jammer, and engages her. The blocker’s body screens Sucky from a clear view of the contact, but Sucky is watching the jammer’s hips to judge passes and points. Thus, Sucky does not see the blocker hook the jammer with her elbow. The whole arena looks to Sucky for a call; Sucky makes none. Sucky sucks!

Or…maybe Sucky was doing his job and trusting the other refs on the floor to do theirs. Nearly all eyes are focused on Sucky, the jammer, and the blocker, rather than on the one or two other refs who have positioned themselves to see the contact. As Sucky and his jammer move away from the pack, Sucky calls no penalty, drawing a stink-eye from the jammer and boos from the crowd. Behind them, almost anonymously, an outside pack ref calls an elbow on the blocker.

Please, o derby world, I beseech thee: believe that this kind of thing happens, because it does, and it is precisely this type of play that mandates the presence of a whopping seven referees, each with different but overlapping and complementary responsibilities. Just because one seventh of the ref crew made no call doesn’t mean a call wasn’t made. Skaters, coaches, announcers and fans: watch for this. Refs: work on it.

3. The play was legal.

In the 1980s, a company whose product was an old, spicy aftershave (get it?) ran segments called “You Make the Call!” during nationally televised baseball games. As some footage was shown, a narrator walked viewers through it: the shortstop jumped over the second baseman and threw his glove at the baserunner while the catcher pulled the batter’s pants down, or some such thing. “You make the call!” the narrator would say in a sunshiny voice, and after some brief chatter about old, spicy aftershave, he would explain what the umpire called and why.

Someone needs to produce little films like this to show on derby scoreboards during time outs. The first one should feature a jammer trucking along, and a blocker swerving into her way. The blocker plants her back into the jammer’s chest; the collision sends the blocker sprawling. “You make the call!” says Sunshiny Narrator. “BACK BLOCK MAJOR!” howls the crowd.

Erm, no. Totally legal contact, bravely initiated by the blocker with a legal blocking zone (her back) to a legal target zone (the jammer’s chest). If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a fan yell “Where’s the back block, ref?” after this scenario…gosh, I’d probably have something like $5.30, and that’s got to be enough for a hot pretzel at the concession stand. More important than me and my pretzel, understanding the nuances of the rules might make an infinitely better experience for fans, who would now watch to see entire plays unfold.


Of course, there are times when a ref simply misjudges or doesn’t notice illegal impact. No arguing there…we all have work and improving to do. But some no-calls are absolutely correct, appropriate, and reflect excellent split-second judgment.

Which brings us back to the original question: “Where’s the F@#%ing Call?” Sometimes, the right answer is “nowhere.”

Good call, ref. Or rather, good no-call, ref.

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Curtis E. Lay

Curtis E Lay is a level four certified WFTDA referee, plying his trade in Seattle. He writes about officiating for Derbylife.

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About the Author

Curtis E Lay is a level four certified WFTDA referee, plying his trade in Seattle. He writes about officiating for Derbylife.

  • Tim Dijks

    Links for part 1 and 2 lead to dev. not www. and are not accessible.

    • Alex Sassoon Coby

      A fine point, well made. An issue with our site migration. I’ve fixed it now.

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