Officiating Curtis E Lay by Jules Doyle

Published on April 25th, 2013 | by Curtis E. Lay


Curtis E Lay by Jules Doyle

“Don’t Talk to the Refs” is Holding Derby Back

Not long ago, in a bout between two WFTDA charter teams, I made a call that a player took umbrage with. She grumbled, though not in a disrespectful manner that singled me out. After the jam, I clarified the call with her…or rather, I tried to: she practically stuck her fingers in her ears and skated away singing “LA LA LA LA LA LA.” Why? Because I wasn’t the head ref.

Sigh. There it was again, that peculiar tradition that skaters should not talk to refs. According to said tradition, captains may converse with head refs; other skaters had better avoid refs like a month-old tuna casserole, or else we’ll penalize them for being “insubordinate.” I have no idea how this tradition arose…an old rule set, fallout from a notorious incident, shrug. Whatever the reason, I sincerely believe that “don’t talk to the refs” is holding the sport back, and it is time for this tradition to go. Below are a few reasons why.

Better game play

A derby rule set is a complex body of work…it’s far more subtle than “skate, score, don’t elbow anybody,” and the details are critical to how the game is called. Officials devote countless hours and heaps of angst to studying the rules. Refs debate and dissect the rules right up until the start of tournaments. If it’s that tough for us, how much tougher is it for skaters, who must also practice, play, deal with injuries, run their all-volunteer league, etc.?

Inevitably, many skaters learn the bare bones of the rules and get the rest via trial and error. Although finding out what you can get away with can occasionally produce innovations in strategy, trial-and-error learning tends to be slow, frustrating, and penalty-laden. Restricting communication between skaters and refs is a sure way to preserve the “error” in trial and error.

What’s more, the rules are constantly evolving through clarifications, revisions, or simply when individual refs realize they’re doing something wrong. Skaters who are discouraged from talking to refs will have a hard time tracking rules evolutions; thus, we have trial-and-error learning to hit a moving target…kind of like playing Marco Polo, only with lots of penalties. Yuck.

Better game flow

In my 5-ish years of reffing, I have yet to hear anyone say, “Boy, roller derby could sure use more official timeouts!” However, limiting communication solely to captains and head refs virtually guarantees unnecessary, buzz-killing timeouts related to calls or scoring.

Take a case where a jam ends and a jammer is awarded one point, even though two opponents are in the box. In a “don’t talk to the refs” setting, a frantic coach runs to the head ref, and the stage is set for an official review. On the other hand, if skaters, coaches and refs are free to interact, the jammer or coach can ask the jam ref why the additional points weren’t awarded and the ref can quickly fix the error (“Whoops, sorry!”) or explain why the call was correct (“You only passed the opposing jammer.”). No time out, no buzz-kill, no problem.

Better balance

A clear measure of authority is granted to referees—to judge and penalize actions, resolve disputes, make decisions, and so on. The rules thus establish a power structure, which is not necessarily a bad thing: in principle, this power structure enables safe, fair play by designating refs as stewards of the game.
Frankly, mixing “don’t talk to the refs” into this power dynamic makes me queasy. For one thing, a communication limit insulates refs from having to explain calls, which makes us less accountable. It promotes an icky culture that refs are always right (noop!). It could give jerky refs like me an inflated sense of authority. And it can exacerbate situations in the heat of a bout, because skaters are compelled to hold in their thoughts until they reach a boiling point.

On the flip side, there are times, brief or prolonged, when leagues overlook the morale and fair treatment of their volunteers, including their officials. If there is already a communication gap in place during scrimmages and games—the time when most face-to-face interaction between skaters and officials occurs—then skaters may be less inclined or equipped to relate to those officials off the track when organizational issues crop up.


This all begs the question, “Okay, Nimrod, what specific changes would you make?” Fortunately the tide has already begun to turn on “don’t talk to refs,” both in some home leagues and at tournament-level play. Here are a few thoughts, based on some experience and humble opinion:

• Nowhere do the current WFTDA rules flatly say, “Skaters shall not talk to refs.” If your league has this unwritten rule, I would encourage you to have a league-wide, cultural discussion about it if you think the problems I describe above are real and important.

• Some refs may view this as a threatening change; I urge you to resist that feeling. It’s a change, yes, and change is weird, but it’s not necessarily bad. Opening communication builds fluency with the rules, surety about calls before they’re made, and trust within a crew.

• The kind of communication I’m talking about here is short and to the point…blowing out a candle, not putting out a kitchen fire. Kitchen fires go to the captain and head ref.

• While skeptics might envision little conversations happening all over the track, I rarely do this more than once per bout when I’m not the head ref…it’s to address a need, not talk just for the sake of talking.

• In all cases, refs should avoid anything resembling coaching or favoritism; I address skaters by color and number and try to restrict my language to elements of the rule book.

• In all cases, skaters should avoid directing bad words at officials…if you need to talk to us, don’t begin your statement with “Jesus H. Christ, ref!!!” Or even something that sounds like it could be disrespectful, like “Cheeses Aged Twice, 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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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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