So it’s your first time at a game and you want to follow what’s going on. Never fear: BDD is here for you.
Boston’s flat-track roller derby is played on a flat surface inside of an oval track, and follows the rules set by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Each game is broken up into two 30-minute halves; each of those halves has a series of up-to-two-minute sections called jams. Up to five skaters can be on the track for each team: four blockers (one of which is a pivot, denoted by a striped helmet), and one point-scoring player, the jammer (star helmet).
Before the start of each jam, the blockers and pivots from both teams line up in front of the jammer line, while the jammers line up behind it. When the whistle blows, the jam begins.
When the jam starts, the blockers and pivots from both teams create a formation called the pack. They may not leave the pack, nor may they destroy the pack by one group of players running away from the other group. The jammers, on the other hand, must attempt to leave the pack if they wish to score. The first jammer to legally get past every member of the pack is declared Lead Jammer, which means she may stop or “call off” the jam at any point by placing her hands on her hips multiple times. (More on that later.)
Once a jammer gets through the pack once (whether they are lead or not), they’re eligible to score. Jammers score points by legally passing the hips of opposing players. On every lap, the jammer is eligible to score up to five points (one for each blocker, and if the scoring jammer has lapped the opposing jammer, a fifth point). Jams last until the lead jammer calls the jam off, or when two minutes has elapsed. And after a thirty second reset, all the action starts again.
Here’s a video from the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls that breaks down all the important basics:
The Penalties, or “Is that legal?”
• Hitting an opponent’s side or front (above the knees or below the shoulders) with shoulders, torso, or hips
• Breaking two opposing skaters apart with your hips, torso, or shoulders
• Whipping or pushing a teammate
• Leaping and jumping is completely legal (and awesome!) as long as skaters don’t initiate blocks while both skates are off the ground
• The Johnny Crash—hitting the front (sternum) of an opposing skater using their legal blocking zone
• The Slay Ride—a booty block that lifts the opposing blocker off the ground and carries them a few feet across the track
• Whiffing—landing out of bounds after attempting, and missing, that really big hit
• Facing backwards to block a skater while skating in the same direction as the pack
• Jammer on Jammer Action: Either jammer blocking the other while out of the pack
• Blocking with elbows, forearms, hands, or head in a way that could potentially impede a skater or hurt them
• Impeding a skater’s pathway by grabbing or holding onto another teammate so they can’t get through
• Blockers engaging with a skater more than 20 feet in front of or behind the pack (listen for the officials to call “Out of Play”)
• Cutting the track: Passing any skater while out of bounds and re-entering the track in front of them.
• Skating out of bounds to avoid a hit, hitting people while out of bounds, or assisting teammates while out of bounds
• Back blocking: Any contact to the back of a skater that moves them out of position or knocks them down
• Holding, tripping, grabbing, clotheslining, shoving, punching, or chair throwing: 1980s roller derby this ain’t
When a skater commits a penalty, the official who spotted it will inform the skater by blowing one long whistle along with a verbal cue and hand signal; the skater must then immediately skate off the track and sit in the penalty box for 30 seconds while the team skates one player short. This includes jammers: If the jammer commits a penalty, the other team gets a power jam, and their jammer skates unopposed for the 30 seconds the skater is sitting in the penalty box. If *that* jammer gets a penalty, she must also report to the box. When she sits, the first jammer leaves immediately; the second jammer will then sit for the same amount of time that the first jammer served.
Skaters can get multiple penalties at once, and time stacks. (Two penalties = 1 minute in the box.) The penalty box has seats for up to two blockers and one jammer for each team; if the box is full, the penalized skater returns to the track until someone in the box stands up, making space for the player to sit and serve her time.
As both jammers can potentially be scoring at the same time, there are lots of basic strategies to look out for when a game is going on. Here are a couple of the basic ones.
GETTING LEAD: If a team’s jammer gets lead, they have the power to end the jam and stop any and all scoring. Thus, getting lead jammer is really important for teams who want to win. How does a jammer get lead? By successfully passing each member of the pack legally (while blockers are upright on their skates and in-bounds) and while remaining in bounds. For example: If a jammer passes a skater who is down or out of bounds and exits the pack, she will not be declared lead jammer, because did not pass every skater legally.
How do you tell when a jammer is lead? When the jam official signals lead jammer, they will blow two short whistle blasts and point to the jammer with one hand, holding the other arm above their head (effectively making a large L shape). The official who follows the non-lead jammer will wave their hands back and forth in front of their waist.
CALLING OFF THE JAM: Controlling the jam means that even if both jammers get out within half a lap of each other, the lead jammer can potentially pass a few players and get a few points before calling it off. Or, if the lead jammer is the second jammer to escape the pack, they can call it off before the first jammer begins scoring.
BRIDGING: As we mentioned before, blockers can only hit and block while they’re part of the pack, or the engagement zone. While the zone is normally 20 feet in front or behind the frontmost/rearmost blocker of the pack, it can be stretched forward and backward by one player bridging every ten feet.
HITTING OUT OF BOUNDS AND RUNNING BACK: You can only bridge so far, so the best way to control the jammer is to knock her out. Once she’s out, she’s required to come in behind anyone who was in front of her at the time she went out of bounds, so the skater who hit her out (or anyone in front of her) can skate backwards and take away some of her forward momentum and progress.
THE STAR PASS: If a team’s jammer is stuck in the pack while the opposing jammer is scoring, or she’s exhausted, she may attempt a star pass. While upright and in-bounds, she can hand the star helmet cover to the pivot, who becomes the jammer for the rest of the jam. The pivot cannot score until the cover is on her helmet and the stars are visible, but she can now leave the pack. Watch out, though: If the jammer or pivot is out of bounds or down when the pass occurs, it’s an illegal star pass and the initiator will go to the box. No other player is allowed to pick up the helmet cover.
What’s with all the officials?
It really does take a small army to officiate a game: seven on-skates officials (who wear the zebra stripes and call penalties and points) and nine non-skating officials (who are responsible for recording and relaying game information quickly and accurately). Here’s a breakdown of the sixteen standard roles.
HEAD SKATING AND NON-SKATING OFFICIALS: There is a Head Skating and a Head Non-Skating Official for each game to make sure the rules are properly followed, and that the game is staffed by qualified officials. The Head Skating Official leads pre-game meetings with the teams, oversees the game crew, and handles any disputes. Only the most experienced officials can hold this position.
JAMMER REFEREES: There are two jammer referees—one per team. These officials signal the lead jammer, keep track of points per lap, and blow their whistle to end the jam when the lead jammer calls it off. They wear an armband the color of the team they’re tracking, and switch teams at halftime.
SCOREKEEPING OFFICIALS: Each jam ref communicates to their respective Scorekeeping official by signaling points at the end of each pass through the pack. The two scorekeepers confirm the points by signaling back, and then report the points to the Scoreboard Operator. The Scoreboard Operator makes sure the scoreboard reflects both the score and the time accurately, and communicates with the Scorekeepers and the Jam Timer to make sure everything is in agreement.
INSIDE PACK REFEREE: The inside pack referee watches the pack for penalties. Look for the hand signals used to communicate the nature of penalties to the other officials, especially the Penalty Tracker and Inside Whiteboard Officials. There are usually three outside pack referees who call penalties that might go unnoticed from the infield, like an elbow to the ribs, or returning in bounds ahead of an opponent.
PENALTY TRACKING: Referees report their penalty calls to the Penalty Tracking Official. They keeps track of what penalties are assessed to which player, and communicate with the Penalty Wrangler and Inside Whiteboard Officials to both make sure that players serve their penalties and that players who were sent back to the track because the box was full head to the box once space is opened.
The Penalty Wrangler and Penalty Box Manager use small whiteboards to communicate which players haven’t been to the box to serve their penalty yet, and let the referees know to communicate to the player when it is time to return to the box to serve the penalty.
The Penalty Timing Officials and their trusty stopwatches rule the box. They keep track of how long each skater has to sit, let her know when it’s time to stand ten seconds before their penalty time is up, and when their time is done so they can return to the track. Usually there is one penalty box timer for each team, and a Penalty Box Manager who manages penalties to the jammers and helps keep things running smoothly in the box.
JAM TIMER: Nothing happens without the Jam Timer. It’s their job to let the skaters know the jam is about to start by holding their hand in the air and calling out “five seconds”. The jam starts when the whistle blows and the jam timer drops their hand. If a jam lasts a full two minutes, the jam timer’s four-whistle signal ends the action. He or she also makes sure only 30 seconds elapses between jams, and lets the players know when a timeout or play stoppages begin and end with a combination of whistles and hand signals.
THE INSIDE WHITE BOARD: The inside whiteboard official’s job looks simple—write down the names of skaters who have been assessed a penalty, and mark on the board when the penalty has been served. If the box is full at the end of the jam and a player has not served her penalty, she must skate in the next jam so she can serve her penalty as soon as a space is open, or she will be assessed an additional “Delay of Game” penalty. It’s not only important for the officials to have this information—bench managers also rely on this information when deciding which five skaters to send out for a jam.