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RC2: Bringing back blocks back

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Rules Conundrum 2 (RC2) is the second in a series of articles meant to inspire hypothetical rules discussions in order to come to a better understanding of the game of roller derby as described by WFTDA. Regardless of what is discussed in this or any other conundrum, the first rule of roller derby always stands: don’t be a douche bag. That being said, with the issue of the March 1, 2014 WFTDA rule set, going into effect April 1, 2014, certain changes were made that could benefit from discussion. RC2 is about blocking to the back.

Blocking to the back: a short history

  • 5.1.1: Hitting an opponent in the back of the torso, back of the legs, or back of the buttocks is prohibited (WFTDA rules March 1, 2014).

Because it is often referred to as "back blocking" many assume it is only illegal to hit an opponent in the back. This common misconception may explain why in tight packs pelvic thrusts to the buttocks and knee kicks to the back of the legs go unpenalized, or why back blocks without a fall are ignored. This rule however, is not new. In fact, WFTDA rules May 26, 2010 and Jan. 1, 2013 are essentially identical: "Hitting an opponent in the back of the torso, back of the legs, or back of the booty is prohibited" (2010). So what's changed? Well, the rules. The 2013 rule set is the first in which minor penalties were abolished. Is it a coincidence, the loss of minors is when blocking to the back penalties stopped being called?

What's no minors got to do with it?

With the advent of no minors (Jan. 1, 2013) a subtle change in back blocking rules was made which inspired a huge impact on game play in WFTDA roller derby. Before January 2013 there was something called the "minor back block."

  • 6.1.2: Any contact to the back of an opponent that forces the receiving opposing skater off balance, forward, and/or sideways, but does not cause her to lose her relative position (2010).

What this meant was that any time a skater touched an opponent on the back for longer than 3 seconds, even if she did not affect the opponents relative position, the skater would get a minor penalty. A minor penalty would not pull her from game play but four minor penalties would put her in the penalty box. This meant skaters had to be mindful about touching opponents on the back.

Once minors disappeared however, the concern over prolonged back contact ended. What was originally a minor penalty in 2010 (6.1.2: Any contact to the back of an opponent that forces the receiving opposing skater off balance, forward, and/or sideways, but does not cause her to lose her relative position) became "no impact/no penalty", allowing for prolonged contact to the back of an opponent legal. As an unintended result, back block calls all but disappeared. This was an over simplification of the new rules that introduced a dangerous and unfair element to the game.

For the first few months of the 2013 season, during the transition, the new way to play derby was to charge into the opposing blockers back, knock her onto the floor, and then trip over her, penalizing her for a low block. It seemed impossible to get a back block penalty and out of that freedom a new style of derby emerged. A close quarter, back to chest, super tight pack derby. The need to move to the right or left of an opponent gave way to a chest on back shoving motion, all perfectly legal... or was it?

Despite what might have been witnessed at any bout prior, back blocks remained a major penalty in the 2013 rule set. In fact, the rule was exactly the same as in 2010:

  • 6.1.3 Major Penalty (2010)/ Major Penalty (2013): Any contact to the back of an opponent that forces the receiving opposing skater out of her established position. This includes forcing a skater down, out of bounds, or out of position.

What was being forgotten about during enforcement was the very important phrase “out of position.” Yes, prolonged contact to the back was now allowed but it was not legal if such contact forced the skater out of her established position. She did not have to fall down to be back blocked.

Somewhere something was being missed. Perhaps this is why the March 1, 2014 rule set made extended effort to clarify what had always been the blocking to the back rule. The wording changed very little but "loss of relative position" was given its own paragraph.

What about the March 1, 2014 rule set?

  • 5.1.1 No Impact/No Penalty: Any contact to the back of an opponent that forces the receiving opponent off balance, forward, and/or sideways, but does not cause any opponent to lose relative position, or any teammate (or the initiator) to gain relative position.
  • 5.1.2 Penalty: Any contact to the back of an opponent that forces the receiving opposing opponent out of their established position. This includes forcing an opponent down, out of bounds, or out of relative position.
  • 5.1.3 Penalty: Any contact to the back of an opponent that causes any opponent to lose relative position, or the initiator or any teammate to gain relative position.
  • Relative position: A skater’s location, when in bounds and upright, in relation to other skaters involved in the action. Relative position is said to be “gained” or “lost” if said location changes in a way that gives or loses some advantage (for example, one skater passing another, or being put down, out of bounds, or out of play).

The rule for blocking to the back hasn't changed fundamentally from 2010; it has simply been defined positively. The key remains the same. If a skater hits someone in the back and this benefits her trajectory on the track, even if the opponent doesn't fall down, the skater has still committed a penalty. She has made an illegal gain.

Three things

One: If a skater is pushed from behind and falls down a back block has occurred. On that much we can all agree. Contact to the back that puts a girl on the floor is a back block.

Two: Blocking to the back doesn't just mean contact to the back, as in the body above the waste. In fact, “hitting an opponent in the back of the torso, back of the legs, or back of the buttocks is prohibited.” This means hitting an opponent firmly in the butt cheeks and causing her to fall is also a back block. This also means that a forceful kick or thrust to the back of the thighs is a back block. For some reason this simple distinction seems to be frequently missed.

Three: There are actions not resulting in a fall that constitute a back block. These actions are defined by a very important phrase, “established position” or most recently in the 2014 rule set “relative position”. These actions do not result in a trip to the floor but do impact game play.

The glossary of terms

The WFTDA Rules come with a glossary. The glossary of terms is an important part of the rules.

  • Loss of Relative Position (2010): When a skater’s position in relation to other skaters on the track is lost for a sustained period of time due to the actions of an opponent, such as a legal block or illegal block. Being forced out of bounds is always to be considered a loss of relative position.
  • Established Position (2013): Where a skater is physically, an area of the track where the skater has secured their place. Examples: up, in bounds, down, out of bounds, in play, and/or out of play.
  • Relative Position (2014): A skater’s location, when in bounds and upright, in relation to other skaters involved in the action. Relative position is said to be “gained” or “lost” if said location changes in a way that gives or loses some advantage (for example, one skater passing another, or being put down, out of bounds, or out of play).

The rules say that a penalty includes a loss of relative position. That means that even though Skater A didn’t make Skater B fall down, if she cost Skater B her established position through “contact to the back of the torso, back of the legs, or back of the buttocks,” Skater A is guilty of a blocking to the back penalty.

A few examples

Jammer A comes into the pack hot and is met by a wall of the opposite team. Unable to stop in time, she rams into the back of O-Skater B. O-Skater B remains on her feet but she is launched from her established position at the back of the pack all the way to the front of the pack and Jammer A is in O-Skater B’s former position. Jammer A may or may not have a better position than O-Skater B but O-Skater B has lost her established position most certainly. That is the definition of a blocking to the back penalty.

Conversely, if Jammer B comes up behind O-Blocker A and begins to push with small steps, O-Blocker A must continue to roll or step as it is illegal to stop block. Jammer B has every right and reason to continue to push until O-Blocker A is past 20-feet. That is NOT a back block because the contact did not force O-Blocker A to lose her established position (i.e. in front of Jammer B).

What does this mean for referees*?

When a new rule set comes out, everyone suffers. The skaters, the officials, and the fans must all struggle to adjust. In the case of back blocks and the current rule set referees have the most difficult job. They are the first line of defense in protecting skaters from dangerous play and since the loss of minors they have an especially tricky job. In derby today, contact with the back of an opposing player is now the most common form of contact in derby. Regardless, blocking to the back is a penalty that must be called.

Now that derby is played all squished together it is true that the initiation of illegal contact is harder to see. While there is added difficulty to the job of skating officials the problem remains: back blocks are not being called. The question then is "What can be done?" because something clearly must be done.

According to referee for Shasta Roller Derby, Walk of Shane, when in a tight pack, the pack ref needs to be looking at the hips, thighs, and knees of the pack skaters, and the jam ref needs to take special care to notice the point of contact the jammer is making while trying to push through.

When reffing derby played under this rule set, certain questions must be continually asked.

  • Are high knees being used?
  • Are pelvic thrusts happening?
  • While it is legal for a jammer to lay on the back of an opposing blocker in order to push her out 20 feet, it is not legal to kick her in the hamstring, forcing her hips to turn so the jammer can run through the pack. Which is happening?
  • Is the jammer entering the pack hot and slamming into the opposing blocker's back at full speed? It's still a penalty, even if the blocker doesn't fall down. In fact, if she moves much at all, even if she remains at the front of the pack, she has lost her relative position (likely she was holding a wall) and a back block has been committed.

A new style of reffing has to be instituted that addresses these kind of concerns created by the new rule set. If back block calls haven't been being ignored then why did WFTDA feel the need to clarify blocking to the back to such an extent? If loss of relative position weren't an issue being ignored, then why does it now have it's own paragraph in the rule set? In no way is it easy to be a roller derby referee and obviously calling back block penalties in these scenarios is difficult. Regardless of the difficulty, the rule set demands it be so called.

*Special thanks to referee consultant Walk of Shane.

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