A different Roller Derby and why I love the Pivot position.


Well, first of all the reason I loved the pivot was because I created it. And the proper use made the game better.

There were no designated positions in Roller Derby for the first 25 years of its existence……anyone could jam, any one could block. Usually the plays were determined by the coach (or women’s captain….I know, sexist), and of course the fastest skaters were usually sent on the jams, and the slower bigger skaters would do the majority of the blocking.

For those who don’t know, Roller Derby was a very simple game, not a lot of rules: five skaters on each team at a time, when the pack was intact (see link), a jam would start, and within the two-minute time limit the skaters would attempt to gain a lap on the pack, and for each player the jammer passed he (or she) would get a point. Both teams were on offense and defense at the same time, which made the game unique. The men skated against the men, women against the women, 8 alternating periods, and the final score was cumulative, and it was on a portable banked track.

We had a loyal coterie of fans who attended our games, and they understood what was going on pretty easily; however, as we started videotaping our games and syndicating them (to eventually 110 stations in the US and Canada), we were getting comments that the casual viewer was confused by what was happening, so we came up with the idea of helmets to signify what the players’ functions were.

Originally there were three blockers (solid color helmets) and two jammers (cross-stripe helmets). The blockers helped their teammates out of the pack (there was no starting line in original Derby except at the start of each half; the jammers started from the rear of the back) and tried to prevent the other jammers from getting out and from scoring; they also were blocking the other blockers (confused?) during the jam in order to knock them out of position or down so their jammer could score. The blockers could not go more than 20 feet in front of the pack or 20 feet behind, the team was penalized if the pack was not in constant motion, and backwards skating and blocking were a penalty, and the lead jammer was the skater who had the lead.

So we had scrimmages every day to see how the game worked, but we realized we were missing a critical element. Each team always had a superstar: Ann Calvello, Joan Weston, Charlie O’Connell, Ken Monte, etc who could really function in both positions. So I came up with the Pivot: always at the start of the pack before a jam could start, but if he or she couldn’t get a jammer out, then the pivot was eligible to jam. And that was the clincher….it added so much more to the game and the fans could see the superstars in constant action (Roller Derby was always built on stars).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfy6Jv3vyfo Click on this link to see how the game was played.

The jammers got smaller and faster and even though they could block each other during the jam, they usually reached the pack within thirty seconds so the jam time was cut to 90 seconds and then eventually 1 minute (which works for the LA Derby Dolls). And there was no time for power jams, especially if both teams had a jammer out…..and the player was penalized, never the helmet.

So now we had a game that people loved and understood, and although “color” was added especially for TV, the skating and skaters were awesome. And they loved the playoffs and championships when they could just skate the game without the “junk” as my father called it….the games then had real meaning. (Remember, we owned all six teams!).

So understand why I love a game where the pack and action don’t stop, where penalties do not inhibit play, where only two referees (three for playoffs), not on skates could handle the play from the infield.

Don’t misunderstand me, when I see teams in the championships who can go full tilt, know the importance of pack play, that makes a lot of difference….I would hope the rule changes to go into effect and maybe more later will get the games to where they will be filling 15,000 seat arenas again, if that is what the skaters want.

I would sure love to see full arenas again.

4 comments on “A different Roller Derby and why I love the Pivot position.

  1. I don’t know. It seems to me that the eras when Roller Derby was popular were eras when roller or ice skating was way, way more part of the public consciousness than it is today. Rinks were everywhere. Everyone had experience on skates, and I don’t just mean at birthday parties when they turned 9. Ordinary people skated, themselves, and they had an impression of what roller skating was: family fun, something they did many times a year, as individuals, trying not to go too fast, trying not to hit anyone, not being as good a skater as the best. Some of them knew what it was like to race a friend or weave in and out of a crowd.

    That was the status quo. Roller Derby was like all that, but a level above… bigger, harder, faster, rougher! At the arena, the spectator was seeing the supercharged, hyper-competitive, alternate-reality version of something that they were at least somewhat familiar with. Derby was aspirational, it had stars and personalities. It was all about the things you couldn’t do on the rink. It was speed, contact, and teamwork…and all the skaters were pros, the best of the best. There was still a novelty aspect to watching the derby, I’m sure, but novelty wasn’t 99% of the new spectator’s experience like it is today.

    What I’m saying is you could put your version of the derby out there, and have all the trappings of the sport exactly the way you want it, and it wouldn’t lure people in the way it ever used to. Not until people give a crap about skating—and not in an ironic way. The skating fad has to come back into fashion for derby to really take off. Rule changes to keep the game exciting to watch are a distant second. That’s my opinion, anyway.

    • I am in no way advocating a return to Derby of the 60s and 70s……If it is to grow and become a leading spectator sport the fully competitive nature of the game must be a part of it. But there was a continuous action and motion that were part of it that can be transcribed to today’s version and some rulesets are utilizing them. And just so you know, Roller Derby never had any relationship to the popularity of roller skating or ice skating per se, and neither activity was anywhere as popular then as they are today. if you viewed the attached clip explaining the rules, you will understand what I meant by continuous action.

  2. I like your comment, OatmealEater! I’ve read that one of the reasons Roller Derby died out the first time around was that there was no amateur/recreational roller derby – no kids playing roller derby in the street, or at a league at a local rink – so no educated fan base. When Leo started the first Roller Derby, 97% of Americans had been on roller skates – so skating was definitely more popular! (Jerry, please correct me if I’m wrong – that’s the figure I’ve been teaching for 3 years!)

    WFTDA seems to be trying to achieve that again – wanting to only have top-tier, internationally competitive teams. Witness the constant raising of “basic skills” requirements to participate in *any* WFTDA activity – making it harder to get new Roller Derby players.

    I think rule changes to keep the game exciting, and make it easy to understand, would help make skating more popular. Maybe they’d even make Derby more common and popular.

    I’ve often wondered – what would pick-up Roller Derby look like? If a bunch of kids wanted to skate around a parking lot and play “Roller Derby,” what would they do?

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