Penalty Blaming

Roller derby is a full-contact sport. On skates. We train to play legally, but we all make mistakes, and sometimes people get hurt as a result of those mistakes. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. What should NOT happen, though, is naming/blaming/shaming the person who fucked up. This happens all the time. I’ve heard skaters blame someone for their injury, talk shit about someone being penalty-heavy and dangerous, and so on.  

For instance (names have been changed), Suzy Skater was recently cleared to scrimmage. She decided to play in an open-scrimmage with her league. During the scrimmage, Becky Blocker hit her in the back, which resulted in Suzy falling forward and breaking her arm. Suzy was very upset about this, and she contacted the coaches to tell them that Becky was being too aggressive and playing illegally and unsafely. She also talked to other skaters on the league about how Becky needs to clean up her penalties because she is injuring her league-mates. (Sidenote: While Becky is known to be a hard-hitting player, she has never injured someone.)

THIS IS ALL NOT OKAY. Here’s why:

1. Contacting the coaches is a passive-aggressive way to put Becky on blast. Suzy is pissed that her arm is broken. Sure. Understandably. But trying to get Becky “in trouble” is not going to un-break Suzy’s arm. It’s possible that Suzy is contacting the coaches to “prevent further injury,” but I’m calling bullshit on that one (unless their coaches are inexperienced/incapable/completely unaware). Good coaches know if they have a player who commits a lot of penalties. If that is the case, those coaches should be working with the penalty-heavy player to clean those up. That player needs to be able to work on legality WHILE training and playing -- with other people. This is the only way to improve. You don’t just suddenly stop back-blocking. You have to work on speed control, and that takes time. Your teammates need to be there with you and allow you to work on it in a controlled environment, where coaches are responsible for everyone’s safety. Additionally, if there is a player who is behaving dangerously during practice or a scrimmage, then the coaches should remove them from play. Basically, if you have capable coaches, you don’t need to bring their attention to one player’s penalties. Chances are you are probably falling victim to confirmation bias or trying to create it for your coaches.

2. It’s not possible for Becky to be “too aggressive.” We play a full-contact sport. The more aggressive you are, the more successful you will be. You can't be "too aggressive" if you are playing within the rule set. When someone states that a skater is being “too aggressive,” I think they are saying more about themselves than that skater. They are saying “I’m not comfortable with the level of physical contact” or “I’m not ready for that level of physical contact.” Either way, it’s not a problem for the skater who is viewed as “too aggressive,” and that skater needs to change nothing about their aggressiveness.

I do want to mention that I don’t think it’s appropriate to be at 100% at all times. For example, if skaters are learning a new skill, especially in a partnership or group drill, some might need to tone it down in order for everyone to learn the drill. If there is a blocking drill focused on developing the skill of creating a seam with two blockers, they will never get to practice this if the jammer smoke-shows them every single time.

Another example involves playing against skaters who are less experienced: if I can effectively block someone at 50% then I'll do that in order to 1) not hurt the other person, and 2) reserve energy. [[ This has, however, had a negative impact on my personal training when I'm mostly training with players that I don’t need to block at 100%. This leads to bad habits (like not blocking as hard and as fiercely as I can) that are hard to unlearn. Ideally, skaters should participate in training that meets their skill level and the level of their potential opponents. Does that always happen? No. I think there's a fine balance between meeting and sacrificing your personal training for the sake of the league, which is a whole other discussion. ]] There are times when it’s not appropriate to go 100%, but when you are playing with your teammates and/or against your opponents, it is very appropriate. In that realm, you can’t possibly be “too aggressive.”

3. When Suzy joined roller derby, she signed up for the potential of getting injured, as we all did. This is just common sense when you play a full-contact sport: you know that you will probably get hurt at some point in time. We practice together and fuck up together and sometimes those fuckups result in an injury. It sucks, but it's part of what we signed up for. If you think you can play a full-contact sport and never get hurt, you are delusional.

4. Blaming Becky is a way to say “you intentionally tried to hurt me.” Becky did not maliciously try to hurt Suzy. No one (at least I hope no one) is intentionally trying to hurt another person. They are not setting out to break someone’s bones. They are trying their best to play derby, but everyone commits penalties. It’s unfortunate when they lead to injury, but I’m pretty sure no one wants to do that. If someone is intentionally hurting others, well, you’ve got a much bigger problem.

5. Blaming Becky is also a way to make her feel guilty, and trying to make someone feel guilty is fucked up. Becky probably feels awful about Suzy’s arm (whether or not she is publicly apologetic). She doesn’t need to be made to feel guilty. In my own experience, a teammate of mine broke her collarbone when she hit the floor after I blocked her (legally). After this happened, I felt fucking horrible. Even though no one ever blamed me, I toned my blocking way down because I was afraid I might hurt someone. It took me a couple years to get past the guilt I felt. I’m not saying that everyone reacts this way, but I want to give an example of how someone can take shit too far because they feel so badly.

Another example: I got punched in the face by one of my teammates during a jam. This resulted in a bloody nose. I left the track, cleaned up my face, and went back into the jam without ever mentioning it. It came up years later when we were talking about blood on the track and I told her that she had given me a bloody nose once. She had no memory of this (I’m guessing she didn’t even know it happened), but that didn’t matter at all. She didn’t mean to do it, and telling her at the time would have made her feel awful. I don’t want to do that to my teammate. Blaming someone will bring nothing good. Guilt-tripping is emotionally manipulative and has no place within an organization or in healthy relationships.

6. Perhaps Suzy should not have been cleared to scrimmage. It’s possible that her injury occurred because she was not stable enough to receive contact in the back (legal or not). She may have fallen because of this and she may have broken her arm because she didn’t know how to fall correctly. If this is the case, the break would not have occurred because of illegal contact. It would have occurred because Suzy was not safe enough to scrimmage.

Coaches and trainers must prioritize safety over everything. They must make sure that skaters are safe enough to participate in scrimmages before clearing them. I believe that many people get injured because they were rushed through fresh meat training and/or cleared to scrimmage before they were safe enough to participate. Coaches be able to say “I’m sorry, but you aren’t ready yet.” I know that some skaters have worked really hard and really REALLY want to scrimmage, but you can’t prioritize feelings over safety. It’s never worth it.

7. Talking shit about your league-mates is NOT FUCKING COOL. If you have an issue with someone on your league, talk to them like an adult. If you don’t immediately squash your issues, you will create toxicity within the league. Don’t be a viral disease. Deal with your shit like a grown-up.

The overall point I hope you take-away is that unless you are a coach or an official, you don’t need to make anyone aware of their penalties. Focus on yourself and how you can improve. You don’t even need to know who committed penalties on you. The only thing you need to know about penalties is what ones YOU are committing and how YOU can be more legal. If you feel the need to tell someone that their penalty resulted in your injury (or if you feel the need to tell them they committed a penalty regardless of injury), I think you should seriously ask yourself why. How will that make anything better? What will that accomplish for you? What will it accomplish for them? If all you come up with is “they need to be aware,” then you’ve fallen short, and you need to rethink your life. Again, focus on yourself and how YOU can improve.

I highly recommend that leagues talk about the negative impacts of penalty-blaming and why they should avoid it. League leaders and coaches/trainers should always refrain from doing this (remember to lead by example!!), and skaters can remind each other to not penalty-blame when they hear someone doing it.