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Simply Put, Boyfriend/Refs in Tournaments are Bad for Derby

For those of you that haven’t been paying attention to the bottom half of the comment thread on the “Rocky Mountain Rollergirls Take It All” article on DNN, the Cliff’s Notes version is that referee Tootie Tinwhistle and Rocky Mountain Rollergirl Amanda Jamitinya are in a relationship. No big deal. However, Tootie was a ref in the championship game between Rocky Mountain and Oly. Now, it’s an issue. Despite the size this has become, I have not seen anyone call into question the results of the game or accused anyone of cheating. This is simply a matter of people addressing a problem and trying to get it changed. But, somehow, there is pushback from those saying it’s not a problem, which is evidenced in this week’s Derby Deeds podcast. If you aren’t listening to Derby Deeds then you are pretty much a failure as a derby fan (I kid, but seriously). In it, Megatron and Hurt Reynolds (two people whose opinions I respect but are completely and totally wrong about this issue) argued on the side that there are no problems with the current way that referee crews are being handled.

I don’t even need to address the relationship issue, the fact that refs are calling games for their home leagues or leagues they ref for on a somewhat regular basis in the playoffs represents a clear conflict of interest. That does not necessarily mean biased calls are made. It means that the refs are too familiar with the players on the track to have the ability to call a perfectly even game. Lemmy Hearya put it perfectly on DNN:
How many decisions must a ref make in the course of a bout? Hundreds, easily. From the first whistle to the last, a ref is constantly evaluating where various actions and situations fall---was something incidental, or intentional? Insignificant, or meriting a penalty? Major penalty, or minor penalty? A number of those determinations are going to be borderline situations, and must be decided quickly. With the best will in the world, I don't see how any human being could not, subconsciously at least, give some benefit of the doubt in a borderline situation to someone he knows and respects (much less loves, if it comes to that). And, how many things must a ref keep track of during a jam? More than anybody really can. When deciding who and what to watch (again, possibly subconsciously), it's only to be expected that somebody would focus more on the people out there they don't know and trust.

That’s just the issue of wanting the most fair game possible. The other aspect is the perception of the sport as a whole. Why are there no longer fake fights and players getting spanked at halftime after a spin on the penalty wheel? It’s not because there weren’t enough fans who cared enough to complain. It’s not because those fans didn’t like it. It’s because it called into question the seriousness and legitimacy of the sport. This ref issue does the exact same thing except on a much bigger scale: the championship game of the sport, not a random home game with 800 in attendance. Even if a ref can be perfectly unbiased, it looks bad, just as a row of dudes lined up to spank a skater looks bad.

During this week’s Derby Deeds episode, it was brought up that people are surprised about the existence of relationships between refs and skaters. I don’t think anyone has said anything even close to this. Nobody is trying to say that this is a problem through all of derby that needs to be addressed even down to the intraleague level. Everyone seems to be pretty realistic that, yes, this is still a DIY sport, yes, no one is getting paid. Everyone gets that. However, on the playoffs level, on the championship level, on the championship game level, the DIY all-volunteer aspect of the sport is not an issue whatsoever. There are at least two to three full crews of refs at each region and championship. That is more than enough people to successfully ref, at the very least, the two games on the Sunday of championships without conflicts of interest.

The surprise people are showing comes from this happening in the most important game of the year. Those dismissing this issue aren’t taking the scale and resources of the WFTDA championship into account. Nobody is saying that boyfriends shouldn’t be calling intraleague games. That’s a question of resources. There aren’t enough refs to call most of those games otherwise. But, we’re talking about the championship and playoffs. That is a completely different level of the sport. It’s even a completely different level than a regular season WFTDA sanctioned game. Since it’s on a different level, trying to use the DIY all-volunteer canned response to any criticism of the WFTDA is no longer valid. There were thousands of people there paying good money to be a part of it. They didn’t contribute to a charity for a write off on their taxes. They paid money to watch a legitimate sport's championship being played just as they would if they went to a college basketball or pro football game. They don’t care if no one is getting paid, the money out of their pocket is just the same. I know that many don’t like the comparison to pro sports but it’s a fact of life. You don’t need to change everything to “fit in”. You don’t need to use real names. You don’t need to have more consistent less-revealing uniforms. Those aren’t an issue with the sport. This is an issue of the sport.

And, since it’s an issue of the sport, I think we can all agree that we want the most fair game possible. The argument was made that boyfriend refs are many times more harsh on their girlfriend’s team. This is not an argument for continuing to use boyfriends in these games, it’s an argument against it. If the consensus is that boyfriends are taking it extra hard on their girlfriend and their girlfriend’s team, how is that a fair evenly called game? How is that fair for the girlfriend and her team? On the same hand, if refs are more familiar with skaters and more familiar with the penalties that skaters are prone to, then how is that fair and evenly called? The refs chosen for playoff games should be as neutral as possible. Again, we know that people have friends in leagues all over the country. Nobody is saying that refs need to live in a closed-off bubble but an attempt should be made to make the game fair.

It’s being said that ref crews need to work with each other for an entire weekend in order to gain trust and camaraderie with one another, otherwise, games won’t be reffed as well. You can’t argue on one hand that refs are mindless robots that would never let their relationship with skaters even subconsciously affect the game they’re calling while at the same time arguing that a team of refs need to be together for an entire weekend to be able to handle a game well. Either they’re mindless robots that don’t let any outside influences affect their calls or they’re human. If we’re arguing that refs need to know each other and be comfortable with each other then why aren’t these crews reffing with each other for the entire season? They aren’t comfortable with each other the first game, or even second game, of each playoff weekend. Nobody has made the case that the quarterfinal reffing was even slightly worse than the reffing in the finals. If that’s the case, then this idea that crews need to stick together is completely without merit.

Of course, we all want the best crews calling the biggest games and having familiarity with other refs on their crew is helpful but it isn’t the only variable at play. Having associations with a team in the game automatically makes that ref and that crew not the best for that particular game. That means that WFTDA should either use a different crew or substitute in a different ref. This is not a difficult issue to solve.

As roller derby continues to gain popularity, more and more issues will surface that may have been acceptable in the past that are no longer acceptable with the current level of fan support. Simply dismissing any of these new issues that come up as just a conversation among superfans is something that will stunt further growth of the sport. Calling these issues “derby drama” is only a way of writing off the seriousness of the issue. Obviously, not every little thing that comes up is going to need to change or even can be changed, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a legitimate concern. Every sports fan I’ve talked to about this has made the exact same arguments I’ve made here and some have gone even further saying that the results of the game should be called into question. Sports fans should not be ignored, they are the future fans of roller derby. They will not accept anything less than at least the level of fairness that they can get at a high school football game.

The reason that people are wrong about this is because every argument that has been made thus far has been an argument for why it was done in the past. This isn’t an argument about the past, it’s an argument about the future. There is absolutely nothing to gain from continuing this practice. Nothing. We can only expect negative results or, at best, the same. There are enough refs to cover every playoff game without a conflict. This should be a bigger priority than keeping a ref crew together. With what we know now, why would anyone want to continue this practice? We know that fans will freak out and have a big problem with this every time they find out about it. If we keep adding more and more fans every year, it's going to become a bigger and bigger issue every year and what if a ref actually does cheat and is caught? How about we just stop it now before it becomes a large enough issue to become a major embarrassment for the sport.


  1. NO,'boyfriend-refs' ARE NOT BAD FOR DERBY - but okay - they may not be the best thing for tournaments.

    As a referee who is proudly affianced to a skater, I've got to say I agree with derbytron here on the specific point that in tournament level play, referee-league and referee-skater relationships should be taken into account, if only to eliminate even the slightest appearance of the merest possibility of even the tiniest, most unintentional bias. Tournament results should be unassailable, and there are enough good refs in the country that tournaments should be able to be staffed to account for such factors.

    (While I do believe that it's more than possible for a boyfriend-ref to call a fair and unbiased game even when reffing their significant other [and that I do so on a regular basis], for the purposes of this discussion, that point is moot - because even if it is ACTUALLY unbiased, I will admit that even the APPEARANCE of potential bias is worth avoiding.)

    That being said, I think referee-skater relationships are a good and healthy thing for derby, and are here for the forseeable future. In my experience it doesn't take long for a guy (or gal) who's closely involved in the derby world as referee to realize that the qualities they value most in a partner begin to coincide with the qualities they see in the derby women that surround them - intelligence, independence, strength of character. Healthy ref-skater relationships keep referees committed to the sport in a world where referee recruitment and retention is difficult at best. Given the current structure of the sport and the need for referees to run home bouts and scrimmages, I think this is a perfectly workable and positive system.

    Perhaps one day when WFTDA can afford to fly independent teams of referees all over the country to staff every sanctioned and regulation bout, ala the NFL or NBA, things will be different. For now, I think that a little extra planning on the tournament level will alleviate the perception of bias and help raise the sport to the higher levels of legitimacy we all seek.

    Henry Roll-ins
    Head Referee
    Big Easy Rollergirls

  2. You're right, my headline is a little too broad. Thanks for pointing that out. I'm going to change it.

  3. This is a pretty solid topic but the situation of skaters and refs potential dating each other won't go away and it shouldn't as Henry posted above. Simply though there should just be a couple of rules etched in to prevent issues:

    1. Your SO can't ref when you skate. If personnel is an issue, then your SO can't be head ref so that an additional ref can ensure fair judgment in any questionable calls.

    2. As posted previously, 100% cannot ref a tournament bout you are in, no exceptions.

    There is also the derby girl factor here that hasn't been equated in =D . Me personally I make sure I keep my NSOing clean so as to not invoke the wrath of a team of derby girls. I think this added pressure helps ensure fair calls regardless of relationships =)

  4. As a referee myself (who may or may not be dating a skater currently), I would have taken myself out of that game. I have NEVER questioned my own personal integrity within my duties, however, bias isn't something that can be easily quantified, and is often subconscious. And frankly I would hate to taint the outcome of a game because of my personal relationships. Not that I believe any actual bias existed in this situation; it's like all of popular culture where perception is everything. We owe it to our fans and skaters to take steps to make sure this doesn't occur in future tournaments.
    Damn, I hate it when I agree with Pitchitt. Bah.

  5. Or "she" said it. Females DO ref, you know.

  6. Derbytron, GREAT F'N POST. I applaud you for this, I myself have found that I was easily dismissed since my opinion was from a fan of the losing team. SRLY? I am a sports fan, a skater, an athlete and sometimes a nuisance, lol. But the ethics of the game need to be addressed.

    This occurred at regionals as well, and like you mentioned, no one is raising a cheating flag here. But if I was a coach or a skater, I should have been given the courtesy to know this information as the minimum. Not after the championship game from a third party.

    A proud sponsor of the Oly Rollers and superfan wrote a letter to the WFTDA, and he was ostracized on DNN for it. His viewpoint matters, just like everyone else's, but this proves it is time. Time for the sport of Roller Derby to get inline with the common ethics used in sports today.

    I must say you really go the point across with this line. "This isn’t an argument about the past, it’s an argument about the future. There is absolutely nothing to gain from continuing this practice. Nothing."

  7. This one does, I assure you. When you dip your toes in the Derby pool, even females find themselves faced with the same potential bias conundrum. It's not solely a he/she thing. It just might be a she/he thing. Or even, gasp, a she/she thing.

  8. Seems to me that the most logical thing to do for regionals/nationals is to remove the 'my team' bias entirely by only using Refs for the Xrollers Vs. Yderbygirls bout who are not at all associated with X or Y teams as well as specifically eliminating SO's from the staff for any bout their skater-love is in. Presumably one can assemble 7 non-affiliated refs for any given bout at these large gatherings...

  9. Didn't intend to offend.
    Although the post is "anonymous," there is enough information there for me to believe I know who the poster is. Especially since he and I just had this conversation, and he always misspells my name that way.

  10. Everything you have said makes absolute & total sense. However, everyone is focusing on one tiny element in the larger "relationship" issue.

    It's easy to say, "that ref is in a romantic relationship with that skater, so there might be an issue."

    What about friendships? What about refs who WANT to be in a romantic relationship with a skater, but has been rebuffed?

    Until refs are a completely separate entity from the skating community, this sort of perceived bias will always exist. Refs go to after-parties & drink with skaters. You don't see that in any other sport. Refs separate themselves from the people they ref to maintain that professional split.

    Derby cannot have it both ways. You cannot say on the one hand that "Tootie & AJ are sleeping together so there's a potential that he'll go easy/be tougher on her," but on the other hand say, "Witty Female Referee Name has been friends with Witty Female Skater Name for 6 years, but they're not boning down, so I'm sure that she'll maintain her professionalism."

    Derby IS DIY. And until a referee proves themself to be dishonest, we should trust them to do their job.

  11. Also, for the record:

    I totally agree that refs like Tootie & Judge Knot should have excused themselves from reffing games that included skaters they're dating.

    Tournament play IS different and the standard SHOULD be higher.

  12. @Megatron

    You're absolutely right. Despite the title of the post, I was more after general conflicts of interest. Siblings/friends/lovers/etc.

    But, just because there isn't a clear cut place to draw the line in the sand, I don't really think that means there shouldn't be an attempt to form some sort of accepted practice when it comes to conflicts of interest.

    Things that the WFTDA can actively prevent are a ref in the same family as a skater, a ref married to a skater, and a ref in the same league as a team reffing in a tournament game.

    For all other conflicts, I think it has to be up to the refs (and this is where your trust comes in) to step up when they're selected for a game and say that they have a conflict (or maybe make it easier and have refs say every team they have a conflict with before putting the tournament ref schedules together). Obviously, there is no perfect way to determine a conflict so refs should probably always err on the side of caution.

    And, then the WFTDA has to be able to punish any refs that are later found to have had a conflict of interest in a tournament game they reffed.

  13. G No Evil,
    Said superfan and sponsor of the Oly Rollers was "ostracized" because he wrote that the SKATERS should have done something about who was reffing that final game. I actually agree that it would be better for the future of our sport if WFTDA made some sort of official policy for future play-off and Championship bouts regarding referees/skater relations. But, he took it way too far when he blamed the skaters for letting it happen.

  14. When refs start getting paid, I'll start worrying about who they're sleeping/friends with. Until then, I'm not about to judge.

  15. well maybe he meant it generally speaking since WFTDA is "for the skaters by the skaters". But there is no written rules preventing this, so there is no finger to point. Only in USARS is there something said about this and the ethics involved in being an official.

    So to digress, being a skater/superfan myself, I was totally guilty of violating the ethics of a sportsfan myself. Booing refs, shame on me. I was a totally a-hole, sorry outside pack refs. (a serious apology)

  16. @G. No Evil

    This is what Dan Silver said,

    "Not only am I offended by the decision of the referee to work the game, it astonishes me that the Rocky team could somehow rationalize this choice in a National Championship bout."

    My understanding, after attending westerns this year, is that the skaters don't have any say in who refs their bouts.

    There seems to be a fair amount of outrage towards those not exhibiting sufficient amounts of outrage. Well, I'm sorry. I've chosen to be less outraged at perceived bias than I would be for demonstrated actual bias.

  17. To add something I learned recently, we should not be placing any blame on Tootie until we know the facts. The reason I bring this up is because I learned of a case where a ref asked to be recused from reffing a bout at a Regional Tournament and was not allowed to do so (presumably by the organizer or something? Not sure).

    So, it's possible Tootie did say that he had a conflict, and it's maybe even possible that he suggested being removed, but that he was told to ref anyway.

  18. Why cant we all just make out and skate???

  19. @Anonymous 10:55

    Absolutely. Even if he never spoke up, it's clearly representative of the current culture in WFTDA. I could see why it never would have even crossed his mind since this issue seems like it has never come up before and he's probably reffed a bunch of games with AJ in. There's only a small number of people blaming him for anything, though. We're all just arguing for a policy change for the future.

  20. It is interesting to note that, unlike other sports which discourage the practice, roller derby currently downright encourages fraternization between players and referees (via the after party, for example). I'm certainly not saying that we should no longer allow refs and players to party together, but it does make for an interesting dynamic.

  21. Boyfriend/Girlfriend refs are VERY GOOD FOR DERBY. Many of the best and most committed refs I know are either in a relationship with a skater or would like to be, and I feel the game as a whole would suffer without these refs.

    I support every ref for remaining in his position if he or she feels capable. The first thing we learn as refs is that the skaters make the rules, and we just enforce them. Skater-Ref relationships have been around for years, and if the skaters wanted a rule or policy against it, they'd have made one. And if they ever make one, we'll adjust happily, as always.

    Until then, let's not criticize these hard working unpaid volunteers who are doing their best to ref the most unbiased game possible.

    Crash Test Ref

  22. I have had his issue since the first NIT Dustdevil in Tucson. Relationships aside it seems like there is a conflict of interest to have refs reffing bouts that their home leagues are playing in considereing there are plenty of capable refs at the tourney from other leagues. At the very least it would be awesome if there was a draw process that would allow for a random selection from the pool of refs that have been officiating the entire weekend. As far as their being relationships between peeps in derby its part of derby just how it is and I dont think you can call a referees integrity into question unless he has done something to warrant it. I think Tootie is doing a fine Job and should continue to do so.

    Coach Pauly

  23. @Crash Test Ref and Pauly

    This article is strictly focused on tournament play and I have not said a single negative word about refs in general or Tootie. This is completely an argument aimed at WFTDA's policies.

  24. "How about we just stop it now before it becomes a large enough issue to become a major embarrassment for the sport."

    Seriously? THIS is where we face major embarrassment?

    This issue needs to be addressed before:

    - skaters with rated-X skater names?
    - leagues with ugly-ass logos?
    - videos featuring girls who can't skate, falling all over the floor?
    - jello-wrestling fund raisers?
    - refs who can't skate?
    - the racial homogeneity of the skater/fan base?
    - the lack of a tv-friendly rules set?

    To name a few. Don't get me started.
    How about y'all pick a real battle, please.

  25. I am of the opinion that the WFTDA should open/start a discussion with ALL member leagues about where THEY want derby to be in 5-10 years and formulate a Strategic Plan to do so, in a transparent manner, before anyone can nitpick about who is doing what with whom after a bout is done.

    That will at least help to determine whether or not they actually need to make amendments to the Ref Code of Conduct to include the aforementioned 'relations' or not.

    Given the polarity of this issue, as well as those who are 'edgy' vs.'mainstream', I'd love to hear that whole discussion.

  26. ... and I'm pretty sure the top agenda item in any five-to-ten year strategic plan ought to be to respond to the most exciting, most well-played, and best-reffed game anyone's ever seen by dropping everything and taking immediate measures to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. :-)

  27. @Anonymous 8:06

    None of those things affect the legitimacy of the sport. Sure, some of those things might be embarrassing but they also are never going to hit ESPN's airwaves. A youtube video that gets 200 hits hardly compares to getting talked about on Sportscenter. The ref issue is something that could be discussed on ESPN if roller derby ever does get popular enough and that would be devastating.


    I would imagine that strategic plan is already in place. Now, the transparency is another issue, which is really a much broader issue with anything WFTDA does. I think they're just now realizing that people other than skaters actually want to know how they come to certain decisions. It will take some policy changes to get some more transparency and I'm really hoping they're trying to do that.

    @Anonymous 9:37

    The game isn't what's at question, the reaction to the game is what the problem is. If you don't think if that DNN thread would have been played out on ESPN, it would have been a huge problem, you're kidding yourself.

  28. Who's kidding who? If a reaction on ESPN to a skater/ref relationship (or on whatever media outlet happens to be 'the world wide sports leader' in 2018) approaches even a fraction of the hubbub caused by, say, the ice figure skating olympic judging scandals ... I owe everyone a coke.

    - anonymous 8:06/9:37

  29. @Anonymous

    God, I would hope it wouldn't approach the figure skating scandal. The International Skating Union had to completely change how judging is done. I'm sure figure skating didn't consider that a major embarrassment or anything. (note: we can make a minor change now to prevent the same thing from happening or we could do nothing now and go though a major embarrassment later and have to do a major overhaul of how refs are handled and maybe have to give out two Hydras for one season. The first way sounds a lot easier.)

    The reason roller derby wouldn't approach the figure skating scandal is because roller derby will never be as big as figure skating (or at least as big as it was in 2002), even if it is in the Olympics. But, if you scaled the popularity of the sport relative to the coverage of each "scandal", I'd bet you a coke they'd be pretty close.

  30. Have any of you worked on staffing a major event? It's REALLY difficult to line up potential people who have the skills/certifications you want. The certified refs in a given region are generally affiliated with and/or involved with someone from a league that's skating in the event.

    My league has a travel team skater whose brother and brother-in-law are refs, and whose sister is Head NSO and penalty tracker. A home team skater's father is a ref. A home team skater's father is a referee. One inactive skater who is likely to be a home team skater and either B team or travel team once she's recovered from compartmental syndrome has been a good friend of mine for almost 25 years and was my prom date.

    Despite all this, I don't worry a bit about officiating or statistical bias. Given the closeness of the relationships and how well-known they are, EVERYONE involved is very very focused on calling a fair game and never giving off the slightest appearance of bias. Honestly I think we probably have the second best ref crew/NSO crew in the state.

    I worry more about inadequate refs who can't call a game right. I would posit that your suggested approach presents a greater chance of the latter problem than the current approach presents of the former perceived but largely imaginary problem.

  31. All due respect but your opinion doesn't matter when it comes to perceived bias. The fans are opinions are what matters in this instance. If every fan of roller derby found out that a ref in the championship game was dating one of the skaters, would it be damaging to the sport? Absolutely. No question about it.

    There were plenty of adequate refs at this year's tournaments to handle every game. By playoffs next year, there's going to be even more. Resources are not an issue. Getting the problem recognized and fixed is the issue.

  32. If we didn't allow someone to ref with someone they were somehow involved (romantically, familial or otherwise), I'd be the only ref left in our league. And DO NOT WANT. We also don't really have quite enough ties yet to really pull in refs from other surrounding leagues, though we've been building those ties slowly over time.

    I think that for tournaments, etc, that have such a wide span, it's easier to find refs than it is for inner-league bouts and things.