Penalty Blaming

Originally published Feb 2017

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 made a mistake. This happens all the time. I’ve heard skaters blame someone for their injury, talk badly about someone being penalty-heavy and dangerous, and so on.  

For example (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 NOT OKAY. Here’s why:

1. Contacting the coaches is a passive-aggressive way to put Becky on blast. Suzy is upset that her arm is broken. Sure. Understandably. But trying to get Becky “in trouble” is not going to un-break Suzy’s arm. Suzy may be contacting the coaches under the guise of “preventing further injury,” but coaches should know if they have a player who commits a lot of penalties that could lead to injury and should be working with the penalty-heavy player to improve 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.” If the comment is directed at a person of color or a trans person, they are engaging in harmful stereotypes and need to interrogate their biases. Either way, the skater who is viewed as “too aggressive” is not doing anything wrong or harmful.

As a sidenote, 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. It's up to the coaches to inform skaters at what level they should be practicing/playing.

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 injured at some point in time. We practice together and make mistakes together and sometimes those mistakes 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 not being realistic.

4. Blaming Becky is a way to say “you intentionally tried to hurt me.” I think there are very few people who are trying to hurt another person. The majority of folks are not setting out to break someone’s bones. They are trying their best to play derby, but everyone commits penalties and everyone makes mistakes. It’s unfortunate when penalties or mistakes lead to injury, but it's the reality of the sport we play.

5. Blaming Becky is also a way to make her feel guilty, and trying to make someone feel guilty is emotional manipulation. 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 broke her collarbone when she hit the floor after I legally blocked her. After this happened, I felt soooo bad. Even though no one ever blamed me, I toned my blocking way down because I was afraid I might hurt someone. It took me years to get past the guilt I felt and play at 100%.

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 mentioned the bloody nose. 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.

6. Perhaps Suzy should not have been cleared to scrimmage. It’s possible that her injury occurred because she was not safe enough to receive contact (legal or not). She may have fallen because of this and she may have broken her arm because she had stability issues. 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 and should not have been cleared.

Coaches and trainers should prioritize safety over everything. They should 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 new skater training and/or cleared to scrimmage before they were safe enough to participate. Coaches should 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.

I hope you take-away that unless you are a coach or an official, you don’t need to make anyone aware of their penalties and blaming someone for an injury is harmful. 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.

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The Sacred Bench
Originally published May 2016