A group of officials — some on skates, some off — make roller derby bouts go
They operate under pseudonyms — “Oliver DePlace,” “El Tronco Del Mono,” “Lotsa Rage.”
Skating referees listen to The Star-Spangled Banner at the Tsunami Sirens’ roller derby bout against the Redding Angry Beavers on June 23. Six skating referees award points and assess penalties over the course of a bout. Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
They wear the same basic uniform, taking individual stylistic liberties as they see fit. Some have numbers on their backs.
“They’re the team that never loses,” Cayce “Red Eye Jedi” Harris, emcee for the Tsunami Sirens roller derby team, tells a crowd at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds on June 23. “The zebras!”
Skating officials, as the six men and women in black and white stripes are called, restore order to the controlled chaos that is a roller derby bout. They are volunteers from all over northern California, contributing to a sport they’ve grown to love.
All six serve specific functions: Two jammer referees keep track of the points scored by the two jammers on the track, and four pack referees watch the other eight skaters for illegal contact or activity.
“One of the largest aspects is calling a safe game,” says Michelle Dudley, head referee for the Sirens’ June 23 bout against the Redding Angry Beavers. “People want to have a good time.”
Dudley skates under the nom-de-roller derby “Kiss My Axe,” a reference to her bachelor’s degree in forestry from Humboldt State University. She began skating in November 2009, while pursuing a master’s degree from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and refereed her first bout in April 2010. “I didn’t make a call the whole hour and a half,” she recalls with a laugh.
The head referee has three special privileges: Dudley can talk directly to the skaters (other referees are forbidden from doing so), she can call for official reviews and she can eject players, coaches and fans. Ideally, Dudley uses that power as a last resort, but “it’s happened before. People do things, intentionally or unintentionally.”
Skating referee Frank “Reff Gordon” Isaacson holds up five fingers, indicating that a jammer has scored five points, during the Tsunami Sirens’ roller derby bout against the Redding Angry Beavers on June 23. “No matter what call you make, you’re going to piss off the crowd,” he says. “You have to have thick skin.” Del Norte Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
Dudley, who lives in Eureka and works for a lumber company, has applied for referee certification through the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), whose rulebook is used by the Tsunami Sirens and their opponents in bouts. Certification enables both skating and non-skating officials to work on high-level WFTDA bouts; skating skills and performance are evaluated as part of the application process.
“There are no certified referees (living) between the Bay Area and Oregon,” Dudley explains. “It means you’ve mastered the game.”
Pack referees are looking for illegal blocks above the shoulders or below the knees, grabbing and holding onto opponents, and any contact occurring outside the boundaries of the track. Most illegal contact falls under the purview of minor penalties; intentional or severe examples of illegal contact can draw major penalties.
“No matter what call you make, you’re going to piss off the crowd,” says derby referee Frank Isaacson. “You have to have thick skin.”
Four minor penalties add up to one major penalty, at which time players are sent to the penalty box. Major penalties call for one minute in the box; penalties carry over between jams.
“The directive of a skating official is, be 100 percent certain you’re making the right call,” Dudley says. “If you think it had a major impact but you’re not sure, it’s downgraded to a minor impact. If you think it had a minor impact but you’re not sure, it’s downgraded to no impact.”
Jammers, the point-scorers, are not exempt from the rules; on three occasions in the June 23 bout, both the Sirens’ and the Angry Beavers’ jammers occupied the penalty box. (In those instances, both penalties are nullified and play resumes.)
In the middle of the action — indeed, in the middle of the flat track — Andrew Bascochea oversees the execution of penalties, points and other minutiae — “Pretty much everything that makes this thing a sport,” he says.
Not unlike football, basketball and baseball, with statisticians and clock operators and other support personnel, roller derby requires a number of non-skating officials: two scoreboard operators, two penalties trackers, three penalty box supervisors, two lightboard operators (to relay calls from pack referees), two lineup trackers, and a whiteboard operator that lets the teams know what exactly is going on.
Bascochea, who lives in Crescent City and works “for the government,” was inspired to volunteer with the Sirens by the 2009 movie “Whip It,” starring Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page as roller derby players.
“I thought, that was cool,” he said. “Then I watched a bout. The next week was boot camp. That was two years ago.”
“I go with the girls to away bouts,” adds Bascochea, known as “Pork-Chop Express” (referencing the 1986 Kurt Russell movie “Big Trouble in Little China”) at bouts. “It’s great fun to go out, meet the teams, go somewhere else. At the end of the day, we go to the after-party.”
That sense of camaraderie attracted Isaacson to roller derby. Isaacson, who works in information technology in Redding, got divorced in 2008 and was looking for a way to meet new people.
“I wanted to get back in shape (as well),” Isaacson says. “I wanted to be involved. I got really involved. Roller derby sucks you in. It becomes, like, a lifestyle.”
Isaacson plays with North Coast Men’s Roller Derby (pseudonym: Alec Brawlwin; the facial resemblance is uncanny) in addition to refereeing. As an official, he goes by “Reff Gordon” and wears number 24; both NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and Isaacson hail from Vallejo. “I just threw it out there and it stuck,” he says.
The Sirens-Angry Beavers bout starts off well for the home team, as the Sirens jump out to a 91-27 lead. The six referees are constantly moving, constantly waving their hands and shouting out calls amid the din of popular music and physical contact.
In the second half, the Sirens nurse their big lead as the Angry Beavers ratchet up the physicality. The game gets rougher. Players dish out more big hits and are sent to the penalty box more often.
Never once, of course, does the game get out of hand, even as the Sirens cruise to a 146-75 victory. The officials, skating and non-skating alike, strike a delicate balance in the middle of and above the fray.