Independent Referees?

Why in the world would you want independent referees?
If you're not familiar with the insular and sometimes odd world of roller derby, this sounds like a really stupid question. Of course the officials who oversee the fairness of any sport must be independent of any one team, right? Anything else would be unfair - officials who are affiliated with one of the teams playing would have a vested interest in seeing their team win, and thus may be tempted - consciously or sub-consciously - to slant calls in favor of "their" team. 

If you're invested in the world of derby, you may not have even considered this question. 

A short history of officiating in the roller derby revival
In modern roller derby, referees for a new league are usually recruited from the friends and family of the skaters on that league. In more established leagues, skaters may retire from playing and join the ref crew. Refs practice with the league, call scrimmages and sometimes practices with that league, and even socialize with the skaters of the league, attending league fundraisers and gatherings on their own time or as the league requires them to. A ref without a league is like a fish out of water; the league provides training, support, and equipment to its referees, and they provide a service to the league. It's a symbiotic relationship; skaters can't play derby without refs, and refs can't ref derby without players and leagues.

Another contributing factor is that most (almost all) derby refs are unpaid volunteers. Officiating any sport takes time, skill, and commitment; roller derby has an especially onerous ruleset to learn, and is coached and skated by people who are pushing all 50 pages of rules to the limit in search of a win. (I think the rules evolved to be as complex as they are partially in self-defense; any minute grey area will cause a trackside rules debate over a new strategy thought up specifically to take advantage of it.) If the officials aren't invited to be a part of the social life around a league, they quickly get fed up with the difficult parts of officiating.

It's even common for officials to be dating or married to skaters on a league. Roller derby's modern incarnation is led by women; even the name of the major inter-league organization (WFTDA, or Women's Flat Track Derby Association) explicitly prohibits men from skating under its auspices. With tens of thousands of women pursuing this sport worldwide, the first group of skaters to pop up in any geographic area is almost certainly going to be female-only. The menfolk of these fledgeling skaters face a grim choice: either become a derby widow, left at home with the kids 3-6 nights a week while derby consumes the life and conversation of a formerly-devoted wife and mother, or suck it up and get involved alongside his significant other. Getting involved means coaching, volunteering, or - often - officiating. If a brother, husband or boyfriend decides to officiate derby "for" his significant other, belonging to the same league eases the process - skating in the same place at the same time is much easier than trying to match up different practice schedules. (Even if a man attends a bout and falls in love with the sport, his options to be involved with it are similarly limited. Fortunately, the gender line in modern derby is beginning to blur; more and more men's teams and leagues are cropping up, and men are slowly becoming accepted in an odd reversal of the stereotypical gender-acceptance pattern in sports. See a future article on this topic.)

Why on earth would you want to be independent?
With all of the preceding weight behind the tradition of league-affiliated officials, the question for many established leagues becomes "Why would we want to divorce ourselves from our officials and use independent referees?" There are many reasons; here are a few of the most critical:
  • Perception of Bias
This is the largest and most visible reason, looming like an iceberg on a cold night in the North Atlantic as the Roller Derby Queen plows heedlessly forward on its path to fame, fortune, and Olympic hotpants. Over on Zebra Huddle, where derby refs hang out online, the topic is debated endlessly: can I, as a referee, be both truly bias-free, and affiliated with my league? The perennial answer is: you can almost certainly be personally unbiased, and you have other refs making sure you don't subconsciously stray, but you will never, ever be able to completely convince the uninitiated fans that you're unbiased. We do many things to avoid a perception of bias, and to hide from the public that many referees are affiliated with a league: we refrain from cheering for anyone while wearing stripes (or whatever uniform is set for non-skating officials); we don't display team or league patches, colors, or logos on our uniforms. We're astride the line, trying to have the best of both worlds: we want the warmth and support of a league, we want to be involved in the politics of the derby world in a way we fear will be impossible without league membership; but we also want to appear unbiased and independent. It's a hard line to walk, and while many experienced derby refs walk it gracefully, it's still a division that will tear officials apart and cause major contention as the sport grows beyond kitch and takes its place among the world of "professional" (in which I'm including semi-professional amateur, e.g. Olympic) sports, where major money in the form of salaries and sponsorships is riding on the outcome of a single bout or tournament.
  • Derby Drama
For those of us who aren't (yet) ref'ing in the big time, this may be a closer-to-earth reason to become or stay independent. Every new derby league goes through the familiar forming-storming-norming-performing group formation process. The difference is that, since roller derby skaters tend to be independent and passionate people, in many cases this process causes casualties (players kicked out of the group) or even league splits. (Don't believe me? Watch Hell on Wheels, the documentary about the re-birth of roller derby, and the first league split which resulted in the formation of WFTDA.) While roller derby is much better than may other sports at leaving the fight on the track and partying together post-bout, there is still significant politicking, strife, and bullshit which goes down within and among roller derby leagues. Being independent removes many barriers caused by derby drama: an independent ref is more likely to be welcomed by any other league, even if s/he occasionally works with different leagues who are not on speaking terms.
  • Pay and Politics
Working as a solo independent referee can be lonely, which is why some of us have banded together to form the Dark Side of the Bout. One of the benefits to forming our own group is that we can select our own internal administration, in any way we want. Some derby leagues allow their semi-autonomous official teams to elect leadership; in some leagues, the entire league votes on the head referee. (Going back to the perception of bias - if your re-election rests on keeping "your" skaters happy, are you going to be truly unbiased? What about if you're being paid, and the election affects your income?) Either way, the refs function within the league's rules and bylaws, and they may or may not have input to those rules and bylaws. Independence allows the formation of rules, bylaws, and in our case a code of conduct that the team can fully support, without trying to compromise between the needs of players and the needs of officials. Independence also eases the possible future establishment of a nation- or world-wide association of officials, with universal pay scales and so forth.

Problems with independence - and solutions we've found
I'm not going to blow sunshine and rainbows up your butt. There are difficulties associated with being an independent official or team of officials. Fortunately, there are ways around most of them.
  • Affiliation and Networking
It's easy to feel like you're out in the cold: without a league to lean on, you may have problems finding out about upcoming bouts, being invited to work those bouts, or being involved in the larger world of derby politics. 

Finding out about bouts and being invited to work them is less of a problem than you might think. Facebook is a great place to network with other derby people, local and otherwise; if a league is open about its planning process, chances are someone will mention it on Facebook. Our referees are often invited to participate in email lists or Facebook groups where other leagues conduct business and plan events, especially after working a bout for those leagues; everyone is perpetually short-handed, so once you know about an upcoming event, working it is often as simple as letting your availability be known. A few leagues tend to be more secretive, for reasons that defy understanding. In our case, we've been able to find at least one person on such leagues who networks, and ask them to include us on anything that's being planned as early as possible. Since they need our help, that usually works out, although it's not as smooth as the first method. Having an independent team of officials multiplies this effect: each member of the team brings back events s/he learns about, and the team is able to help staff events as needed, even several bouts on the same day.

This problem can also be helped by working with other local derby associations, leagues, and teams. Rather than recruiting internal referees, leagues who value the impartiality of an independent official team may decide to direct potential recruits to your organization, and to rely exclusively on independent referees to staff their bouts. This route has many benefits both for those leagues and for you as a referee: it adds credibility to the league whose bouts you work, and to your independent organization within the derby community. It also takes the headache of maintaining a ref crew off the league's shoulders: roller derby leagues have enough problems organizing themselves and putting on bouts; most of them appreciate being able to hand the question of recruiting, training, and staffing officials to someone else.
  • Organization
Having an independent organization does add extra workload: the ref crew has to do some of the work that otherwise could be pushed off onto the league, such as maintaining rosters, holding meetings, taking care of dues, etc.

The Dark Side of the Bout deals with these issues by eliminating whatever possible, and streamlining where you have to have something. We don't collect dues - we don't need the money, and without money we're able to miss paying taxes and other business overhead. Each official takes care of his or her own needs; we take collections for group buys of uniforms or equipment. Without any team assets, we don't need to store anything, so we can miss the expense of a central meeting place. The most expensive thing we had to buy was this domain name; at $10 per year, one of the refs was able to fund it without hurt. We utilize Google Docs for our planning, and other free online services for almost everything else we do.

Admittedly, this business model will only function so long as we remain a small team. Should we at some future date grow beyond the point where this is sustainable, or join a larger association which charges dues, we may begin collecting dues, or we may begin charging leagues for our services. Either path will require additional business overhead, but will also provide some small income to offset the additional work.
  • Awareness
The largest problem we have faced so far is that leagues who are unfamiliar with us tend to assume that, like most ref crews, we are a part of the league which we are physically closest to. Education has played a large part in breaking down this perception; hence this essay. Time and the gradual shift towards independent officials will eventually render this a non-issue; in the meantime, the Dark Side of the Bout has been welcomed with open arms after the discovery, even if not before.

The Dark Side of the Bout is not the only independent group of roller derby officials. In the Austin, TX area, Team Zebra has many well-known members; in the Pacific Northwest, Free Range Zebras are working tons of bouts. Independent referees and groups of referees are popping up all over as roller derby expands and grows into a true sport. Having worked both as an affiliated referee and as an independent, I hope for the sake of the sport that the trend towards independence continues.

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