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Monday, July 19, 2010

Roller Derby sure ain't what it used to be!

As Larry Smith said in the documentary Rolling Thunder in reference to the Roller Games Organization, I too am disheartened to admit the sport seems to have evolved into “show first, derby second”. Actually, a more accurate statement would be roller derby of today is something like “women empowerment first, derby second”.  First of all, let me just make one thing clear. There is nothing wrong with roller derby being an avenue for the women’s movement. But how is operating as an amateur sports league funded by the players and requiring their free labor empowering? If roller derby is a facet of the women’s movement, it should not be one in which women have mid life crises and need to wear lingerie in public. It should be one of strong women operating successful powerful enterprises that dominate both the entertainment and sports arenas, (and look good doing it).

I’ve tried to gather an impression of what Jerry Seltzer feels about roller derby of today by reading his blog, but all I could come up with is mixed feelings. Of course it would only be natural for him to reminisce the past, regardless of whatever capacity roller derby exists in today, as he has so many family and friends tied up in the history. I guess since it’s so hard for modern derby to live up to the standard set by derby skaters of the past, maybe he is just happy to see it being played in any form. Regardless, I think he feels what I know: derby today is only a fraction of what it could be.

Seltzer said of today’s derby: “…unlike our games which were professional promotions aimed at an audience, these were women who formed their own non-profit leagues, paying monthly dues or fees, raising money not only to continue but also for the community and charity commitments.  They are hard driving, hard playing athletes who go to bars after the ‘bouts’ for fun and dancing with friends and fans.  And they are doing it for themselves, not for an audience.” (The Sports Fan)

Sure all of this is true, but it seems like a silver lining in a cloud wrought with mismanagement and lack of skill. “Professional promotions aimed at an audience” just sounds like the better alternative to me. I’m sorry but I don’t understand why forming your own league just to pay your own dues and fees is impressive. I guess in the start-up, grassroots respect it’s impressive. But in the “hard driving, hard playing athletes who go to bars” respect, it seems kind of pansy ass. It’s no wonder they have to raise money just “to continue”, they’re “doing it for themselves, not for an audience”. And we already know how I feel about their “community and charity commitments” (refer to my blog Pushing the Envelope: Part 1). Maybe I am right that Jerry misses the derby of the past. He at least notes the considerable differences:

“They are not as skilled as our skaters were; after all many had skated for 10 years or more and could act from instinct, but these were women who had to work other jobs, get paid nothing for skating and yet went all out.” (The Sports Fan)“Oddly enough, I don’t think it makes that much difference to a lot of the participants.”  (I Love Roller Derby Everyday)

I have to note the irony here. Not a week ago I was discussing this very issue with my past coach who feels underappreciated by a league who relies on her consummate coaching skills without paying her so much as credit. I wrote to her: “That is bullshit. But you know how I feel- it is not right to run the sport on the backs of the skaters and expect them to pay for everything and get nothing in return. But I am apparently unique in the current derby world. If it were up to me and we had our derby dome, you would be a top paid skating official. Maybe someday...” Skaters don’t LIKE that they don’t get paid and have to fund the entire sport themselves, it’s just the way it is and they accept it. Because they are just in it for fun, there is nothing at stake. There are no skater unions. League committees are a joke. Everyone’s paying for it, (literally and figuratively).

I don’t want to misrepresent Mr. Seltzer. I am just presenting what I think. Jerry Seltzer himself is very respectful and appreciative of the girls who currently keep up the sport.  Maybe he sees the die hard commitment of today’s skaters energizing compared to the prima donnas of the past.  In his blog The Sports Fan he writes: “I did feel pride in what they were doing, along with the other games I have seen recently in Denver, San Francisco, Sonoma County.  With spoiled athletes making tens of millions of dollars and showing great selfishness on television, how refreshing to see what the Derby Girls (and now Derby boys) are putting into this all-amateur, legitimate sport, with no huge payouts, just the satisfaction in playing in something that is theirs.”

He is right about one thing. Regardless of my beliefs on how leagues ought to be run and my vision for derby’s future, the derby girls of today are one bunch of bad ass women.  While I believe that “non-profit leagues” is more an idea born out of circumstance rather than good will and that skaters do not willingly chose to finance leagues but rather HAVE TO, I do agree that in order to do all that these must be one committed bunch of skaters. Misled about management and marketing maybe, but relentless and tenacious nonetheless. It’s impressive as I said, in the “start-up, grassroots” sort of way.

Seltzer raises another point which I’d like to address from a different angle. He says: “Many are afraid that if [Roller Derby] becomes too big or widely televised, the game will lose its feeling of amateurism and grass roots appeal.” Um, that may be what they say, but what they are truly afraid of is being pushed out by legitimate skaters with talent. That “feeling of amateurism and grass roots appeal” is not a product of design, but one of circumstance.  Who is drawn to the “grass roots appeal” other than the participants themselves? I don’t hear any fans saying “I bought a ticket tonight because this sport is just so underground and amateurish”.

One of my personal mottos regarding derby girls of today is “they don’t love roller derby, they love how roller derby makes them FEEL”. As Seltzer put it, they are getting “no huge payouts, just the satisfaction in something that is theirs.” The skaters are invested in a FEELING. Maybe it is because I am a woman, or maybe it is my defiant nature but I guess I just view it differently. J. Seltz goes on to say: “It is a little hard especially for men to understand that these women (on the whole) are dressing and acting the way they do not to entice anyone but to please themselves...” Woah. Wait. Stop. WHAT? My impression has always been that the reason roller girls are “dressing and acting the way they do” is INTIRELY to entice, and that is the reason it is pleasing to them. Think about it. Some men go through a stereotypical mid-life crisis where they divorce their wives, buy sports cars and freak out about hair loss. What do you think roller derby is for some women? For the older ones, it totally serves as an avenue to reassure them they are still attractive, and for the young skaters, fulfill a burlesque style fantasy in an appropriate outlet. They all like the attention, that’s why so many girls who are terrible at skating are walking around the games in fishnets and hotpants. THAT is what is empowering to them. Not skating their hearts out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certain skating is fun for them too; it just isn’t the top priority.

In I Love Roller Derby Everyday, Jerry Seltzer speculates on the success of today’s derby: “but I wonder, because these are women competing in a full-body contact sport, because of the clouded history of the game, and maybe because it is all amateur controlled from top to bottom, why isn’t more of society aware of this fast growing phenomenon?” I’ve got a theory for ya: Americans like watching real sports. But derby IS real you say? Well ya, ROLLER DERBY is real, these athletes are not. 

For example, read what skater Martha Spiva had to say on the “I Love Roller Derby Day” facebook page: “To say Roller Derby has changed me is an understatement! I became Fresh Meat already committed to it with my own gear 2 weeks after turning 41…seeing myself as over weight & fat. Yes, technically I am...but in just 2 months my legs are soo much stronger and I see myself as this beautiful, vital, STRONG, sexy kick ass woman who can give mean blocks and bruises! I am on skates at least 3 days a week…if not at Derby then at the rink for all skate with the rest of my Fresh Meat friends! I have found new amazing friendships with women who think like I do. This is a sport where "big girls" are celebrated and feared... *laugh* So much fun!!!” 

That’s great for Martha, but do you see how it illustrates my point? If it’s not staged cat fights, pre-determined outcomes or wrestling style antics that keeps the public from taking us seriously, it will be bad skating. No one wants to come out to watch your half assed attempt to revive your youth. They want to see an entertaining sporting event. When it comes to recruitment, all that matters these days is if you have a checkbook. My skating ability has never been enough to carry me, and that’s just unfortunate.

As I said in my previous blog You know what’s sexy? Talented Athletes, sex appeal is one of the best parts about roller derby, (and not just because I think it’s marketable). But it certainly shouldn’t be the only driving force. When it is noticeable to spectators that the only thing motivating skaters is their own satisfaction, derby is on a track of getting old pretty fast. With fame, I suppose the skaters of derby’s heyday probably did get “spoiled” and show “great selfishness”, but ultimately skating was their job and they were held accountable to the audience. Derby’s future will be brighter if more attention is paid to today’s fans. My solution? More time skating and less time looking good equals more fans and a future for roller derby.

Now go out and skate.


  1. Many bouts cost $15 out here in Eastbay area... Waaaaaay too much for amateur derby... I would think $15 is a ticket for a Pro event... I can see a MLB baseball game for less than $10 in Oakland...
    I think these teams promote the 41 year old trying to find her youth beacause she has $$$ and time and will donate both to make her FEEL young athletic sexy... The team benifits from free labor and never really intends on getting her in the game..

  2. EXCELLENT POINT!!! That is exactly what I am talking about. When I can see a professional baseball game for less money than an amateur roller derby game, we're not doing something right.

  3. Rally racing and drifting have done a pretty good job of coming out of the shadows - "Fast and Furious' helped - wheres Drew Barrymore hard work gone?

  4. While I sort of agree with you on some points, I don't think that all of us that are older are looking to relive our youth. I am 36 and a really big girl. I have a lot of work to do, but to say that I am not an athlete is almost-offensive.

    For me, Roller Derby presented a way for me to be in a competitive sport without the stigma associated with my size. Just because I am a big girl does not mean that I can't skate. Look at Beyonslay. She is a phenomenial skater and is looked up to by many and feared just as much. I don't think anyone would dare say she isn't an athlete.

    However, Roller Derby still isn't taken seriously by most fans. Even those that come to bouts have often stated they think it isn't a real sport. I dare anyone to put on a pair of skates and take a few hits from a derby girl and say it isn't a real sport. It takes guts and skill to do what we all do.

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