Roller Derby, A Game or Equality Movement?

Roller Derby, A Game or Equality Movement?

Once an all women's sport but maybe not anymore.


Roller Derby is becoming increasingly popular across the world. Known to most as an all women's sport, started by women and managed by women.

In 1935 Leo A. Seltzer, a sports promoter held an endurance race. The catch was you had to wear roller skates. There were 25 teams, each with one male and one female skater. Completing 57,000 laps around a rink was the goal. 57,000 laps was about the distance across the continental United States. Historians of sports acknowledge this as the first roller derby, according to an article from How Stuff Works.

These races were organized by Seltzer until 1937 when Damon Runyon, a sportswriter wrote that the most entertaining moments were the collisions between skaters. This changed the endurance event into a defensive game from then on, the article said.

The sport first started gaining popularity in the 1950s, matches had more than 15,000 people coming and watching at that time, and was even televised. Derby had elements of wrestling and boxing, known for its roughness and need for skill, according to an article from The Conversation.

The sport had a reputation for being rough and aggressive. In the early 70s, a slowing economy, rising fuel costs, a stifle in grassroots, social and amateur competition, made professional derby leave the sporting scene until the early 2000s, when it reappeared in Austin, Texas. Ever since derby's resurrecting has been driven largely by women and feminist ideals, the article said.

Recently Men's leagues have begun popping up all over the world, according to an article from The Guardian.

Men are beginning to join once all women's teams, combining sexes on the track which has sparked a debate about sexism in sports, and male domination within them. Participation of men in Roller Derby represents a gender role reversal. The sport is a world where women can be aggressive, competitive and just as entertaining "as men." But with men entering the sport one growing concern is it could result in women being pushed out of their own game, according to The Guardian.

"I think that most sports were invented by men and women had to fight their way in to even be allowed to participate. Roller derby is unique because it's the only sport that is the opposite. Started by women, for women, and men recognized its awesomeness and wanted in on the fun," jammer and blocker for the Seven Valley Rollers, Lisa Benson (Betty Machete) said.

Men have always been a part of the derby world in some way, usually through supporting the women who play as officials, coaches, volunteers or referees, The Conversation article said. Recently, men have decided they want to play the game. In 2007 the Men's Roller Derby Association (MRDA) was established. The first teams popped up in Australia. In March of 2017, the first Men's Roller Derby World Cup was held in Birmingham.

For many, these developments have not been welcome. The MRDA has 72 men's leagues, currently listed. This movement raises feminist concerns of men moving in to claim a sport women made their own, The Conversation article said.

There are a great number of women's leagues that don't allow men to play, due to concerns that men will gain more sponsorship, TV coverage and news coverage, over women, the article said.

"I think men have a different style of play and there is some fear in the derby community that some people will find it more exciting to watch the men than women, because of that different style. In that way, it could be said that they could "dominate" in terms of fans, sponsors and resources. That being said, I don't think these fears have been realized and I feel like there is a lot of crossover in the styles of men and women," Benson said.

To keep up with its growing membership, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) has grown quickly alongside the popularity of the sport. The WFTDA has aligned itself with the Men's Roller Derby Association, (MRDA) in order to accept diversity, it has been changing rules, play and policy, to be more inclusive of gender identities, The Conversation article said.

Men are beginning to take up more derby space each year and the first Men's World Cup had a significant amount of press, while locally female leagues asked to train with the male teams, leaving equal female teams behind, the article said.

"If men start dominating the sport and get a sports salary, I think I would be upset. Traditionally women's sports are not considered when we are talking sponsorship and publicity," blocker and pivot for the Seven Valley Rollers, Miriah Lawrence (Betty Bruiser) said.

Men's roller derby could be seen as an opportunity to move into a woman's space with an invitation from women to do so. By doing this, men who play the game could show the rest of the world that men can be willing to play with women, on their terms and accept them as the leaders of the game, The Guardian said.

A Coach for the Wizards of Australia, Emma Burnell has a different opinion, "How can you challenge the dominant paradigm and then in the same breath try to exclude men from playing? If roller derby as a collective is going to band together and lock arms and say "we're here to empower women only" you've just alienated half of the population and achieved the exact same thing male-dominated sports do already," she said in an article from The Guardian.

Accepting Men into roller derby creates an ideal world where everyone has access to every sport played. Where gender doesn't matter. We can't forget that women have been oppressed since the beginning of time and we still live in a male-dominated world, according to The Guardian. So the question is do women accept men into their sport for the sake of equality when for so long men have not accepted them into theirs?

"The mix is a good idea when it is clear that it's going to be that way. Men can bring new ideas to training and in some cases provide a challenge to women. It also works the other way too. Each of the genders can learn from one another, different tactics and methods for accomplishing the same goals," Stacee McCrory (Sawzall), jammer, blocker and pivot for the Seven Valley Rollers said.

Men have begun creating a different sports culture within derby. They are playing by women's rules technically, and have to draw on their expertise in skill to better themselves, an article from The Conversation said. Men are learning from women.

"Having men and women playing roller derby makes the sport stronger. It forces us, as athletes to diversify our movements, adjusting to the different athletes on the track," Lawrence said.

One argument against the inclusion of men into the sport of roller derby is that they have a competitive advantage due to size, weight and testosterone which offers an unfair advantage, perhaps a dangerous one too.

"It's a common misconception that men are bigger and stronger but there are a lot of men who are smaller in stature and can learn a lot from women in the way they move and use their size to their advantage," McCrory said.

"Men have a different advantage, just like women have a different advantage. I don't think it will make them more competitive or able to dominate the sport," Lawrence said.

Amy Martin a skater and coach in the derby world said in an article she wrote, The Impact of Sexism in Roller Derby, patriarchy impacts roller derby every day and shouldn't because its the one space where feminism has been allowed to thrive.

Roller derby has been seen as an escape from patriarchal oppression and sexism but seems to slip in anyway. The sport gives women an opportunity to be leaders and in doing that they become empowered, the article said.

Derby skaters like the athleticism and social aspect that come with the sport but there are plenty of sports that offer those same aspects. The difference is, derby liberates women in ways other sports can not. Women are encouraged to wear whatever they want when playing and use their bodies in ways to exemplify how strong they are. Our society has created gender roles that say girls are delicate and shouldn't play rough because they will get hurt. Derby turns this gender role around, the article said.

The do it yourself character of derby embraces pierced, tattooed bodies of all shapes and sizes which rests disagreeingly alongside the normal athletic bodies of popular elite sports, The Conversation article said.

At times women have reinforced these gender roles among themselves within the sport. Labeling each other as butch because they are too strong. Or going along with the expectations, unspoken rules, stereotypes and oppressive behaviors that society has created, Martins article said. Laughing about a stereotype or shrugging it off, only reinforces it.

"There is no actual science to prove gender roles are a real thing…because gender roles are so ingrained and reinforced, we are often not aware of how they impact us," Martin said in her article.

The bottom line is that men are coming into a woman's sport and there is no stopping them. What can be stopped is the sexism within the sport itself. Equality in the sport can be reached if each gender meets each other halfway on the track.

"Women can be aggressive without being labeled a bitch or butch or whatever else society comes up with. Men in the derby community appreciate the diversity of women and appreciate the strength and confidence of the women involved. Derby is unique that way and as long as we recognize that, it will survive even with more co-ed teams," Debi Barber, (Criminal) jammer for the Seven Valley Rollers said.

Sexism and exclusivity was once commonplace in full contact sports, and still is but not in roller derby. The sport demonstrated how diverse people can share in a fun, risky game while showing off strength and skill. It takes more than policy change to ensure sporting cultures are inclusive as they combine with culture, race, sexuality, class, religion and body size. Roller derby is a clear example of how a game can become a movement, The Conversation article said.

Men and women across the world will continue to play a sport that incorporates both athleticism and aggression while at the same time celebrating and challenging social norms of beauty, femininity, gender stereotypes and sexuality, all at the same time, an article from Professional Badass said.

"Many skaters admit that the initial allure of the sport was women in fishnets knocking each other off their skates, however, it's the camaraderie and the spirit of the sport that has captured the hearts of the skaters and their fans," the article said.

Perhaps roller derby is just that. A game that has captured the hearts and minds of all who play, while being a movement of equality for all.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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