Irradiated by LabRat
Yes, I know it’s been really quiet around here lately. That’s because July has been insanely busy, with the topic of this post being a major contributing factor and work, friends, and other hobbies being no quieter. Either way, n+1 people have asked me about this and I have absolutely no better ideas for content, so here we go.
1. WTF is roller derby?
It’s women on roller skates playing a game resembling a cross between NASCAR and demolition derby. Go fast, turn left, if you’re assigned to scoring you try to lap your opponents, and if you’re assigned to defense you try to capture the scorer and/or hit her out of bounds/to the ground and/or hit the people trying to help her. The player responsible for scoring is called the jammer and the players on defense are called blocker. The chief blocker gets a fancy striped cover for her helmet and is called the pivot. Mostly her job is yelling at the other blockers. An interval of play is called a jam. The game as a whole is divided into two half-hour periods with an unlimited number of jams (max jam time = 2 minutes, endable earlier under various conditions), and a halftime in between to allow the players to recover some, the coaches to encourage/yell at them, and the referees to reshuffle into new vantage points. There are a bunch of other rules besides, but they are largely uninteresting to the casual observer. To quote a friend, it’s a game in which every rule is as fiddly as the infield fly rule in baseball.
On the grounds that jetting around on roller skates body-checking each other is way too awesome to leave entirely to women, there are now men’s roller derby leagues as well.
2. Isn’t that fixed, like wrestling?
Used to be, back in the seventies. Roller derby has actually been around in various different incarnations since the 1920s, and has varied from a straight-up sport to an exhibition/entertainment event. Right now it’s a straight-up sport.
3. Is fighting allowed?
Used to be, when the current incarnation still had more sideshow elements and penalties were more jokes/excuses for show than actual penalties. Now actually attacking the other players, as opposed to landing legal hits (nothing above the shoulders or below mid-thigh, can’t use your arms or kick), will get you ejected from the game. As it turns out, allowing players to actively try to beat the shit out of each other isn’t all that sustainable in a game that already has a pretty high rate of player attrition from injury.
The completely legal and sanctioned hits are perfectly capable of sending a skater crumpling to the floor or tumbling into the audience, particularly as there are no weight classes and players are sometimes getting hit by girls that are much bigger than them, so the game still isn’t exactly nerf. Imagine a sport that equally encouraged both the body types found on the backs of racehorses and those found in the defensive line of a football team and you’ll have an idea of the potential disparities.
4. Why are there so many, uh…
5. You know…
It’s a sport whose modern incarnation originated in the punk-alternative counterculture and features highly athletic women in often skimpy costumes. What do you think?
Suffice to say the two communities are close enough that derby skaters often have a spot in pride parades even if everyone on wheels is actually straight.
(There are a lot of gay/bi men in a lot of amateur sports leagues for similar reasons. It’s just being out tends to get the shit kicked out of them, whereas derby tends to encourage any and all to fly their freak flag.)
7. Do you have to be an athlete to skate?
Yes and no. Most leagues make a point of advertising that all skill levels and body types are welcome, for the simple fact that being able to roller skate isn’t that common a skill anymore and most leagues value an inclusive you-can-do-it atmosphere. That said, being able to skate and hit people for an hour straight is actually a pretty big physical demand; by the time you have the skill and stamina to pass the tests to be allowed to bout, you’ll be an athlete whether you started out that way or not. (This is not even going into what you may have to do to be recruited to a team within the league, which depends a lot on the size of the league.) You either put in the sweat, or quit.
8. That girl is really, um…
10. …Doesn’t that matter?
I’ll skip the fat vs. fit lecture and reiterate that the nature of the game encourages a lot of different body types. Jammers need speed and agility, but for a blocker being big is often an advantage in and of itself owing to sheer laws of physics. It’s difficult for a much smaller woman to effectively hit a bigger one, or to recover from a hit before major position has been lost.
There’s also more than one way to make it through a pack of skaters; little jammers tend to duck and weave and juke, bigger jammers tend to bash their way through. It all gets much more complicated than that, due to rules and skill levels, but as a basic explanation this one will do. Suffice to say everyone needs to be fit, but being skinny is not a requirement.
11. What kind of gear do you need to play?
Quad skates (NOT rollerblades), knee pads, elbow pads, wristguards, skate or hockey helmet, and a mouth guard. Skimping on any of it will get you hurt, maybe badly. Yes, this gets expensive pretty fast. Most leagues have at least some loaner gear for newbies who are still trying on the sport, but eventually you will have to pony up if you want to continue.
To give you an idea, scattered around various areas of our house are two pairs of skates (I want to upgrade soonish to get a better fit/better quality- this will probably cost me between $350-500, my old skates will go to the loaner bag for any tiny-footed fresh meat out there), a skate tool, a bearing puller, three sets of wheels, we’ve both upgraded our bearings at least once and gone through a set of laces apiece, bearing lube, a wash bottle (again for the bearings, an unbelievable amount of crap accumulates in your wheels when you skate outdoors), two bags for gear (both milsurp and pretty cheap, thankfully), a full set of helmet/pads for both of us, leather toeguards for Stingray (my skates are just duct-taped since I care less about them), and a pair of padded shorts.
The tendency to go gear queer is if anything even worse in derby than it is in shooting. Some of my fellow skaters have more sets of wheels than Imelda Marcos had shoes.
12. This sounds like I’m gonna get hurt pretty badly pretty quickly.
Maybe, thought it’s far from inevitable. You need an interesting mix of fearlessness and a very healthy respect for Newton’s laws of motion to play. Respect your learning curve skating and don’t try anything crazy until you’re pretty certifiable AND pretty damn skilled, never ever cheap out on your protective gear, learn the various falls and practice them over and over again, and train and supplement to protect your joints and connective tissues. Free weights are recommended if you don’t already have a physical hobby that challenges your connective tissues without just breaking them down. (Be very vigilant about form and don’t let your ego write checks you can’t cash in THIS realm as well.)
And try not to fall on your tailbone or your head. Seriously.
13. So just how fiddly ARE these rules?
Functionally? Pretty simple.
Technically? The sport is basically a mobile game of DnD for nerds who want to do something physical but don’t want to play with dumb jocks, so very. The occasional square-offs between 10th-dan rules lawyers are inevitable, and sometimes even change the game in fundamental ways. (See: scrum start.)
Short version: don’t hit with your elbows, or forearms, no kicking or tripping, don’t hit in the back, above the shoulders or below mid-thigh, turn left and stay near your team. Unless you’re the jammer, in which case haul ass and try not to get caught.
14. Why would you do something like this, anyway?