Let me be clear, I am not a sports fan. Period. I graduated from high school without attending a single sporting event. When I watch the super bowl I get up during the game to get snacks so I don’t miss the commercials.
And yet I have become a fan of roller derby. Now, those of you over forty-five have probably conjured up images of scantily clad skaters engaging in knock-out WWWF-style fights on the track, and are quite possibly imagining Raquel Welsh beating up her rival in Kansas City Bomber. I don’t mean to suggest that the sport was never like that, but rest assured, it is not like that now.
So what is it about roller derby that has captured the heart of this formerly apathetic sports viewer? In a word, it’s the community.
The women skating on that track represent one of the most diverse groups I can imagine. They are engineers, lawyers, journalists, burger-slingers, and teachers. They come in all shapes and sizes: tall, skinny, short, stocky, swift, solid, agile, nimble, cannonballs… Put any two of them next to each other on the street and you might wonder what on earth they had in common. But when you see them skate together, the answer is obvious.
On the track they move as one, each player seeming to know without looking where her teammates are and what they need from her. It’s beautiful to watch.
“Beautiful?” you may ask. Yes, beautiful. Watching a group of people who are so comfortable in their bodies and with their skills work together to achieve a goal, any goal, is breathtaking. But what makes these roller girls truly beautiful is the diversity of body types you see working together as one unit. These are not Rockettes, carbon copies of each other, moving mechanically to show just how similar they are. These are not ballet dancers, starved to identical proportions, seeking the ideal ballet-body.
The ideal derby-body doesn’t exist. Watch 10 minutes of any bout and you’ll see every conceivable body type find it’s niche out on the track. If you’re small and fast you can slip through an opening the opposing blockers didn’t even know was there. If you’re tall and skinny those long legs will give you speed. If you’re short and solid the opposing players don’t stand a chance against a hit from you. A team made up of only one type of woman would flounder.
But the derby community extends beyond just the players. There is also a legion of volunteer support staff, who donate their time and their sweat to make sure that those woman can skate their hearts out. And there are fans.
Perhaps the fans are the best part.
The behavior I’ve witnessed at derby bouts is some of the most heart-warming crowd behavior I’ve ever experienced. Now, the thing about rooting for a league-based sport, is that, no matter what happens, you win. So, I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that the fans are pretty much willing to root for any roller girl who pulls off an amazing jam at a league game.
But what happens when the teams travel?
Well, at a bout this weekend I found out what makes roller derby fans so special. Our All Star team faced off against the All Star team of a rival city. Now, I walked into the event, proudly sporting my team t-shirt, and tried to figure out what section to sit in… only to be defeated. The clumps of people sporting different team t-shirts and colors were spread all over the arena! There was no segregation by team allegiance.
Once the bout started our team pulled to an early lead and demonstrated some really spectacular skating. Our fans were, of course, thrilled. We held onto our lead, extending and extending it. I cheered, of course, but after a while I started to feel like something was missing from the crowd… no one was bad-mouthing either team.
Stop and think about that for a second. An arena full of sports fans. An incredibly imbalanced score board. And no one, not one person, yelled slurs or catcalls about the opposing team? How incredible is that?
In fact, in the second half, the opposing team pulled it together and had a couple of incredible jams back to back, and we cheered for them! That’s right, everyone cheered for their success.
Can you imagine football fans cheering for the opposing quarterback? Neither can I.
So, what do I love about derby? I love that women of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, can play a competitive contact sport, demonstrate incredible physical prowess, but retain the vibe that it’s all in good fun, and that success, anyone’s success, is worth celebrating.
So, for the first time in my life, I am a sports fan. I am a roller derby fan.