About a year ago, I learned that my city has a roller derby team, and I was immediately excited. For most of my adult life, I’ve idolized roller derby, imagining it as a fun, fast-paced, no-holds-barred girl-centric sport that encouraged and supported aggressive women. Danielle Corsetto’s Girls with Slingshots arc centered around a roller derby girl named Mimi only served to solidify my nebulous understanding of roller derby as did this comic by cartoonist Lucy Knisley. And, as luck would have it, roller derby has been falling into my subconscious a lot lately whether by seeing the local girls at parades, suddenly finding comics about the sport, or seeing advertisements for their training camps and events, so when my friend Devon invited me to a match this past weekend, I was practically vibrating with anticipation.
Unfortunately, roller derby isn’t exactly big in my area and neither the sport nor the team gets a lot of support. The match was at the local ice rink, which was probably built in the ‘70s and hasn’t been renovated or even re-decorated since then. Exposed, stained concrete was everywhere, hideous murals covered the walls, and the seats were few and steep, making you feel like you could pitch forward into the rink at any moment. Worst of all were the acoustics, which swallowed up even the words of people sitting right next to you while simultaneously amplifying and reflecting the referees’ whistles. During the match, my friends and I had to shout to be heard over the deafening whistles and white noise, and we never did manage to parse out what the announcers were saying.
However, environmental discomfort can be overcome if you’re enjoying yourself enough. It can even bond you with whatever you’re doing and whomever you’re with. That did not happen.
Let me be blunt: roller derby is boring. To the uninitiated, it makes no sense; there’s far too much stop and start; the rules seem arbitrary at best; and the action in the lanes doesn’t translate to action for the viewer. While I have no doubt that numerous players went home with bruised ribs and thighs, there were no black eyes, no being flipped over seats, no concussions, and no blood of any kind. It was simply a lot of girls bunching together while two others tried to squeeze their way past. It was being on the metro while on skates.
Here’s what really happens at a roller derby match. There are two thirty-minute periods. Those periods contain several jams, which are moves that last up to two minutes. In a jam, both teams send out four blockers apiece. The blockers are supposed to prevent the other team’s jammer from getting through and help their jammer get through. A jammer is the girl with a star on her helmet who has to push through the blockers. The first jammer through the blockers is called the lead jammer. She takes a lap and then has to try to push through a second bunch of blockers. Once she does, she starts scoring points. She gets a point for every player she passes. She does another lap and tries to pass the blocker again. She can do this for up to two minutes or end the jam at any time. There’s strategy in ending the jam early because you can prevent the other team’s jammer from scoring. There are also a few penalties involved, including if the jammer gets pushed out of the ring and re-enters in front of any other player, if the players use their elbows, and if the players don’t listen to the refs.
The reality of roller derby is a lot of jostling, pushing, and thin, wiry girls darting around a clump of usually heavier or stocky girls. Whistles are constantly blowing because the refs need to point out when a jammer breaks free, when a jammer re-enters in front of other players, when a player fouls, when the jam ends, when the jam begins, and on and on and on. New viewers spend the first fifteen or more minutes utterly confused, wondering what in the world is happening and why the score is rocketing up. It was only through the helpful guide the match provided and a quick Internet search that I was able to figure out anything. I had to explain it to about five other people. No one knew what the hell was happening.
Because no one knew what was happening, the audience mostly sat in silence. No one cheered on the new jammer Dynamite or shouted at the other blockers to get back in position. It wasn’t until the jammer did a lap that people roused themselves, doing a lackluster cheer because she was finally out of the bunch. At one point, I was the only person making noise.
Making matters worse was the fact that our team isn’t very good. No one helped our jammer, which meant that she NEVER was the lead jammer and scored only 11 points in the first period. The blockers also never got into position fast enough, which meant that the other team’s jammer often blew past them in the second and third laps, racking up an embarrassing 204 points in the first period. The other team was actually quite good, putting one of their blockers on their jammer to make sure no one hassled her and ignoring our blockers to focus on our jammer. One of their players, Cupcake Cadaver, was especially good and quickly became my favorite.
Unsurprisingly, my friends and I didn’t stay for the second period. Once the final piercing whistle rang, we all got up en masse with several other audience members and left. We’d wasted about 40 minutes and $12 a ticket on the game and had no desire to see more.
A part of me desperately wants to cling to the idea that roller derby is actually fun. Maybe it was just the building that got me down. Maybe it was because I spent most of the first match not knowing what the hell was happening. Maybe it was because we have a sucky team. What if I were on the team? Wouldn’t I inject some much-needed aggression and communication? Couldn’t I help make it better?
Quite frankly, I’m not willing to try. There are so many other things I do and care about that I don’t have the time or energy to devote to reviving a dying sport. I also don’t have the confidence that I’d actually be able to make a difference as I get embarrassed about attracting attention and displaying my competitive side. So instead I’m just going to bury this shameful memory and persist in my naive assertion that roller derby can be fun. Maybe if I do, I’ll eventually find proof of that. People have believed sillier things on faith.