“Self-Destruction” and the Integrity of Derby

Update: It’s come to my attention that Mr. Watts isn’t actually a columnist for the the Vancouver Times-Colonist.  The commentary in question is actually a Letter to the Editor, which was not made clear at the time I found the piece online.  Regardless, the point I make in this post is still relevant, although it has been updated to reflect the facts.

Additionally, Vancouver’s own Terminal City Rollergirls have issued a counter-response to the original letter, which you can read here.

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An interesting letter to the editor of the Vancouver Times-Colonist caught my eye today.  It’s from Norm Watts, a hockey fan speaking briefly about the state of hockey and the uptick of dirty and violent play that has seen many NHL players suffer brutal injuries.  The last paragraph of the piece is of interest to derby:

The final playoff series was a disgusting display of dirty hockey, and the officials seemed content to let most games deteriorate to an unsavoury display of punching, spearing, slashing and numerous cheap shots.

The NHL leaders and the officials are ruining a wonderful game. It takes little time before the face-washing and ankleslashing turn into violent hits along the boards with little regard for the welfare of an opposing player.

Officials have a duty to set the tone of a hockey game and hockey players are responsible to one another and to the integrity of the game itself. The poor leadership shown by the NHL, its officials and the players has influenced the game at all levels and unfortunately the game is on a downward slide. It’s a path to self-destruction for a league which appears to be going the same route as roller derby.

In effect, this guy is saying that unless the NHL cracks down on violent play and general gooniness, it will continue down a path of devolution until it’s at the same level of roller derby, which, in his view, is apparently is at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to sporting fair play.

Now, before you click over there and go to town on this guy for having the audacity to make such a comparison, consider where he’s coming from. Clearly, he has no idea that there’s a modern derby revival that has skaters playing the game legitimately, without the kicking, hair-pulling, and fighting that used to happen from time-to-time in derby’s “sports entertainment” era, some decades ago.

Still, that means the only notion of derby he has is the one he grew up with, the form of derby that featured professional skaters that didn’t always skate…professionally.  (If you know what I mean.)  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that think the same way.  It doesn’t help that YouTube has loads of popular videos that feature roller derby fights.

I mean, even though I’ve scoured YouTube for countless months beforehand, I only stumbled upon modern derby in 2007.  Before I struck gold, each time I searched for derby videos I hoped that there would be new clips that didn’t feature alligator wrestling or a fistfuls of hair.  Even while looking for legitimacy in derby, I found an assumption that the derby of old hasn’t changed in modern times.

But how instilled is this assumption?  Let’s ask YouTube.

Search suggestions aren't just to help you find what you're looking for. They also tell you what everyone else is looking for the most.

A search for “roller derby” on the ol’ Youb-Toob says that we probably want to see the fighting and hitting of roller derby, or that song about a derby player who “knew how to knuckle” and “knew how to scuffle and fight.”  That is, the majority of who people who search for derby winds up watching derby fight videos more than anything else.  It is, apparently, what people looking for roller derby videos want to see the most. Why else would that kind of stuff be the at the top of the suggestion list?

A more direct observation of the search term “roller derby” by itself when sorted by view count paints a clearer picture of what the modern game is up against:

  1. Whip It Theatrical Trailer – 2.55 million views
  2. “23 Girl Salute” – 2.50 million views
  3. “Modern Day Roller Derby Bomber Real Girl Fight” – 747,000 views
  4. “Girl Fights (AKA Cat Fights)” – 481,000 views
  5. “Roller Derby Explained” – 326,000 views

If someone wanted to find the most popular roller derby videos on YouTube, they’ll have to get through two roller derby fighting videos and some woman rambling on while dudes in rainbow knee-highs strut their stuff before they can get to an informative video explaining the WFTDA rules.  If you go past the first page of results, you’ll see an even distribution of clips of legitimate roller derby videos, clips of roller derby fights, and other tangentially related videos.  Not much better.

(Before you sing the praises of the Whip It trailer, you may want to watch it again: There are plenty of clips showing elbows being thrown and Drew Barrymore’s character, Smashly Simpson, celebrating violence. If someone saw the trailer but didn’t watch the movie, are they automatically going to think that the modern game is different than the game that’s depicted in many of the more popular YouTube videos about roller derby?)

So you can forgive someone who doesn’t know the full story of the modern revival if they assume nothing has changed from the days of yore. There’s still much work to be done as far as educating the public at large about how today’s roller derby is different than how it used to be, in virtually every aspect: Amateur skaters instead of professionals; flat track instead of banked track (for the most part); a talent pool of almost exclusively women skaters (at least for now). Most importantly, no pre-scripted outcomes, no fighting, no hair-pulling, no punching (no legal punching, that is).  It’s all real…none of it is fake!

Ah, about that last part.

"It's REAL football!" exclaimed the XFL in 2001. The public disagreed. Players like The Truth, Big Time and He Hate Me found themselves with no league to play for when the XFL folded after just one season.

As forever-grateful I am that there is real roller derby being played under real rules by players who want to the game legitimately, I will not be 100% satisfied until every last bit of “fake” is expelled from the game. That means we need to get rid of the derby names and the “boutfits,” to name a few things.

But don’t get me wrong. I love a clever derby name as much as the next guy. The referee names especially make me crack a smile. (My favorite: The Umpire Strikes Back.) But that’s because I get it. I understand the culture. I know that the girls and the volunteers and everyone in the derby community just wants to have fun.  We get it, so we keep doing it, because we keep wanting to have fun.

But what about people who don’t get it? What about someone who has heard about derby or remembers how it used to be? If they start looking into derby as it is today, what might they see?

Perhaps they’ll see some of the skater’s derby names, many of which feature sexual and violent innuendos? Or maybe their first taste of real derby will be the flashy and effluent “boutfits” that feature hot pants, fishnet stockings, and frilly bits. To the outside observer, there’s no guarantee that they’ll look beyond what’s presented to them at face value.  How can we be sure they’re going to know derby is a real sport when they see that aspects of it are as fake as the WWE?

"This is REAL derby!" exclaimed WFTDA in 2004. Would someone who only knew derby as "wrestling on wheels" change their mind about it if they saw athletes dressed like this? (Photo credit: Ralph Fountain/LVRJ)

Consider the XFL.  Created in 2001 by wrestling mastermind Vince McMahon, the XFL wanted be the off-season football alternative to the NFL, and have an attitude doing it. In a nod to its WWE ownership, players were allowed to to put whatever name they wanted on the backs of their jerseys.  This lead to XFL players putting their persona on their backs, instead of their given names.

Sure, monikers like He Hate Me and The Truth were funny to see on football jerseys. But unfortunately for the XFL, the sports world was laughing, too.  The league wasn’t taken seriously from the start. The fake names on the backs of the jerseys became one of many distractions from the football being played on the field, which was still “real” football. But no one wanted to talk about the real football.  They wanted to keep making comparisons to fake wrestling. The XFL ultimately self-destructed when football had become secondary to ego: The ego of the league, the ego of the TV networks, and the egos of a subset of players with clever names on their backs.

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Let me get one thing straight: I’m not suggesting in the slightest that funny derby names are going to cause the modern game to collapse and fold.  Hell, no.  All signs are pointing to derby sticking around for the long haul this time around.

My point is, after 70 years of people thinking roller derby is nothing but a wrestling match on wheels, with fighting and hair-pulling going on all over the place, is it really a good idea for modern derby to indirectly continue that legacy with wrestling-like derby names and outfits?  Yeah, the action on the track in the modern game is real, but if someone outside of the derbyverse hears about two skaters named Vanna Fight and Amanda Jamitinya (for those who haven’t hit puberty yet, that’s “A Man To Jam It In You”) and sees them wearing short skirts and faces caked full of makeup, legitimacy will be the last thing on their mind.

I would really like to see modern derby separate itself from any and all aspects of the “fake” legacy of classic derby.  It’d be a start to wean themselves off of the funny names and derbywear.  Team Legit and Denver have already bucked the trend, and that’s one of many reasons why I love those teams.  Many top WFTDA teams have also gone for function over flash when it comes to game-day attire.  Although many leagues are also going that route, I still see plenty of pictures of individual skaters doing otherwise.

We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but in reality, a lot of people do. With the vast number of leagues out there, that means a significant part of the public may be getting the wrong impression about derby before they even see a game. Modern derby has an uphill climb when it comes to proving itself, and anything that would allow it to make that task easier should be taken advantage of. Let athleticism and teamwork do all the talking. You don’t need loud outfits or bold names, which can potentially scramble the message.

This brings me back to our friend, Norm Watts, who still has the wrong idea about roller derby.  Although the last sentence of his letter was the one that may get a lot of people upset, there was actually a different part of the final paragraph that piqued my interest the most:

Officials have a duty to set the tone of a hockey game and hockey players are responsible to one another and to the integrity of the game itself. The poor leadership shown by the NHL, its officials and the players has influenced the game at all levels and unfortunately the game is on a downward slide. It’s a path to self-destruction for a league which appears to be going the same route as roller derby.

This is true for all sports, not just hockey. But it’s probably even more true with roller derby, a sport that has been rebuilt by its players and is governed by its players.  Ultimately, the players will need to decide what’s best for the integrity of roller derby—which may not necessarily be what the skaters want as individuals—so that the general public can see that the sport is legitimate from top to bottom, whether they are knee-deep in derby or only look upon it with a passing glance.

But I know better.  The derby community knows better. We know derby has integrity. We get it.

But does Norm Watts, and the millions of people on YouTube that only know roller derby as wrestling on wheels?

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8 responses to this post.

  1. I’m completely with you on the name thing. I think it’s one of those things that will be required whenever WFTDA or the sport in general wants to take a step forward and try to move a little more into the sports spotlight. Using real names is required for legitimacy. I don’t really think there’s a question about it. I find it funny when people talk about the Olympics as if it’s an achievable goal within 10 years but they still want to hang onto their derby name. Do you really think they’re going to skate under that name in the Olympics? Do you really think it would be any different if you were trying to get games aired on ESPN or a major network? I personally just don’t see it ever moving past a cute little hobby in the minds of the sports media and other sports organizations until legit names are used (at least in WFTDA play). I think derby names could still easily be used for home teams or just a nickname within the community but on the actual WFTDA rosters and what comes out of the announcers mouths during WFTDA sanctioned games should be legal names.

    I think it’s just a question of the goals of the organization. Does WFTDA even want to be considered on par with other legitimate sports organizations? Some things they do make thing that’s where they’re going and other things (like continuing to allow derby names) makes me think that isn’t a goal at all. I wish WFTDA would be a little less democratic. I don’t mean that member leagues should lose their rights to vote. No, I think that’s important. What I mean is that I wish Bloody Mary or the BOD would take more of a public leadership role and lay out their present and future goals and what they are actually trying to accomplish. Could their ideas be shot down by the member leagues? Sure. As it sits now, everything is behind such a wall of secrecy (for many reasons) that the public really has no clue what the organization even stands for. I also don’t think there’s ever going to be as much progress as you would see if they transitioned to more of that kind of structure. Look at it, what advancements have been made over the past few years? Tournament structure changes, gender policy, expansion of leagues, occasional minor rule changes. That’s not a lot for such a young sport. The only goal that I can actually see that they’re trying to achieve is massive worldwide expansion. Is that 100% because of the organizational structure. Probably not but bureaucracy has never been known as a great idea engine.

    Tangent over.

    On the other hand, I don’t agree with you at all on your thoughts on boutfits. Have you ever watched Beach Volleyball in the Olympics? How about Women’s Tennis? Or regular volleyball? All legitimate respected sports. Look, there’s incentive (beyond trying to look sexy) to wear as little tight clothing as possible. It just makes the game easier to play. Tight clothing increases range of motion and diminishes the chances of the other team getting a hold of your jersey or shorts. Little clothing keeps a skater cooler. Does that mean that fishnets and short skirts have to be worn? No, but I honestly don’t see how that’s holding the sport back at all. Even if boutfits started getting regulated, you’d still see a hell of a lot of hotpants, because that’s the best thing to wear.

    Reply

    • I think derby names could still easily be used for home teams or just a nickname within the community but on the actual WFTDA rosters and what comes out of the announcers mouths during WFTDA sanctioned games should be legal names.

      And I agree with you on this point 100%. On the individual league level, skaters and teams should be able to come to their own decisions about names or nicknames. But once you’re talking about the national level, you’ve got to go legit all the way through.

      Have you ever watched Beach Volleyball in the Olympics? How about Women’s Tennis? Or regular volleyball? All legitimate respected sports. Look, there’s incentive (beyond trying to look sexy) to wear as little tight clothing as possible. It just makes the game easier to play.

      Yeah, but it’s a fine line. I like watching women’s tennis and volleyball, but you can’t know for sure if people in general are watching it more for the sporting competition, or more for the hot bodies in tight shorts and skirts. If I’m honest, I’m going to stop flipping through channels if I see women playing indoor volleyball on TV. The ass shorts stop me, but the sport keeps me there.

      On this subject, consider comments made by the president of FIFA about seven years ago (this is not fake):

      FIFA PRESIDENT CALLS FOR SEXIER UNIFORMS ON WOMEN

      The president of world soccer suggested that female players wear more revealing uniforms to bring more attention to their sport.

      One English player called the suggestion by FIFA president Sepp Blatter “ridiculous” and “irresponsible.”

      Blatter said women’s soccer needed different sponsors from the men’s game and should try to attract fashion and cosmetics companies by featuring “more feminine uniforms.”

      “Tighter shorts, for example,” Blatter told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsBlick. “In volleyball the women also wear other uniforms than the men. Pretty women are playing football today. Excuse me for saying that.”

      I can’t imagine female soccer players running around in hot pants and tight tops. Frankly, I don’t want them to change their attire one bit. I would honestly prefer female athletes dress down a bit, so that their assets don’t become the reason people stop to watch. But it’s a catch-22. If women athletes covered up a bit more (particularly indoor volleyball players), would as many people stop to watch them play their sport? Or is it better to show a little more skin to get more people to watch, even if they may not really be watching for the sport?

      Speaking of women’s soccer, the Women’s World Cup starts this weekend. Sports fans would remember the USA winning it all at home in 1999, thanks to Brandi Chastain’s game winning goal. As most will remember, she celebrated by promptly removing her jersey in front of 110,000 people. The comments on that YouTube video tell you all you need to know about the tricky spot women’s sports are in right now.

      Reply

  2. Posted by HK47 on 23 June 2011 at 3:40 am

    A factor to consider here is that modern Derby is in international phenomenon, here in the UK nobody (and I mean nobody) has heard of Roller Derby. XFL was never broadcast on mainstream TV, and ‘pro wrestling’ is considered a niche product aimed mostly at young teenagers.

    Given all of that, part of the reason for Derby’s popularity outside of the US is that it’s different – a sport most people can play that includes pseudonyms and a dash of sexiness. If it didn’t have that I, for one, would never have been interested in learning it and would probably have gone for ice hockey instead (for which there is a healthy local women’s team).

    What am I getting at? When Derby is the same as any other sport, it’ll be the same as any other sport.

    Reply

    • Given all of that, part of the reason for Derby’s popularity outside of the US is that it’s different – a sport most people can play that includes pseudonyms and a dash of sexiness.

      People who say derby is different don’t understand that “different” isn’t always a good thing, nor is it always relevant. The XFL was different than the NFL. Numbers are different than letters. Republicans are different than Democrats. Carrots are different than corn. Derby is different than other sports. Are all of those statements necessarily positive or meaningful?

      What am I getting at? When Derby is the same as any other sport, it’ll be the same as any other sport.

      Baseball is different than football. Basketball is different than hockey. And so on. All sports are ultimately unique, so saying one sport is different just for the sake of it being different has no context. My point of the article was that because of certain aspects of current derby culture, people may assume that modern derby is the “same” as WWE wrestling, for reasons I explained. Does anyone in derby want that connection to be made?

      Personally, I would prefer to see roller derby be the “same” as sports like football, basketball, soccer, etc. That is, the same ingrained legitimacy, the same worldwide popularity, the same massive attendance figures, and the same top-flight (professional!) competition that people pay top-dollar to see. But if you’d prefer derby to stay “different” and never get there, then I’m not going to argue with you.

      Reply

    • NBC isn’t mainstream TV? Are you a part of Fox News? :P

      Reply

  3. I’m on the fence about derby names.. I think because I just like them but you’re right in that names like “Twat Rocket” probably would make derby less credible from a worldwide or Olympic POV. But it’s also just an inherent part of modern derby.. Not something added to develop TV personalities. Being honest, I guess I agree with you -we get it, general public may not. I just don’t WANT to agree with you yet. hah.

    And I’m curious what sort of outfits you would like to see girls play in. The picture you included is an example of a ridiculous boutfit. It’s not even practical to play in a hula skirt. But that was also from 2004. My first bout I wore a tutu, and then I realized how dumb it was (hello, velcro!) and then went to skirts, but then decided hot pants were the best. I’ve been watching ECDX and all the teams I’ve seen are pretty ‘modest’ for derby. As teams get more experienced I think the outfits become more practical and less frivolous.

    So I guess I’d like to know specifically what sort of uniform you think would make roller derby legit?

    Reply

    • Any functional but appropriate outfit/uniform would work fine. The timing of this reply is funny because just as I’m typing this, I’m watching the Philly/Gotham game at ECDX and the commentators briefly touched on this subject. They mentioned that although some older uniforms looked “adorable,” like Madison’s old “milk maid” outfits, the skaters could really move or breathe in them comfortably enough to play roller derby. I think that was more of a case of choosing flash over function.

      I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with female athletes wearing skirts, though. I like Philly’s uniforms, since they’re consistent with or without skirts and not too flashy. But I’d like to see more teams dress like Gotham, who don’t have any loose clothing to get in their way. Still, I think there should be no place for crazy hair, heavy makeup or frilly skirts or fishnets in a legitimate athletic competition.

      Reply

  4. So no Dennis Rodmans?

    I kinda hate Philly’s dresses. They’re not very flattering.. and speaking of not flattering the tank top/skirt combo Oly wears is kinda hideous too. That might just be my aesthetic and comfort level, but they look bulky and annoying to skate in as well. I like Gotham’s new jerseys and agree tight fitting is more appropriate for this sport. Frilly skirts are a hazard and hair goes in a helmet so I dont know what crazy hair you mean. And as a face painter, I guess I’m for it. Fishnets are kinda flashy, but tights are functional.

    There’s an interesting level to roller derby in the personalities that comprise it. So and so is known for this facepaint. So and so is known for wearing hot pants without tights. Or so and so always wears leggings with a lightning bolt. It makes people stand out and recognizable on the track from the audience or online. The flipside to that (from experience) is that the more sleek and uniformed a team is, the harder it is to find the jammer when skating against them.

    So I get what you’re saying, but I feel like derby just has a certain style that goes with it too.

    Reply

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