I am seven years deep into the sport of roller derby. I have transferred three times, taken one extended LOA. Sometimes, because my league and I were not the right fit for each other and things were turning toxic. Sometimes it was purely for geographic reasons. Regardless, I am here. I am in love with the sport so much that I play, coach, ref, and announce (oh and I write).
I dedicate most of my life to the sport in some way. Sometimes it’s to work on the social media of my sponsors, or to piece together marketing for my league, or writing up drills for a friend who messaged me. Sometimes I write blogs, or go to the gym for an extra hour, or watch some archived footage to relax. I travel with my love (whom I found through roller derby) to go to tournaments all over the country (and hopefully, one day, the world).
Yes it is a lot. It is stressful, and it is tiring. And no, derby is not perfect.
We are a young sport with a young ruleset, and we are finding ourselves in a time when people are finding their voices. Our sport is molded by the climate of the time, and we have allowed ourselves to be on the forefront of acceptance of different races, religions, identities, and orientations. But derby is not perfect. Within our ideals lay the individual micro aggressions seen at social gatherings, at practice, during tournaments, on text messages.
Every year we lessen how much we gloss over bullies and sexual harassment. We call for action against those who threaten our safety and peace of mind. We change the way we think about people. But no, derby is not perfect.
We have bullies. We have league cultures that allow Mean Girl mentalities, or frat boy egos. There have been leagues that would rather ‘lose coaches, not talent’, or not punish a skater who spits in someone’s face (while wearing a WFTDA patch).
There are also schools that experience this. And bowling leagues. And movie companies. And bands. And crochet groups.
Does that make it right? No. Does it make us special? Certainly not.
Social interaction comes with a wide range of implicit dangers, and the wide variety of personalities of roller derby ignites sparks. I wish I could tell you that roller derby, or soccer, or rock climbing, or theatre, or choir would be a stress free, drama free adventure for you. I cannot. Where there are people, there is conflict. It’s our responsibility as an organization to call out the shitty people and hold them accountable. And I see it happening more often (not in the online “forums” but in real life when things can actually be effected). So yes, there is a lot of bad stuff that happens in our sport.
You know what else derby has though?
I have gotten groceries from league mates when I was out of work. I have had laughter and socialization on nights where I just needed to get away from my sadness. I lost my place to stay in the Netherlands a handful of days before arriving, Parliament of Pain found me lodging (when I sprained my MCL a couple days later, that league member took care of me). Members of Duke City came and found me when I was stranded in Albuquerque and got me on my way (Bugs was correct, shoulda made that left). Roller derby got me to go back to school. I saw so many strong people changing their lives, that I was inspired to go back.
We dog sit, trade skillsets, swap recipes, attend graduations of team mate’s kids, and more. If it weren’t for derby, I would not be strong and healthy. I would not have the greatest friends and love that I have right now. Derby has provided the greatest highs (and lows) for me in my life, and I know I am not alone. “To light a flame is to cast a shadow.”
I am strong because of derby. I am resilient because of derby. I own my space because of derby. Some is a result of bullies. Some is a result of training like a D1 athlete.
I know people that have ditched abusive relationships, healed from past wrongs, and forgiven themselves past mistakes because of the sport. I know people that have changed their lives, because derby changed their outlook.
We can challenge ourselves. When we skate, we don’t have to conform to the expectations of society. When you find that player, or that pack, or that crew, or that co-announcer that you click with – it is a spark of joy. Hurdles are jumped. Achievements scored. Triumph embraced.
Is there frustration? Physical limitation? Of course. (But just for now) Just for as long as you allow your mind to hold you to it. If you work and try, you can change that. Will it guarantee a roster spot? No. Will I promise you that you’ll make your all-star team? Sorry. Again… this is every club team you’ll ever be on. Is it frustrating? Hell yes! No one likes being benched. Sometimes bench coaches are blinded by the job and pieces of paper in front of them. Sometimes they forget about you. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what happens – you’re not going to play.
(That said, are you coming to practice so you can play in the game or are you coming to practice because you love playing the sport? Why we play)
To the bullies in the crowd: you can shift your attitude and actions too. You can turn your hate into love. You can apologize for the toxicity. You can sit down and talk to people like adults. You can be a leader by recognizing what a detriment you’ve been. If it’s cool in your league to bully certain people, be a rebel: be nice anyway.
There is always going to be someone better than you in this sport, Bullies, so be humble. You don’t know when you’ll be the one with the torn PCL or broken collarbone. Embrace the love of the sport. Encourage, don’t discourage. Let’s squash out the mean, the micro aggressions, the phobias, the anger, the hate.
Too many recall easily the bad, but forget the good. Let’s link arms and call out bad behavior. Let’s share stories of love. Let’s not tolerate threats or harassment. Not everyone can simply transfer when they are in a negative team environment, so all of us must be vigilant. And if a team culture simply is not going to change or align with you, it may be time to do that transfer and skate where you love. Let’s recognize that we need to still fix things in the sport, but it’s not one big dumpster fire … like it can be online.
Because the real truth about roller derby is that it can be the greatest thing you ever walk into, and if you let it… it can change your life.
Photo by Phantom Photographics