“Self-Destruction” and the Integrity of Derby

People still think roller derby is about fighting and hairpulling. Tthe modern derby community isn't doing much to dispel the notion.

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?