The Microcosm of My Conflict

How did I have the best AND worst derby weekend of my life at BotB IV?

Welcome to WRDN’s continuing Battle on the Bank IV Diary, a wrap-up of banked track derby’s national invitational tournament. This six five-part diary will highlight six five games and use them to comment about the event—and the state of derby in general—from a different perspective.

How did I have the best AND worst derby weekend of my life? What does it mean to take pride in your team—and your city? Why was the closest game of the weekend boring to me? And what does it mean for derby to see a superstar in the making? To find the answers to these and other questions, read on…

Previous BotB Diary Entries: Part I · Part II · Part III · Part IV

The Microcosm of My Conflict

San Diego 67, Texas 52

On the evening of June 12, some hours after Team Legit claimed the Battle on the Bank IV championship trophy, I dispatched this tweet out onto the Internet.

At the time I was experiencing a very strong conflict of feelings about roller derby, and I was trying to sort out who was at fault for this conflict: Me, or the game. This has been a conflict that I’ve carried with me for a while, but it’s one that’s been getting stronger and stronger in the past few months.

This conflict came to a head during Battle on the Bank IV. The sequence of events that took place in the 24 hours after the last game on June 11—the BotB consolation semi-final between the San Diego Derby Dolls and the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls—caused me to seriously rethink everything I knew about the modern game. For better and for worse.

The tricky bit, as I’ve tweeted, was finding the right words for it, finding the right way to express my elation and frustration for derby. As it turned out, the words were right in front of me all this time: Those 24 hours were an exact replication of everything that was causing a rift of confusion through me. A microcosm of my conflict, if you will.

So what’s my deal? To find out, let’s go back to June 11, 2011, where San Diego and Texas were ready to see who would advance to the BotB IV third place game.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Lonestar Rollergirls were famously upset by the up-and-coming Arizona Derby Dames on the first day of the tournament. Some of that had to do with Arizona’s improvement over the last year, for sure. But a larger share of that loss was likely due to TXRD losing a big, veteran chunk of their team over the past year, including their top jammer Smarty Pants, who jumped to the Texas Rollergirls and their WFTDA travel team.

San Diego lost a few of their big names as well, but they were still the defending double-champions. There was also an interesting wrinkle with the timing of their game against TXRD, as the Wildfires had just lost their semi-final game against Los Angeles an hour beforehand. Texas had not played an entire game all day, so you’d think they’d be more fresh and raring to go.

Once the game got going, though, San Diego quickly punched through a Texas team getting penalties hand over first. The halftime score of SDDD 43, TXRD 7 should tell you all you need to know about how the first 15-minute half went down. The next six minutes running into the second half weren’t much better for the Austinites, with the scoreboard showing 56-18 at that point.

But the saying applies to their banked track team, too: Texas is still Texas.

TXRD became the benefactors of a few timely San Diego penalties. After scoring 21 unanswered points, Texas found themselves right back in the game at 56-39 with four minutes left. The crowd noticed this momentum shift, and reacted accordingly. Suddenly, it was a game.

Alas. Though TXRD ultimately outscored the Wildfires 34-11 last nine minutes of the contest, their first half failures proved too much to overcome. San Diego ultimately found themselves advancing to the third place game the next day, denying the originators of modern derby a win at Battle on the Bank for the first time in the history of the tournament.

That was the story for Texas that weekend in Phoenix. They had a tough time of things from the word go, getting the short end of the stick with the structure of the brackets—which were drawn up by their first-round opponent Arizona, it should be noted—only having two chances to put a dent in anyone. Plus, they very well may have beaten San Diego (or Arizona, for that matter) had they been able to stretch their legs out in a full-length game. Regardless, Texas still went 0-for-2 at Battle of the Bank IV.

But after their loss to San Diego, TXRD didn’t look like a team that went 0-for-2. Outside of turn 2, the entire Lonestar Rollergirl All-Scar Army gathered for a group photo.

Thing was, this wasn’t any ordinary group photo.

Does this team look like they lost?

Everyone was happy. They were excited. They were beaming with pride. Here was a TXRD team that didn’t look like they lost—this was a team that looked like they had won, and were damn proud of it.

This moment of celebration struck a chord with me.

As the team was sharing hugs, smiling to the cameras, and dishing out high-fives to passers-by, I recognized how proud they were of being who they were, and how proud they were of being from where they were. This was in spite of their results on track.

While standing there, I started to feel the same pride and joy for roller derby as the team was feeling the pride in joy they had with each other. It was wonderful. I also began to gain a new appreciation for the state of Texas.

Funny thing about that: I have little reason to like the state, personally. It’s a hotbed for questionable political and social beliefs, and also the state responsible for not one, but two Dubbyas.1

But as TXRD was posing for that group photo with with the Texas state flag in tow, all of a sudden I found a reason to be proud of the state of Texas as much as those girls were.

This feeling was multiplied when I realized that what I was experiencing could only be a sliver of what Texas was feeling at that moment. With everything their team has been through, recently and historically, with how hard the individual skaters have worked to get here, and with how much they love playing the game to spend the time and money that they have to keep playing it; I can only imagine how big this experience was for them.

This was an extraordinary moment for me. The derby fan in me was overwhelmed with happiness and joy. And that derby could make me love something that I normally wouldn’t? That’s derby, baby.

At that instant, I could not be more thankful for derby to be the way that it is.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Actually, I take that back. That instant was later in the evening.

An evening of derby would almost certainly not be complete without its corresponding afterparty. The official one at Battle on the Bank was, with little doubt, one of the best parties I had ever been to in my life.

However, there was a point in earlier in the day where I felt my attendance at the party would be put into jeopardy.

Around lunchtime Saturday, I started to get a headache. I didn’t have access to aspirin or ibuprofen, so I toughed it out while watching the late games. But it persisted.

As the day passed by, it started to get worse. As Texas was posing for their group photo at the end of day’s on-track action, my head was starting to throb in pain. Damn the aspirin, I thought. I was going to need a drill to get this thing out of my head. It would have been less painful.

I started to worry. The afterparty was just as much a reason why I drove 400 miles to Phoenix than was the road trip or the roller derby. Was I going to have to sit it out? Even if I did go, was my headache going to make me irritable and un-fun? The trolley to the bar awaited outside the Colosseum, and I had to try to make a decision around the brain pain.

But it was a pretty easy decision, in the end: The only thing I could do was man-up and get to the afterparty, headache or not. I was going to force myself to have a good time, even if it killed me.

So onto the trolley I went.

Here’s a little-known fact about delivery trucks: When hollowed out and furnished with seating for 12 in the rear, there’s still room for a stripper pole.

The party on the way to the party. Pictured far right: Your intrepid, headache-laden derby blogger. (Photo credit: Richard Kimbrough Photography)

There were some very lovely ladies in the back of this truck-turned-party trolley, with one in particular none-too-concerned with keeping her shirt on. She was also pretty good on the pole, it must be said. I guess she gets in a lot of practice.2

I can’t say I completely enjoyed myself3 during this trip, mostly because my head was ready to explode in on a moment’s notice.

Still, I have to say that I represented myself quite well on the pole. I climbed it, did a monkey flip on it, and even walked up it using the side wall of the truck as leverage. I still need to work on my leg spins, though. Pretty sure my headache hindered me in that department.

Anyway…

When the truck arrived at the bar, my headache was not getting any better. I had hoped a walk to a nearby drugstore would get some painkillers in me, but they were all closed for the evening. I had to make-do with some bottled water from a gas station, hoping hydration would do the trick.

No dice. The headache wasn’t going away.

Bound to my fate, I had no choice but to tough it out. I made my way into the bar, almost praying that the headache would go away on its own. Desperate, I ordered my starting drink of choice—a screwdriver, appropriately—to see if that would help.

Almost as soon as I downed my first hit, my headache disappeared.

Immediately.

I was astounded. It was as if my brain was asking for a drink the entire time and made a big stink about it until it got one. I don’t think I had ever have something like that happen to me before. My experience has always been, alcohol makes headaches worse, not better.

With my new-found vitality, I partied.

Now, I enjoy a good party. I’m not that heavy of a drinker normally, but when I’m in “party mode” I like to forget that I’m not a heavy drinker and take them down early and often. I can only do this when I’m also dancing like a lunatic, lest I become an angry drunk. Luckily, the band was just leaving, opening up the floor in the corner for dancing. I happily got things started.

As $2 PBRs were being emptied and more and more people arrived, things really got going. Megatron and the Derby Deeds crew showed up, and soon after their song came up on the jukebox. Dumptruck was also there.4 I also spotted a contingent from the OC Rollergirls, as well as pretty much every single L.A. Derby Dolls Enforcer in existence.

Things were rocking. The right music was playing, the right amount of liquor was flowing, and the right people were there to take it all in. The hula-hoop contest was in full swing, and everyone was  having a blast.

But when Texas got there…

You know that song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas?” The Lonestar Rollergirls were singing that all night. They were also doing it all night, if you replace “Texas” with “tongue” and “heart” with “a teammate’s mouth.”5 As it was, the ladies from Texas gave me even more reasons to love the Lone Star State that night.

Hell, I even picked up the Texas flag and waved it proudly while I danced the night away. I wouldn’t have done that 24 hours prior to that night. I wouldn’t do it now. But I’d do it if I was full of good-times and was watching some very pretty roller derby girls making out with each other on the dance floor.

When things were all said and done, I said my goodbyes, stumbled to a taxi and made my way back to my hotel. As I thought about what had just happened, almost all of my troubles and worries about roller derby took a back seat.

I just knew at that moment, I could not be enjoying life, or derby, any more that I could ever have that evening.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

So yeah, TXRD won the afterparty.

Unlike your normal afterparty, though, there was still another day of derby left to go: Championship Sunday. The remaining four teams would play for the top three spots in the last two full-length bouts of the tournament.

The third place game turned out to be a yawner, as San Diego beat Arizona in a 170-point blowout to take third place. That contest set the stage for the main event of the weekend: Team Legit and Los Angeles were set to do battle in the championship game.

It was no secret that L.A. really wanted to beat Legit. The Ri-ettes trained hard for the six months leading up to Battle on the Bank, and they weren’t going to let some rag-tag team of all-stars stand in their way. You could tell from their warm-ups that they meant business.

And the championship game turned out to be a fantastic one from start to finish. It was close until Legit pulled away in the fourth quarter, earning a victory for Team Legit. It was the perfect game to cap what was just about the perfect weekend of derby for me.

But then…

As the seconds wound down towards Legit’s triumph, I noticed something different about the L.A. skaters. It was a combination of the looks on their faces, the change in their body language and the overall mood of the team.

I’ve seen other teams and other skaters look this way a few times here and there, this look stood out for me because it was something I wasn’t used to seeing in person at the end of a derby contest, and certainly not with an L.A. team I’ve followed for years.

But it was there. As I realized what I was seeing, the moment of pure derby joy and elation I experienced the day before with Texas—both after their game and at the afterparty—was flipped on its head. Just like that, I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut, deflating my derby spirits as low as I had ever felt them go.

As the Ri-ettes stood on the infield to congratulate the winners, the look subsided. But I knew deep down inside, they were still feeling it. That only made it worse for me.

However, while the skaters were feeling this emotion in part due to the outcome of the game, I was feeling it because of the state of roller derby. Our emotions were shared, but for different reasons.

There was only one word that could describe both what I saw the L.A. Ri-ettes experience at that moment, and to sum up my feelings about roller derby as a whole at that moment in time:

Disappointment.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The same day Team Legit won the Battle on the Bank championship, another championship game was taking place. You may have heard of it.

The Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks were in the middle of the NBA Finals and June 12 was game six of the series. This game turned out to be the deciding game of the finals, as Dirk Nowitski and the Dallas Mavericks captured their first NBA Championship.

I happened to catch the clinching game on the TV in my hotel room that Sunday evening. The sports fan in me was thrilled that the right team and the right guys (Dirk, J-Kidd, Mark Cuban) won the title. I was also happy that Lebron James was denied a victory.

Of course, the big story of the NBA this year was that Lebron James, one of basketball’s biggest stars, jumped ship from a middling Cleveland Cavaliers team to the big-money Miami Heat, who also had the likes of Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul on the team. “The Decision” to abandon his loyalties, chase big money, and hop to an easy path to a championship turned Lebron into a national basketball villain.

Still, you can’t totally blame him. The ultimate goal of any athlete is to be the best he or she can be, or in this case, win the ultimate prize of the sport. The championship is all that matters to many NBA players, and they work their asses off every day to try to earn a chance to attain it. Although many folks in the basketball world think Lebron tried to shortcut that process, at the end of the day it’s not an easy feat to be the best team in all of basketball. ‘Bron-bron just saw an good opportunity and took it.

The players on the Mavs and the Heat worked hard to get to the finals of their championship game. But as is the way in sports, only one team was going to win, meaning one last team was going to leave the 2011 basketball season with nothing to show for it.

Does this man look like he had fun playing basketball?

But that’s how sports work. Even if every player on every team works as hard as they can to be the best that they can be, there can only be one winner. There’s the thrill of victory, and then the agony of defeat. While the victors celebrate, the defeated dwell in…

Disappointment.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

When L.A. lost the championship game against Team Legit, the Ri-ettes were visibly disappointed. As well they should have been. They put in a lot of work during the first half of the year, put together a tough schedule to prepare themselves, and even went as far to state that their goal was to win it all at Battle on the Bank. But they didn’t meet that goal, and it showed in the moments after their loss to Legit.

That’s not exactly why I had my gut-punch moment after their defeat, however. I wasn’t bummed that the Ri-ettes lost—I was a neutral observer during the finals, as I had picked Legit to win it all from the start. During the finals, I was just there as a fan of the sport of roller derby. The action on the track didn’t disappoint.

It was at that moment that I realized more than anything else, it was the action off the track that disappointed the sports fan in me.

Consider the Lonestar Rollergirls. Texas came into the tournament wanting to put on a good showing, just like any other team there. They may have even had thoughts of winning it all. But when it was all said and done, they lost both of their games to teams they were capable of beating.

Normally, a team that doesn’t win a game at a sport’s biggest event of the year should be disappointed in their efforts. But after the defeat that sent them home, there was Texas gathering for a group picture, with faces smiling and pride beaming. Here was a TXRD team that didn’t look like they lost–this was a team that looked like they had won.

That moment of celebration struck a nerve in me.

Speaking from personal experience, there can only be one truly “happy” team in competitive sports: The team that wins.

Back in my high school days, I played football. When I was on the freshman team, we worked our asses off wanting to be the best football players we could be. As a result of our efforts, we went 10-0 that season. Our team was having the time of our lives.

When we made the step-up to junior varsity during our sophomore year, we continued to work our asses off. We opened the season at home in our brand-new football stadium. We were stoked that we would get to play the first-ever football game inside of it. Expectations were high, and we thought we were up to the challenge…

But we lost.

I wasn’t in any mood to celebrate after that game. None of my teammates were, either. All of that hard work, and what did we have to show for it? Nada. Zip. Zilch.

I will never forget the sickness I felt inside of me after that loss.

Our coach knew exactly what we were going through. “It’s a bad taste in your mouth, isn’t it?” In the post-game kneel-down, we were all spitting as if there was something inside of us that we couldn’t get out. It tasted of…

Disappointment.

So here was a TXRD team that went 0-2 at Battle on the Bank, banked track roller derby’s biggest event of the year. If L.A. worked really hard and was visibly disappointed that they lost, shouldn’t Texas have looked even the slightest bit disappointed?

Even if wasn’t a disappointment at the same level as L.A., if my team or I were in the same position, I don’t think I would have still been in the mood to pose for a team picture where everyone was all smiles. I can’t think of any other sport, at almost any level, where the losers would do that.

This made me question Texas’ motives. If they weren’t too down about losing at Battle on the Bank, then perhaps they didn’t have that much invested in the tournament. Maybe they didn’t work that hard, or didn’t put as much weight on the tournament as they did in years’ past. Or maybe, they didn’t really care as much as about winning or improving themselves as much as they could.

Whether or not any of that is true, only the girls on the Lonestar Rollergirls know. But that’s certainly the impression I was getting from the team, looking back in retrospect, while they were celebrating themselves at the end of Saturday’s action.

I know from experience that if you work hard at something and don’t succeed, you become disappointed. And the level of disappointment is directly proportional to the amount of effort you put into something. If you don’t put too much effort into something, then you’re not too upset that things didn’t go your way. Because hey, all that matters is that you had fun.

At that moment, I could not be more spiteful at derby for it to be the way that it is.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 Actually, I take that back. That moment was later in the evening.

As I watched the Dallas Mavericks celebrating an NBA championship that night, there was already talk about the traditional victory parade through the streets of Dallas. It’s kind of like the NBA version of an afterparty.

Even though the Miami Heat and their fans were planning for their afterparty before the NBA Finals started, somehow I think that there weren’t any Heat players or supporters in a party mood after their team lost.6 In fact, I don’t think any of the teams that lost during the playoffs were in any mood to celebrate with the champions.

At the NBA Finals afterparty. Lebron James, Miami Heat fans, and referees are noticeably absent.

While thinking about all of this, I thought about the Texas Lonestar Rollergirls and their afterparty “victory.”

In highly competitive sports, there’s only one team that “wins” the afterparty: The team that wins the game. This is usually a default win, since no other team is in the mood to celebrate with the winners.

Yet, those in derby circles love to talk about the who “won” the afterparty, as if it holds equal weight to the action on the track. “Yeah, Team Legit won the biggest banked track roller derby tournament in the young history of the sport, but TXRD won the afterparty!!” To that I say, TXRD went winless in the only place that matters to the sports fan: The track.

I cringe with disgust anytime I hear someone mention that a team “wins” at the afterparty. As a sports fan, I couldn’t care less about that shit.

I don’t follow sports to find out who did what at a party, or what drink deals a player got after they went to the bar after the game. I follow sports because I want to be entertained by two opposing forces giving 110%, leaving everything out on the field (or court, or track), because they want to win the game more than the other team. Anything outside of that has nothing to do with sports, and in many circumstances can detract from the sport itself.

But derby is different. If you win, you’re happy. If you lose, it’s no big deal, at least we had fun! While that’s wonderful from a social standpoint, from a sports perspective it wrecks the entire purpose of playing the game competitively.

If it was just about playing the game to have fun, every contest would resemble a Pee-Wee football or youth soccer game. Fun for the participants and their families, but boring as hell to an outside observer with no interest. (I talked about this in Part II of my BotB Diary.) While there’s nothing wrong with having “fun” while playing a game, there’s a big difference between doing it just for the fun of doing it, and doing it for love of the game.

I look to baseball as a perfect example of this difference. The baseball season is a grind like no other in sports. It has the longest season (six months), the longest game schedule (162 games), and even the possibility to play two games in the same day. Batters will be put out 75% of the time they step up to the plate. Fielders need to be prepared for a hit on every possible pitch, even though nothing happens on 200 pitches or more in a game.

Playing the game of baseball is an exercise in frustration. Most people couldn’t put up with standing around and waiting for nothing to happen, or rarely getting on base.

But you know what? Baseball players do it, but not particularly because they love playing baseball. They do it because they just love baseball. Their love of the game trumps the good or bad that comes from playing the game itself. There are parts of playing the game that are not particularly “fun.” But in the long run, players have “fun” because they love the game they’re playing.

This makes me think about the ulterior motive of derby skaters in general. If they don’t care if they win or lose as much as people do in other competitive sports, and if many skaters value afterparty victories as much as they do bout victories even in a tongue-in-cheek way7, why are they really playing roller derby?

If they’re playing roller derby because they want to have fun, then that means that derby is just the ways and means skaters use to have a good time. That means that having fun is the main reason why they’re playing derby.

But if that’s true, that means many skaters don’t primarily see derby as a way to improve their skating skills and focus on bettering themselves to win their next game. That can only mean that they don’t care if they get better at the game—and therefore, help the game as a whole get better—because the second playing derby “stops being fun,” people stop playing it.

That’s the realization I came to as I looked back to TXRD’s group photo and their actions at the afterparty. They were there having the time of their lives, like everything there was one big party. But as a result of that, the sport of roller derby is growing much more slowly than it should be.

Think of it this way: You can take the roller derby out of a fun party and still have a good party. But can you take the party out of fun roller derby and still have good roller derby?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

As I was driving home from Phoenix, I thought about all of the amazing things I saw at Battle on the Bank IV. But I couldn’t help but think about all the things that I feel is helping to hold roller derby back from showing real, competitive growth.

This conflict of emotions toward derby stuck with me for a good week after the event. Even now, anytime I see something good about derby I can’t help but compare it to the things I think that are not good about derby, even if that comparison isn’t justified.

Really, I don’t know what to think about the modern game now.

But that’s why my tweet mentioned that it could be my fault I’m thinking this way—if everything about derby culture really isn’t getting in the way of the true growth of the sport, then I may be being cynical towards derby for no good reason at all.

On the other hand, everything I’ve seen in sports, both through personal experience and through watching other sports on a regular basis, would seem to suggest the derby culture is doing everything differently than sports culture.

That’s something that the derby community is proud of, that derby is different. They’ll bring that up anytime they want to beat their chest and show the world that their game is put up for comparison to other games. But there’s a danger in doing that, one I’m certain most people don’t realize:

“Different” doesn’t always mean “better.”

In the 24 hours after SDDD beat TXRD, I saw that different could be better, but it could also be worse.

The derby fan in me had the best weekend of derby it’s ever had. The on-track action, the budding of upcoming teams, the camaraderie, the afterparty, the people, the culture…it was all there to be taken in and absorbed like a wet sponge.

But the sports fan in me left Phoenix with doubts and concerns—be they justified or not—about the current path the sport is on, and whether or not the players will stop playing it when it stops becoming fun for them.

If you boil all of it down, all I want to see is the sport of roller derby played to its full potential and at its highest possible level. I have the “ideal” sport all thought out in my mind and no matter how I look at it, I can’t believe that will ever happen if skaters and teams are just as concerned about planning for the afterparty as they are with training for the games.

All I want is for the derby fan in me and the sports fan in me to be one in the same.

Right now, it’s not.

Archived footage of this game is available at Derbydolls.tv:
San Diego vs. Texas