For the Fans, By the Fans

A few days ago, I received an email. It was from a young woman who, like many playing the game, became enthralled with roller derby after attending her first bout. She immediately decided to play it, and committed herself to training to be a good skater.


“One thing I’ve since learned is the standard of athleticism is low, and occasionally non-existent, in the derby world. While this was enticing to me (and I assume many other skaters) initially, I’ve learned that it’s also created two schools of roller derby: The athletic school and the social school. The latter are the ones who worry the most about nicknames, boutfits, derby drama, and never move beyond the grassroots bush leagues.”

And very quickly, she has discovered the problem that exists with a sport that is meant to be “for the skaters, by the skaters.”

We all know what the spirit of this phrase is all about. But the WFTDA actually takes it a step further and has made it its governing philosophy. Says so right there on its website. “By the skaters” is not just an ethos; it’s their constitution. Everything that has to do with WFTDA roller derby is controlled solely by the skaters who play the game, for the benefit of the skaters who play the game.

This ideal has served the game well over the previous decade, as the explosive growth of derby across the United States and throughout the world has readily demonstrated. There are more than 200 leagues under the wings of the WFTDA (including apprentices) and of the almost thousand or so more unaffiliated leagues around the world, many more mirror WFTDA rules and policies.

The proliferation of WFTDA-style flat track derby puts the Association and its members at one of the top positions in the race to grow and expand the sport to new skaters and new fans. Since the WFTDA acts at the direction of the players who play the game, this currently gives the skaters a big chunk of control over what direction the future of the sport will head in.

Frankly, that’s a big responsibility. Are the skaters up for it?

That’s a tricky question to answer. As our young, aspiring athlete has figured out, the open-arms policy that allows anyone to play roller derby is a double edged sword: Anyone can play roller derby…including maybe the ones that shouldn’t.

If “the skaters” are the ones in charge, maybe it would be a good idea to find out who this group consists of. Because if the skaters are leading the charge to help foster and grow this game for the future, we should be sure the right people are doing it for the right reasons: For the good of those involved with the sport, and of the sport itself.

So just who are the skaters who play roller derby?

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The Skaters

Through observation and personal experience, I have found there are three types of skaters playing in female roller derby leagues, including those affiliated with the WFTDA. Your mileage may vary, but I think this general grouping is mostly accurate.

First, we have the true athletes in the sport. These women go above and beyond the call of duty to improve their skate skills and their derby knowledge, putting in far more than the minimum practice time required of them by their leagues. This group of women work the hardest and the longest, striving to be the best they can be for their team, their league–or their entire country, in the case of the roller derby world cup.

These skaters are all business when it comes to playing roller derby as a sport. I would have no reservations in calling them the true first generation of modern roller derby skaters, wanting to show the world just how freakin’ awesome this sport can be by their actions on and off the track, showing appreciation to those who have allowed them this opportunity.

The skaters who represented Team USA at the Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup are doing more than the average skater. They’re setting athletic standards for future players. (Photo credit: D.E.sign via Tumblr)

Second, there is also what must be the core of women playing the game. They’re not all-stars, but they put in their fair share of effort, loving the game and wanting nothing more than the camaraderie and the self-esteem building activities they can’t get anywhere else. They can’t commit endless hours to practice, but the time they do put to good use because they know that the hard work and self-sacrifices they make will pay off in the long run.

Now, if you were to paint an ideal picture of the modern “rollergirl,” you’re going to get a composite of these two groups. It’s the kind of character story that the WFTDA likes to hang its hat on when promoting its players, and the ones the newspapers eat up: “By day, she’s a hard-working professional. By night, she’s a hard-working skater,” yadda yadda yadda.

We’re told never to judge a book by its cover. That’s something that applies here, too. Even though what’s on the outside looks great, there’s something not-so-great lurking inside it.

There’s a third group of skaters that believe that “empowerment” means “entitlement,” under the auspice that “for the skaters” means “we can do anything we want because this game belongs to us and no one else.”

It’s this group of skaters who put their own selfish interests ahead of the interests of the sport. They’re the ones that don’t want to work as hard as some of their teammates, but are happy to take in the same praise and admiration as them—and all the attention at the afterparties.

This group of skaters, whether they’re doing it obliviously or maliciously, look down on those who don’t play the game—be they coaches, volunteers, or even fans—because hey man, you don’t skate.

I believe this group of skaters are doing nothing to help the game grow, and in fact may be holding it back from its true potential.

Every league has gone through some form of “derby drama,” including my own, and more often than not it’s skaters from this third group who are involved with it in one form or another.

Thing is, I’ve assumed that this sort of stuff was isolated to newer leagues going through growing pains, or just a with a few people in larger leagues, only to be dealt with swiftly in either case to ensure the health and well-being of the affected league.

But then I read the story of Angus Con, former all-star team head coach at Denver.

This past September, he wrote a ten-part exposè on his blog (which you should probably read) on his alleged maltreatment as coach by some of Denver’s skaters. He talks of secret meetings, backstabbing, nastiness, jealousy, scapegoating, being deliberately held out of the loop, and an alleged rigged vote which ultimately saw him outed as coach without so much as a thanks from the bulk of the skaters who he helped bring team success.

The picture he paints is a pretty discouraging one, especially considering that these kinds of alleged actions happened at a large, established, and successful derby league, allegedly orchestrated by the team captains (at the time) who should be the most above such petty selfishness. Even if it were a big misunderstanding, why weren’t things ironed out in a cordial manner?

The Denver Roller Dolls, pictured here after winning third place at west regionals in 2009. Are the allegations true? If they are, what does that say about roller derby?

Despite that alleged incident, a one-sided account of circumstances at one league doesn’t automatically mean it’s happening everywhere. I still wanted to believe it was just one of a small number of isolated incidents. Surely, there can’t be THAT many people within the WFTDA membership who act in such selfish ways…right?


But the circumstantial evidence was starting to paint a more dire picture that this is a bigger problem than I dare imagine.

Take the Oly Rollers. They’ve had to deal with loud whispers of disrespect since joining the WFTDA, being hated by some skaters on for reasons that I can only assume are spitefulness their (hard-earned) skating talent, talent they used to dominate the 2009 season and capture the WFTDA Championship in their first full year of membership.

Too, many skaters who don’t like something or take personal offense at someone, will use any reason—or rumor—they can find and use it as justification to dish out genuinely hurtful comments behind their backs, or even publicly, without trying to settle the manner like responsible adults.

They know full-well why they’re doing it, with no consideration for how it may effect the victim. It can be borderline verbal abuse; if you saw this “anonymous” comment directed at Oly before it was deleted, you’d have a hard time arguing otherwise.

There’s a lot more than that. Many wished actual physical harm (“kill them!” “break their ribs!”) to Dutchland after their playoff forfeit, rushing to conclusions or turning speculation into facts to persecute them without taking their situation or their feelings into consideration. It’s okay to disagree with what they did, but to do it with such immaturity and hatred is not cool.

There are female derby skaters that still see men’s derby as inferior, as if having a penis makes somehow makes a person ineligible to participate in a sport that has considered men and women as equals from its inception. (And here I thought derby culture was all for gender equality.)

Many derby skaters take outside constructive criticism as a personal insult and react accordingly, as if outsiders aren’t allowed to point out anything negative about their game—even if what was said was honest and truthful.

These incidents of negativity have been getting prevalent enough one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet in roller derby, San Diego Derby Dolls founder and totally awesome derby coach Bonnie D.Stroir, felt it necessary to post on her blog with the observation that derby is starting to be “by the skaters, just for them.”

It’s starting to feel like the original spirit behind “by the skaters, for the skaters” is getting lost against the backdrop of many people’s own personal ideal for what the game is “supposed” to be like, an ideal that may be negatively skewed by the people and culture they choose to surround themselves with.

But in doing this, they don’t realize (or maybe they do) that the way they come off is rude, arrogant, selfish, and condescending towards others who want to bring to help bring the game to everyone, people who have no other agenda than to do their very best to improve this game so the right people can play it, for the right reasons.

Because when someone like Dumptruck thinks he’s being treated like “a second class citizen” by some of those that play the game, we have a problem. If left unchecked, it could undermine the very foundation of modern roller derby.

To think, some of “the skaters” who play roller derby look down on this great man. Does roller derby deserve to grow if there are people involved with the sport who act that way?

Dumptruck is pretty goddamn high up on the respect ladder in the derby community. He is beloved by many for what he’s done for the game, he has given his life to the sport, and is appreciative and grateful for what derby has done for him. He knows many players and teams and has been involved with many events across the country (the world, even) so I trust him to be a reliable barometer on the affairs of the skating community at large.

So that even he could feel looked down on by some of those who play the game just because he doesn’t skate is damning to the current state of modern roller derby. For him to admit that he’s not always treated with respect by some of “the skaters” is the last straw as far as I’m concerned.

No, seriously. This pisses me the fuck off.

If the mission of the WFTDA is to promote and foster the sport of women’s flat track roller derby by facilitating the development of athletic ability, sportswomanship, and goodwill among member leagues—that’s what it says on its website—it will not succeed with that mission in the long term if it allows its member leagues to harbor those who do not want to develop athletic ability or show goodwill to everyone who is involved with the sport, not just those that are a part of their clique.

If the whole idea behind behind “by the skaters, for the skaters,” is that the people who play the game call all the shots, then that means some of the very people who are have a voice in guiding the WFTDA are not doing it in the best interests of the sport, and are all not always showing goodwill to those that are.

The selfish skaters who don’t want to “move beyond the grassroots bush leagues” have the same voice and vote in the WFTDA as the true athletes that want to push the sport forward. I worry that the former may be starting to outnumber the latter, and these two groups may be canceling each other out, leaving the status quo unchanged.

There’s also the fact that the selfish skaters have a more direct voice in WFTDA that do the non-skating fans that have put in their fair share time, money, and hard work into making the sport of roller derby better.

Is that fair? Is that right?

An inconsistent foundation is not the best thing to build a new sport upon. But that’s exactly what the WFTDA is ready to do if it and its member leagues do not take action to get the drama out of roller derby and put the sport and those that truly make it what it is ahead of all else.

Although, that leads to another question. If we want to keep the original DIY spirit behind “for the skaters, by the skaters,” but not all “the skaters” seem to hold true to that spirit, derby is going to need a new catchphrase to make sure the group of people are making this sport for themselves have the same interests and the same positive attitude that got this ship off the ground in the first place.

So who are those that truly make what roller derby is today?

I’ve got an idea about that. But first, I have an axe to grind.

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The Fans

After the debacle that was the Rat City/Rocky Mountain game at the WFTDA west region playoffs, Derby Deeds interviewed WFTDA President Grace Killy to help the derby community get a better understanding of the organization, its goals, and what it intended to do address the negative fan reaction to all the non-derby that reached its zenith that weekend.

As as fan, I appreciated this interview. It gave some much-needed transparency to the processes of the WFTDA, something the organization really needs to do more often.

Inevitably, the conversation touched base on “by the skater, for the skater:”

Derby Deeds: “A popular phrase in roller derby right now is ‘by the skater, for the skater.’ The fans are kind of curious when it’s going to be ‘for the fans.’ What’s the direction the WFTDA plans to take roller derby? Is it ever going to be for the fans?”

Grace Killy, WFTDA President: “I think when you’re talking about ‘for the fans,’ you’re talking about professional sports. You’re talking about things like NASCAR, or the NFL, or the NHL where somebody owns it, someone is making a profit on it, and someone is paying professionals to do what they tell them to do.

The UFC is a perfect example of that style of new kind of up-and-coming, sort-of grassroots-start sport that has somebody at the top making those kind of business decisions. The mission of the WFTDA isn’t business. It’s to provide the sport for the membership that we have as an organization.

As a fan, I did not appreciate this answer.

It would have been very democratic of Grace Killy to immediately answer this question with something like, “we appreciate our fans and all that they’ve done to help support our member leagues,” or a response along those lines to thank all of those that buy tickets, concessions, merchandise, raffle tickets, parking passes, or go to fundraisers.

But no, the moment “for the fans” is mentioned, that MUST mean it’s no longer “for the skaters,” which therefore MUST automatically mean someone is doing it “for the money.”

This response further solidifies the notion that “the skaters” do not want to cede control to, or be told what do by outsiders for fear of losing control over or credit for all that they had built up over the last ten years.

This takes many forms. I’ve heard people voice their concerns that trying to make the game more “entertaining” for fans means that derby needs to fully revert back to the scripted, sports-entertainment era of the past.

Some also believe that USARS is trying to take over roller derby from the coattails of the WFTDA, with one well-known player going as far as labeling it as “weird power grab.” (Never mind the fact that any legitimate bid for derby’s Olympic chances must go through USARS and FIRS before it gets to the International Olympic Committee. Guess they forgot about that.)

Even the commissioner himself, Jerry Seltzer (or as I personally like to call him, the Roller Derby Jesus—he is the Son of the Father of game, after all), seems to get an awful lot of flak from some for speaking openly and honestly, as if what he’s saying can’t be taken at face value due to some maniacal master plan to take back His (er, his) sport and do what he wants with it at the expense of those playing it.

This is something that has baffled me since the beginning. Aren’t we all fans of roller derby? So why does the derbyverse find a need to belittle or undermine other fans of roller derby just because they may have ideas or opinions on how to improve upon the status quo that no one seems to want to change?

To be fair to Grace Killy, she did acknowledge the importance of fans to individual WFTDA leagues as she continued her to response to Derby Deeds, specifically answering the question about the relationship between the WFTDA as an organization and derby fans in general. Here was the rest of her response:

When you talk about the fan experience and the fan interaction, the leagues at their home level are extremely concerned about what the fans are seeing. I know that as a skater for Brewcity we are always trying to make sure that what we’re putting out as a product to the audience and the people that pay and buy tickets to come see us skate is something that they want to come back and see.

It’s a trickier conversation when you talk about it at the WFTDA organizational level. How does the WFTDA consider the fan voice? I think it gets considered through each league who has a very personal relationship with the fans in their area and eventually that fan voice does come in, but it comes in because each of those leagues is advocating to have the best thing that they can put out for their fan base and their area as well. Then it becomes that democratic balancing process of making sure we get the best possible solution for the most people.”

“The most people,” eh?

Count the number of skaters in these photos. Then count the number of fans. Isn’t a democracy supposed to be “the majority rules?” (Photo credits: Jules Doyle/Various)

The number of fans watching roller derby dwarfs the number of skaters playing the game, and that discrepancy will only grow larger as the game grows larger. Yet, the skaters currently have a disproportional amount of control in this so-called “democratic balancing process.”

If it were truly democratic, the balance would be between what the fans want to see and what the skaters want to play. Instead, it’s a balance between what some of the skaters want, and what some other skaters want…with the fan voice “eventually” coming in.

That’s not really fair to us fans, is it? Because the last time I checked, playing in a venue that seats hundreds or even thousands of people is not necessary to play roller derby for fun.

Come to think of it, teams don’t really need to pay for a dedicated practice space, either. Because if all they wanted to do is play roller derby, they would just need to find an empty parking lot, chalk down a track, and play amongst themselves. and don’t charge admission if you want people to watch. It’s easier, cheaper, and lets you play the game without fear of being told what to do by all those people that would have shown up if you played in a venue with all that room for spectators.

I think this is something that some derby folk are failing to appreciate.

On an individual level, a skater paying skater dues, going to practice two or three times a week, doing mandatory volunteer work, and juggling all of that with their real-life responsibilities commands a lot of respect, certainly a lot more respect than what any one single fan or volunteer may have contributed to a league. As a fan (and skater, let’s not forget), I recognize that.

Collectively, however, the time and effort put in by derby volunteers and the money and exposure given to leagues by the tens of thousands, and maybe even hundreds of thousands of average fans who attend games should command at least an equal amount of respect from the thousands skaters who play the game in their audience.

The issue here isn’t whether individual derby leagues have the right to control their activities. It’s that second you choose to play in front of big crowds, bigger venues, and receive all the spoils that come with that, you have an obligation to give those fans a bit of control over things in return. Otherwise, you’re being incredibly selfish.

To put it another way: No taxation without representation.

Organizationally, the WFTDA is doing a better job of it. I’m sure the fan input the group gets through its annual surveys is being put to use. (They actually have two running this year, which are open through February 15; please do them both if you haven’t already.) However, more transparency in how our input directly translates to action would do wonders for derby from a PR perspective.

So would a little more fan appreciation directly from the skaters on the whole. Of course, many skaters say they love their fans and truly mean it from the bottom of their heart. I don’t need to tell you if you’re one of them, because you’d know it if you were.

But collectively, “the skaters” sometimes come off as rude or disrespectful to fans through their words or actions. What Rat City’s Carmen Getsome said in response to getting booed by fans for their no-derby tactics in that game doesn’t help derby’s public image:

“We practiced being booed. We know what it feels like, and we’re okay with it.”

Really? How the fuck do you think we fans felt? Not that you care, since a response like that is basically saying, “fuck the fans, we’ll do what we want.”

Just saying you appreciate the fans isn’t going to be good enough after something that. The fans and volunteers put their money where their mouth in by supporting derby. We show our appreciation with dollars for your league, dollars for your sponsors, and word-of-mouth for your communities.

Actions speak louder than words. If the WFTDA and its member leagues want to show honest and genuine appreciation for the collective efforts of its volunteers and the fan base at large, there’s an action they can undertake that’s a win-win for the skaters who work the hardest and the fans that support them the most. It’s probably too late to do it this year, but there’s plenty of time to get it done for the 2013 season:

An officially-sanctioned WFTDA all-star game.

The wild success that was the Team USA Stars vs. Stripes scrimmage at the roller derby world cup left the fans wanting more. We shouldn’t have to wait multiple years to see the best skaters in the country play against each other in one special event. Why not do it every year and make it the WFTDA’s official thank-you gift to its fans?

Professional athletes don’t always do it for the money, as a lot of derby folk like to think. Sports leagues and the players that play in them know fan appreciation is critical to their success.

Hold it during Rollercon in Vegas, where all the skaters are going to be anyway. Let each the members in each WFTDA league nominate at least one of their own players to attend “all-star weekend,” so local fans for every team can be sure one of their favorite skaters is represented. Have a regional or national fan vote determine the players they want to see play in the main event.

You could hold a mini-tournament with the best of each of the four regions playing each other, or go for the whole ball o’ wax and have one game made up of the 28 very best WFTDA skaters from all over the world, as determined by a fan vote. It would be something the skaters would have to cede some control over, letting the fans tell them what to do for one measly game.

Oh, the horror.

Fans would go mad for it. I would personally shit my pants seeing the best WFTDA skaters playing in one game, just for fun (provided the rules they play by—ahem—don’t suck).

But wouldn’t the skaters would benefit from something like this, too? Striving to be an all-star might be a “carrot on a stick” to help them improve their skills and be individually recognized by fans on the national stage, even if their team isn’t quite ready to compete for a national title. Hell, if all of the WFTDA got to see an entire game of pure skating awesomeness, wouldn’t they be super-motivated to work just as hard and play just as well as the all-stars?

I can’t imagine anyone—skater, volunteer, or average fan—who wouldn’t be all for it.

And that right there is what “for the skaters, by the skaters” is missing. It worked great when the skaters were the majority group involved with the sport. But now, as the skaters become a minority group compared to the collective might of the non-skating fan base, it will do no good for the sport for them to selfishly hold all the cards.

Pretty soon, the WFTDA isn’t going to be the only game in town. If another type of roller derby (USARS, MRDA, banked track, professional derby) starts gaining steam and overtakes the WFTDA in fan popularity, “for the skaters, by the skaters” will come full circle; the skaters will be all who remains. If there are things the fans would like to see (chief among them: skating) but the skater hivemind doesn’t want it for themselves, nothing will improve and everyone will lose.

Don’t think it’s impossible. We’re seeing how quickly derby has evolved. If I were the WFTDA, I wouldn’t want to take my chances. If the current generation of skaters don’t start taking meaningful actions to respect the best interests of the fans, someone else will—and there’s no guarantee they’ll do it for the right reasons.

When Grace Killy was asked when roller derby was going to be “for the fans,” I think she, and many within the derby community, seem to be misunderstanding something important. Here’s her response again:

I think when you’re talking about ‘for the fans,’ you’re talking about professional sports. You’re talking about things like NASCAR, or the NFL, or the NHL where somebody owns it, someone is making a profit on it, and someone is paying professionals to do what they tell them to do.

And here’s my response to her:

Who are the biggest fans of roller derby, but not the skaters who want nothing more than to play this great game to the best of their abilities?

These fans aren’t professionals. No one owns these fans. No one is making a profit on these fans. These fans aren’t getting paid.

They’re fans of roller derby that just want to skate, and who appreciate the fans that help them do it.

Skating fans of roller derby don’t look down on a volunteering fan just because they don’t skate; they appreciate them for their contribution for the sport, however small that might be.

The fans that skate don’t start damaging rumors or try to discredit their teammates (or coaches) because they don’t like something they did; they act like adults, try to work it out face-to-face for the good of their league and the sport.

Fans of roller derby don’t fear other derby organizations or rule sets just because they’re not doing it “their way;” they welcome them with open arms, because it’s another way to watch and play the game they love, and to help improve the game on the whole using a different perspective to do it.

It’s the fans who should be leading the charge headlong into the next decade of roller derby, and no one else. The fans that pay to watch, the fans the volunteer, and the fans that skate should all have a voice on how roller derby moves forward for the future, in a way that is proportionally fair and just for all parties involved.

It’s roller derby, “for the fans, by the fans.”

This should be modern roller derby’s new constitution. Under it, the skaters get a game that they want to play and the fans get a game they want to support. No one is shut out of the process for what they aren’t; they are included in the process for what they have to contribute to the game. Disagreements are settled based on what’s good for the sport and its fans, not the individuals who want what’s good for themselves.

The skaters who don’t want to buy into this process can leave. There’s nothing stopping them from playing roller derby all by themselves, without those bothersome fans. Maybe it’s best for the sport that they get left behind.

The way I see it, if a derby “fan” looks down upon or otherwise disrespects another derby fan in the community, no matter what role that fan takes on—be it customer, volunteer, or skater—they’re really not a true fan of roller derby after all.

So why should we allow them to stay a part of our great community?

“For the fans, by the fans” may be a pipe dream, the impossible perfect derby utopia. When you get thousands of different people wanting a thousand different things for roller derby, one single consensus may be impossible.

But roller derby has already proven the impossible is possible. Ten years ago, small group of women in Texas shared a common interest and trusted each other to do the right thing. Many said it would never amount to anything.

Look where we are now.

We need to return to the true and original spirit of roller derby. As we speak, a large group of fans share a common interest, and we need to trust each other to do the right thing for the skaters, for the fans, and for the future of this great sport.

If everyone can hold true to that, there will be no stopping roller derby’s growth. Whatever form the game ultimately takes at the recreational, amateur, and soon professional levels, as long as everyone involved is a real fan of the game, doing it for the real fans of the game, everything is going to be alright.

Trust me on that. I’m a fan of roller derby.

Are you?