Roller Derby… What’s it all About?

On Saturday some friends and I traveled out to the Shriner’s Auditorium in Wilmington to check out roller derby. Specifically, the Wicked Pissahs took on the Nutcrackers. The rules of roller derby are pretty simple. The jammers, marked by stars on their helmets, start behind the pack and then try to fight their way through. The first jammer through the pack becomes the leader, and then only she can score. This is done by passing members of the opposite team, for a total of five possible points per jam. Once the lead jammer makes it through, she has the option of going around again to try and score more or of just ending the jam and resetting (if she’s tired or if the other jammer is catching up). Penalties are called for a variety of illegal hits, including using the hands and bumping from behind.

The Pissahs won the match, mostly due to the speed of its jammers, who simply were too fast for the Nutcrackers to react to. The Nutcracker pack was repeatedly outmaneuvered and the Pissahs were consistently holding the lead jammer position. They racked up points fast and in bulk. The only real threat came at the start of the second half, when a string of Wicked Pissah penalties allowed the Nutcrackers to score without retaliation. The Pissahs (from Revere Beach, mascot is a seagull drinking beer) settled down though after that and got back to what they did best the whole game: skate fast and hard. There were some big hits in the pack, and it was good fun all around. The matches were a little too long would be my one real critique of the game. Maybe knock 5 minutes off each period and the intermission.

The question I kept asking myself, though, was “is this just disguised misogyny or is it empowerment?” I’m sure the answer would depend on who I ask. As no one would do this involuntarily, I’m certain that most of the women see it as an actual sport, requiring the same athletic skills that their male counterparts require in the sports that they play. And on one level, I think they’re absolutely right. The moves I saw them make, especially on roller skates, were very impressive. And you have to have strength along with dexterity to survive the bumping and jostling that rivals a hockey match (and has more than your average women’s hockey match). This game takes guts, and anyone is brave if they choose to do it. In this regard, it is most certainly is an act of empowerment.

But what about the fans? Are they there because they feel the kinship to their players of professional sports? Or are they there to watch women beat each other up? Because if it’s the latter, is this really all that different from, say, mud-fighting or jello-wrestling? I ask because I’m not sure, not because I’m trying to lead one way or another. There were some fans who were cheering along with their teams just like I would with the Sox or Celtics. But their were other fans jeering at the players, making fun, and just asking for the women to hit each other. But then again, how is that any different from hockey? Maybe it’s my own issues that prevent me from seeing this as just another sport to be watched and cheered for like any other. I’ll admit it, I was a little bored by the end of the match, and I didn’t stay for the second one (mostly due to prior commitments of the people I went with). In the end, all I know is that I would never want to take part in a sport like this. And if someone else wants to do it, more power to them. Whether or not it truly gives them power is up to them to decide, not me.

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