Roller Derby Revisited

So a couple of weeks after my first foray into the world of women’s roller derby, I went back for a second viewing. My goal was to gain further insight as to whether what I was watching was sport or some kind of voyeurism akin to mud-wrestling: mostly there just to amuse the audience, mostly male. What I got was a blowout by the Cosmonaughties against the Nutcrackers. I also found some answers to the questions I posed last time around.

To begin with, their is too much sheer athleticism to call this purely voyeurism. The ability to skate alone suggests as such, but the women of roller derby have to do far more than just skate. The jammers must navigate a pack of aggressive opponents and teammates, find the open seams, and accelerate through them. The pack must control its speed long enough to allow its jammer to get by, then react to whoever becomes the lead jammer by either accelerating or decelerating in an effort to make it easier on the leader (if they’re on the same team) or harder (if they’re on opposite teams). A fast pack will be harder for the lead jammer to catch up to, but it will cause the pack to space out, making it easier for the jammer to pass once she gets there. Meanwhile, a slow pack will be reached sooner by the jammer (who must complete a full lap before she can score), but it will remain tighter together, making penetration more difficult. If all of this sounds like strategy to you, it should.

On top of all that, there’s real, aggressive checking in this sport (and I think in the end it IS a sport). The women hit each other, and they hit hard. Knocking an opponent down in the pack will make it far easier for your jammer to score points. And knocking a jammer out means a much easier time for your team to score points. This game combines aggression, strategy, and speed. It’s like a combination of NASCAR and hockey, only on roller skates. And quite simply, it’s awesome.

I think in the end the game comes down to who has the fastest jammer on the rink. For this game, it was clearly a woman who went by Lady Shatterly. She was backed up by another more-than-capable jammer in Hayley Contagious. They were the two fastest jammers, and no matter how well the Nutcracker jammers played, they simply could not out-skate the two Cosmo women, who were consistently racking up four to five points (maximum of five) per jam. If you have the best jammers, no matter how well the other pack plays your team is in good shaoe. The pack can only fend off a jammer for so long before a hole opens up (that’s the nature of a constantly moving pack, similar to zone defense in ultimate frisbee or basketball), and a quick jammer will always penetrate that hole.

The last aspect of the game that lends credence to its status as a true sport is the strategy involved in coaching the team. You have to balance the playtime of your jammers so as not to tire them out, but you can’t keep them on the sidelines forever lest the other team get back into the game. So it all comes down to a balancing act, and this is where the strength of your bench jammers plays into it. Just like in basketball, a strong bench can keep your starters fresh and rested for the final minutes of the game. But a weak bench will lead to tired jammers who just don’t have the strength to fight through the pack anymore.

Overall, I had a much better time the second time around at Roller Derby. I was able to better see the game for what it is: a sport featuring solid athletes, same as any other. It has the strength of hockey, the speed of football (think running backs slicing through the line), and the balance and poise of ice skating. I would encourage everyone to check it out.

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.

Is Boston Getting Old?

A report that came out today states that Paul Pierce will be out indefinitely with an injured thumb. Compounding this are his flu-like symptoms that kept him from even being with the team for their game against the New York Knicks Tuesday night. This is coming off of a long season filled with injuries and missed games for Boston’s starting five.

Constant injury is a sign of body breakdown, something that comes naturally with aging. In other words, the Celtics are getting old. That’s ok, though, they are not the only team with age and injury working against them. The Red Sox are definitely not as young as they once were. David Ortiz is aging badly. Tim Wakefield breaks down every season now. And even new guys like Mike Cameron and John Lackey aren’t exactly spring chickens.

The problem extends to the Patriots too. Tom Brady looked worn out this season. More than that, the defense didn’t seem to be able to stop any of the elite teams. Despite some youth in the secondary, the defense looked old and slow through the entire season. In both the Celtics’ and Patriots’ cases, this lack of youth has led to stamina issues that have caused first-half leads to quickly evaporate. Both the Patriots and the Celtics have lost multiple games this season because they were too gassed to play defense come the fourth quarter.

The only team where age is not such a factor is the Bruins, who ironically have achieved the least of any of the four teams. While they are younger than the other three major teams, the Bruins have also had major injury issues that have led to a lack of chemistry and lost opportunities. In short, the Bruins seem like they’re old before their time, suffering from the same problems the other teams have without actually being old enough to justify them.

Seeing the age of our sports teams and its effect on their performance, we can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some symbolism here with the city of Boston itself? 2 years ago, Bill Simmons wrote an article during the Celtics’ NBA Championship run where he talked about the way the rejuvenated Boston sports world was emblematic of a rejuvenated city of Boston. 2 years later, much has changed. The economy has taken a turn for the worse. New businesses aren’t moving in the way they used to. And the city has been marred by a dreary stretch of weather dating back to the 2009 Summer That Wasn’t. Boston might be getting old, city-wise. It might be starting to break down, and we’re seeing the first signs of it in our creaky, aging, veteran sports teams.

There’s no solution to this particular problem, it’s just one that’s been eating at me for awhile and gets worse every time something else happens to reiterate the age of our players. Cities go through cycles of development and stagnation, same as sports teams. Boston hit its peak in the mid 2000s, with the completion of the Big Dig and the success of all four of our sports teams. Now a new decade has begun and Boston may be entering a period of decay. Hopefully the ownership groups of our sports teams will fight this with all of their hearts and money, but we may all need to be prepared for a dreary period for our teams and our city.

Fantasy Sports: I Don’t Get It!

I love watching sports. Baseball, basketball, football, hockey, definitely. I love pro and college sports. I also like more archaic sports, such as beach or indoor volleyball. I’ll watch certain kinds of combat sports, such as the World Combat League on Vs., and I’ve even been known to watch a horse race or two. I love watching sports. And, as evidenced by this blog, I clearly love thinking about, talking about, and writing about sports as well. I would say I love sports in general, and all that they entail. Except for one thing: fantasy leagues.

To this point, I’ve joined two fantasy leagues: one baseball, one football. The football team was my first. I actually missed the draft, so I didn’t even get to pick who was on my team. As it turns out, my team was good enough to make the playoffs of my league. Having done little to bolster my team throughout the season, I considered it a moral victory. My baseball team, last I checked, was in last place. This doesn’t really bother me, since it’s run through a company I no longer work for. Neither of these leagues have been a huge source of enjoyment or entertainment for me, and I think I’ve figured out why: The drafts take too long.

To me, it’s just not worth it to spend two hours waiting around, with just moments of excitement every now and again when it becomes your turn to pick. It’s like watching a low-scoring baseball game: boring. And unless you really put the time in ahead of the draft, you won’t really know if you’re even getting a good team or not. Granted, there are more experienced fantasy players for whom this is not an issue. But for me, it is. The draft simply takes too long to make it worth it to even play.

Additionally, I find fantasy sports to just be a jocky version of Dungeons and Dragons. When it comes down to it, how different are fantasy sports leagues from fantasy role playing games such as D&D? Both revolve around creating teams of characters with stat based abilities. Having high constitution or charisma is essentially the same as having a high batting average or completion percentage. Instead of player-created dungeons, we have pre-scheduled games for players to pit their athletes in and see who does the best. Instead of experience points, we have fantasy points that lead players to higher rankings and teams to better performances. It’s all the same, and it’s just as nerdy. It’s just not as OVERTLY nerdy, and people hope no one notices what’s below the surface. Frankly, I’m not buying it.

The last reason I’m not crazy about fantasy leagues is that they lack the connectedness of real sports teams. What makes sports great is the way they unite a community around a group of people whose actions they have no control over. The Boston Red Sox, despite being comprised of many players who are not natives of Massachusetts nor even current residents, somehow come to represent the city of Boston. Ohio State’s football team represents even those students who’ve never been to a football game. With fantasy leagues, you lose that in the face of pure individualism. I watch sports to feel part of something larger than myself. I don’t watch to feel more insulated and individualized. Fantasy leagues remove from sports that which makes them wonderful.

Maybe I’ll never get the appeal of fantasy sports. I’ll have to be content with real sports and just hope that somehow Tom Brady develops better THACO.