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.