D.D. Miller is a Toronto-based writer and college English instructor whose first book, David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories (A Buckrider Book), was released in 2014. Miller’s latest book, Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Brief History of Flat Track Roller Derby (Wolsak and Wynn, June 2016), provides a history of the modern revival of roller derby as a competitive sport. As a roller derby announcer, he has worked both men’s and women’s World Cups and was part of ESPN’s broadcast crew for the 2015 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Championship. He’s also known as the Derby Nerd.
Monica Mitchell-Taylor, aka Monichrome, is a co-founder of Toronto Roller Derby League. She skated for CN Power, Bay Street Bruisers and the Death Track Dolls in her 8 year career from 2006-2014 and provided colour commentary for Rogers TV, World Cup, Clam Slam, and a variety of tournaments and home bouts from 2009-2015. She met her wife planning the first Clam Slam, and is currently on hiatus from roller derby to raise their fearless toddler, Minichrome.
Here was a sport that had many of the trappings of the traditional sports spectacle but managed to feel completely different. From its competitors—women who ranged widely in size, shape, sexuality and style—to its announcers to its fans, nothing seemed recognizable to me, a lifetime consumer of the Big Four North American sports and the bloated amateurism of the Olympics.
That’s how D.D. Miller describes his first encounter with modern roller derby in Eight-Wheeled Freedom: The Derby Nerd’s Short History of Flat Track Roller Derby. Flat track was built by women and shaped significantly by its LGBTQ community. Flat track is still young—its first multi-team tournament took place in 2006—but is already played at the international level, and is increasingly played by men and kids. A DIY approach to organization and participation has allowed the sport to grow outside the framework of traditional sports and largely without mainstream attention. Miller makes a compelling case for flat track as the first truly feminist sport. Eight-Wheeled Freedom is an accessible, engaging history and consideration of roller derby that should appeal both to skaters and to anyone interested in sports subcultures, women as athletes, or women as spectators.
The following interview was conducted in July 2016 at The Craft in Toronto with follow-up questions sent over e-mail. It has been edited for clarity.
“A lot of heartwarming international destruction”: The derby revival
MH: The book circles back to the ongoing struggle between whether flat track roller derby is a sport or a spectacle, and how much spectacle it can absorb without becoming adulterated or not athletic or not competitive anymore. Monichrome, what was your experience of that conflict?
Monica Mitchell-Taylor: When we started, it was an A&E show (Rollergirls). It was American Gladiator for the early 2000s. We really wanted it to be this rock and roll, fun thing to do. I didn’t play a musical instrument, but I used to go to the roller rink when I was a kid and I could do this thing. We weren’t really focused on the sport. We just wanted to attract a crowd and do something that was fun and hard-hitting and different. It was a hobby, but it organically changed. We started to really think about the rules, and making sure that the rules applied to everyone, and making sure that we were suddenly really doing this thing.
Because we were pouring so much time and energy into it, if we didn’t respect what it could be, then no one else would. And they weren’t really respecting us in fishnets and tight skirts and whatever we were doing, so how could we evolve that and change it? Maybe we weren’t thinking about that, but retrospectively, we wanted this thing we were pouring so much energy into to mean something 10 years later. So I think it had to take that fork. We had to pull the fighting out, we had to pull the fishnets out, and try to maintain the parts that were fun. I think that’s why some people really hold tight to those monikers and things that make derby a little bit different because they want to retain some of that punk rock-ness.
D.D. Miller: A really simplified version is that it became very important for teams to win. That first generation of flat trackers were the same punk rock, hardcore sort of third-wave feminists they’d always been, but suddenly, at some point, it became really, really important that they also win. And whenever that happens, it starts to get competitive, and the sport creeps in on the spectacle a bit.
MMT: We would also tell people cheekily, “Come for the skirts, stay for the sport.” We’d see those sports fans that were showing up with their girlfriends and they were intrigued—“You’re doing offense and defense at once? How does that work?” You’d see those gears turning, and they wanted to know the stats, and they wanted to know who the good players were. And then we were like, “Oh, that’s how we hook and bait ’em.”
MH: In writing a history of flat track roller derby, you have a number of perspectives you can write from. You can choose a more academic, distanced narrative; you had the experiences of your partner, Jan Dawson, who’s involved as a skater in the sport. Why did you decide to frame the book around your personal experiences?
DM: The first pass that I took at the book was not personal at all. It was more a traditional sports narrative that I wanted to tell chronologically, and Noelle Allen, the editor (at Wolsak & Wynn), had a lot of insight into making it accessible to a non-initiated audience.
I wanted to put readers at ease, so that when they started to read the book I was starting at the same level as they were. I was learning it too. The book is told in the way I started to process and understand the sport as the years passed. It’s not chronological, it’s thematic. The way I experienced the sport was almost from a thematic perspective, because the flat track revolution had already started when we popped in. There was a process of me going backwards through time and learning the history of the sport, and I wanted to feed that into the book the way that I discovered it myself, going right back to its roots in Austin.
It was also a way to get a narrative. You brought up Jan, and her story. There are little bits of her story that pop through and you can put them all together—I wasn’t fully conscious of that at the time it was happening, but that helped create the narrative.
MH: As a reader, it felt organically related to how you describe roller derby: as a DIY, participatory, bottom-up sport. Having a history told by someone who was directly observing it seemed like a perspective that’s natural to the subject.
MMT: Especially being a female-dominated feminist sport, the last thing you want to read is some guy mansplaining roller derby. So I think it’s really smart that you did take that personal approach to it to guide the reader through in a way that was safe for skaters that can often get really bristly and protective about their sport. Like, ‘Why is this guy making money and writing this book and doing this thing on our thing that we built?’ There’s a lot of mama-bear protectiveness about it.
MH: How did knowing you can be perceived as an outsider—and in some senses are—influence your approach to feminism and the sport’s connections to the LGBTQ community?
DM: In terms of talking roller derby, I’ve earned my cred in that department. But I was definitely very careful about feminism and the LGBTQ community. Those are the chapters that are most significantly researched. My approach was to try to synthesize the opinions of others who’d written about these things and frame this synthesis around my personal experiences with events like the annual Pride game.
MH: You point out that in flat track’s DNA—partly imported from third-wave, and riot grrl specifically—is a distrust of mainstream media, which has largely kept it off of mainstream television, even though now it’s on ESPN and being covered a bit. If you could imagine what flat track would look like had it been on mainstream TV for a bit longer, what aesthetic differences do you think might have evolved?
DM: I don’t think flat track would have survived. In its DNA, flat track is a strategic sport and an inherently slower game–you have much more control of your lateral movements as opposed to north-south movement. It’s probably going to be more of an Olympic-style sport than it is a professional-style sport like we used to see in the ’60s from roller derby.
MMT: I don’t think you’re going to see MMA-style cutaways and somebody in harsh lighting with a slate-grey background and their arms crossed, those sort of visual cut-and-paste jobs. But then sometimes I do see that.
DM: It’s starting to happen!
MMT: It is! It might just come down to how it’s cut and edited to look like other sports. Baseball’s a really slow game, and it gets ESPN coverage. There are definitely slow games on TV.
MH: The book identifies the rise of televised baseball as one of the things that pushed the first wave of (banked-track) roller derby off the air in 1952, and baseball is much slower than banked-track roller derby.
MMT: But when you look at ESPN now, everything’s flashy, and you wonder, does it really fit in here?
DM: They’ve been doing a good job with it. They are doing quicker edits than what we usually do with WFTDA.tv, but they do it really well, a lot of trackside close-ups of the skaters on a bench after a jam.
MH: The only full game of the ESPN era that I watched was the 2015 WFTDA championship game between Rose City and Gotham.
DM: Did you enjoy the footage?
MH: It lends itself well—it’s slow but it’s fast sometimes, too, and I was happy to have watched a game that was pretty close, because the book contains many games that are historically important but not particularly competitive at all.
DM and MMT: (laughing) Yeah.
MH: Just a lot of heartwarming international destruction.
DM: Which is still happening at that level, to be honest.
MMT: I always think of the game in the first World Cup in 2011 with USA playing Scotland, and Scotland scored one point, and the final score was 435-1, but that one point, everyone was coming in from other rooms to hear about it. And that jammer won the game, in her mind.
MH: Many Olympic-track sports, specifically, depend on stuff like that to grow internationally.
DM: In women’s hockey, even men’s back in the ’20s, they were outscoring teams like 20-0. It’s absurd but it has to happen.
MMT: And it’s hard to remember that when we are so young. All those other sports have been around much longer.
Flat track’s awkward adolescence
MH: One thing I wanted to pick at—partly because maybe I didn’t understand it, and partly because maybe I don’t agree with it—was the idea of flat track roller derby hitting a point where it transcended being “simply a lifestyle” and became a sport. That trajectory seems correct to me, but it feels like a lifestyle is bigger than a sport, and there are elements of being a skater and part of the lifestyle that were in some ways diminished, or some people felt they were diminished. Could you unpack or explain that a bit more?
DM: Maybe I had the scale wrong and it should be tipped the other way. There was a moment when that kind of lifestyle got broken open, for better or worse.
I got nerdy about it and pinpointed a moment when that [transformation] happened: the 2009 championships in Philadelphia. The first broadcast championship tournament, with the Oly Rollers and Denver Roller Dolls, when they started doing the slow derby, which introduced strategies that involved skating in the opposite direction of gameplay. It was also very controversial that Denver chose to go by their real names and not derby names for the 2009 playoffs, and Oly didn’t have their names on their jerseys at all. It’s the first time I heard anyone boo in derby.
I was watching that game, and it did not look anything like the slow strategies we use now. It looks fast. And wow, people are booing? I don’t think the transition happened neatly, though.
MMT: But that is when things cracked. In some ways, it’s really individual to the skater and to the league, a regional thing, and maybe that  is when Toronto went, “Hey, we should be paying attention.”
I think for a long time, a lot of skaters just went out and did their best. They knew how the game was played because WFTDA set out rules every year, and wrote out revisions to those rules based on what refs were saying about gameplay, and skaters looked at those revisions and said, okay. But Oly said, “Hey, there’s a hole here. Let’s play with that hole.” And then it became, “Let’s lay on our backs, so there’s no pack.”
DM: The totally absurd era. Awkward adolescence.
MH: Slow derby seemed to happen at a really awkward time because Whip It had just come out in late 2009, which has banked-track roller derby, and potential new fans and new skaters come to house leagues at the exact time leagues with a more competitive travel team or streaming out-of-region games are starting to incorporate these slow weird strategies. You must have played through it, what was that like?
MMT: Whip It did nothing but favours for us. There are always gonna be people that show up once and never come back, and once you realize that you’re not going to catch everyone’s attention, you can play a lot more and just be confident in what you’re doing. Whip It really brought people out of the woodwork that wanted to play. Our skater numbers quadrupled. Specifically, in Toronto, Whip It premiered at TIFF, so it was the first time we were able to play an outdoor game, and we were able to play at Yonge-Dundas Square. If it meant that that year we made a lot more money in ticket sales and we attracted a few people that were interested and a few people that weren’t, it was still better than what we were doing the year before.
DM: I don’t think those strategies coming in at that point pushed a lot of people away, but it did push away a lot of old-schoolers who were resistant to the change. Some of those foundational pieces fell away. And we still lose some of those people.
There’s no ‘riot grrl’ in ‘team’: Flat track starts to resemble traditional sports
MH: There’s a recognition throughout the book of how much the sport is changing for certain skaters as it becomes more competitive and more serious. There’s a shift away from derby names, there’s more serious training, leagues are more divided by skill levels within cities. What was that like to skate through?
MMT: It’s challenging. It’s hard not being picked. That sort of old schoolyard part of yourself, when you don’t make a roster, that hurts your feelings.
DM: And that was part of early derby: to be inclusive.
MMT: Everyone plays, win or lose, everyone gets even track time. That changed when people wanted to start winning. The first couple years of roller derby, I was the captain of the losing team. I mean, the losingest team of the whole league to the point where we dissolved the team and started it again two years later. So that was hard. These are my girls, these are my kids that aren’t performing, and I want everyone to have equity–but no one’s equal. So it was really hard to balance that. Personally it was a matter of checking your own ego and doing what’s best for your team and for me that’s just sportsmanship.
DM: Roller derby in many ways defiantly refused to look at precedents from other sports, which is great. They didn’t want to use a traditional sports model. Even though it ended up hovering closer and closer to that model, they really went out of their way to get there organically as opposed to just imposing it. But there was a lot of resistance to that. You still see leagues debate how competitive they want to be.
And those tiers in roller derby aren’t as defined as they are in, say, hockey. You know at a pretty early age whether you’re going to make it to the NHL or not. But roller derby, it’s still—you could be on the WFTDA level, playing in the championship on ESPN3. Almost any woman could do that now, if they get in at the right time and do the right things and train the right way. It’s much more open.
MH: From the way you described the transition it seems that some of the values roller derby used to put emphasis on—like having skaters express themselves—are now expressed more collectively or by the way the institutions are run or the values of the institutions. And things on the surface look more like a traditional team sport even though in organizational and foundational ways it’s not.
DM: I think that’s true.
MMT: That comes from discussion and people saying, “this is what I think and this is how I want our league to express themselves,” and then you’ve got counterpoints to that. It can be about anything from how the PR department approaches the media—and whether they approach the media—down to what the posters look like. It goes down to the nitty-gritty, the vision of what we want to express through our whole league. Everyone has a voice, and the decisions take a really long time. That could also be it too, that more voices popped out because there wasn’t as much discussion, and now everybody’s pulling the reins in and saying, “We’ve gotta be one voice or else we’re not going to be heard.”
DM: And on the track, a team looks more like a traditional sports team. It’s that old cliche: There’s no ‘I’ in team. Denver going by real names, Oly choosing not to have their names on their jerseys at all–these were decisions to build team concepts instead of that hyper-individualism that had been there. And Denver’s defense, and now the defenses that dominate the sport strategically, are built on this whole-team model as opposed to the individual. It’s not one individual sniper making the big hit now. There are these connected units. Aside from a very few skaters in that 2015 championship game you watched, you wouldn’t be able to tell any of those skaters apart. Scald Eagle on Rose City, she had face paint, but the blockers are interchangeable pieces, cogs in the wheel. Those individual flourishes are gone.
MH: You write: “Watching skaters grapple with the use of these stage names has been one of the more interesting aspects of the seriousing of the game.” Can you expand on that?
DM: It’s interesting to see what skaters are willing to give and take to make the sport a little bit more mainstream. What I’m seeing at the less competitive levels, house teams, is a movement toward more of that old-school expression. Like people are really getting back into derby names again.
I think skaters are willing to do it to a point. Some skaters, like some of those Gotham skaters on Team USA, will skate under their real names on the national team, but for Gotham, even at WFTDA champs, will keep the derby name on their backs. I really don’t think it’s as big a problem as people say it is. I don’t think it’s a hindrance to mainstream acceptance. You obviously can’t have certain names said on TV, so they will be limited in some way, but people in sports, they’re used to nicknames. Didn’t the NBA have a day last year where everyone wore nicknames on their jerseys?
MH: It was Christmas Day 2014, where it was first names or nicknames.
MMT: I like that having a derby name separates you from your normal life, but I’ve never really liked the persona. Early in derby, media would come and ask, “OK, what’s your derby persona?” I’d say, “It’s still me. I’m the same person, I have a job, I have a family, I just have this name that I use because it’s not my dad’s last name.” Every day of my life, I use my dad’s name and this is the time where I get to be myself outside of this patriarchy, outside of being this person that I have to be 9-5. At the same time, that doesn’t mean I have to completely flip and have a different Facebook profile and be this other person that is the wicked, mean, slutty side of Monica. “Monichrome at Night.” I’m not into that.
Still, I like that individualism because I really dislike so much comparison to other sports. I think it makes derby less legitimate when we start to look at other sports and say, “Well, what do they do that we could do to make us look more legitimate?” Keep trying hard to be who you are and that will only make the whole thing grow. Ultimately, I would love for women’s hockey or women’s polo to look at roller derby and say, “What are they doing right? How do they get the coverage that we’re not getting or how are they getting the money that we’re not getting?” You don’t get to be a leader by following little bits and pieces of what everyone else was doing. It was important at the beginning to do that to find our ground, but I feel like that’s one of the little shreds of old-school roller derby that we should still hold onto.
DM: Most people I’ve watched really grapple with it, it’s grappling with whether it’s a persona. “What does my derby name mean? It means nothing to me, really. It was just funny. Why am I holding onto that?” But some people–I mean, Scald Eagle kind of lives that persona, so it is fitting to see her do that. That almost is closer to her personality than whatever her real name is–and I have no idea what her real name is. It’s still rare for me to know the real names of skaters.
I think it’s very individual, that relationship with a derby name. Some people maybe need that outlet and that separation from their lives, and if they can find a little solace in that, then that’s great. I don’t imagine it’ll ever fully go away. Rose City won the WFTDA championship and still primarily skates under derby names.
“Nobody really likes us except for us:” Does roller derby have fans? Or, how roller derby is like poetry
MH: There’s a quote in the book about the attempted mainstreaming of roller derby: “The hard truth of the matter is that flat track roller derby does not have a fan base to chase away. If you want to get right down to it, roller derby does not currently have, nor has it truly ever had a fan base period.” Dave does acknowledge he’s being a bit glib, but Monichrome, how would you evaluate the accuracy of that statement?
MMT: It’s pretty accurate. I think that it’s really hard to see roller derby until you’re out of it. It’s really easy when you’re in it and when you’re a fan, you think that it’s the best thing in the world and everybody’s gonna love the shit out of it. And when it comes down to it, very few people do. The people that are hardcore fans end up volunteering. They become the league. So there isn’t an outside fan base. I count on one hand the folks that come to every bout just to buy a ticket and don’t end up reffing or being a cameraman or at the beer stall or dating someone that’s in the league. There isn’t an outside fan base yet. And maybe the rules will change when there is. But I’d say it’s too new.
DM: That’s why I compare flat-track roller derby to those Olympic-style sports where the fan base has never really grown beyond the members of the community. Even when you go to WFTDA championships, which traditionally have very big crowds, those crowds are just all of the house league skaters from around North America who travel to watch derby.
MMT: And their moms.
DM: There are a few cities where there are fans, but there’s no larger, macro, sustained fan base. All the people who travel to watch derby are involved somehow. Maybe they’re just peripherally involved, they play once or twice a year in their house league but they’ll travel to tournaments. But even those peripheral skaters are skaters nonetheless.
MH: Does it matter if roller derby develops a fan base? Do you care?
DM: It matters to me to an extent. But at the same time I think it’s doing pretty well on its own without that. As someone who’s involved but still a fan, we do have all of those things that you want from a sport. Not enough stats–we have them, though usually limited to playoffs. We don’t have regular season stats or they’re really hard to get and dodgy at best. But we do have all those other elements that you would need to be a fan of the sport. There’s broadcast now, so if you’re not at a bout you can watch it online.
I’m not that concerned. I think roller derby is finding a good place. It’s ebbing and flowing in certain regions but it’s going to exist now probably for a long time in some form or another, and whether or not it grows beyond that, it’s fine. Like a lot of Olympic-style sports, those sports existed for a long time without ever finding that next leg. Water polo–which I like, and I don’t mean to disparage it–but I don’t watch it outside of the Olympics.
MMT: And water polo athletes have jobs and do things other than play water polo. It’s not a new concept.
DM: And it’s existing just fine and I’m sure it’s going to be in the Olympics forever. Lacrosse has these little flourishes throughout history where it’s been very popular and then not, but lacrosse is never going to go away, and that’s more important to me for roller derby than finding that fan base. I would like to see a professional version of roller derby come back, but I think it would be a banked track version. I think it would be very different from the flat track, and it would have elements I don’t like, but I could see banked track roller derby having more of a fan base. I don’t know, I’m pretty happy with where flat track is.
MMT: I change my mind a lot on that. I think if it is able to sustain itself, then I would be fine with it. I’m in a bit of a valley with roller derby, mostly because of my personal life–I just moved, I had a baby. Roller derby is on the back burner in my mind right now. But it’s always going to be my first baby, you know. There’s definitely a part of me that wants to see it survive and thrive, and I’m not able to put my fingers in the pie right now to make that change, but I want to trust the people that are steering the ship to get it there. That’s part of it being a grassroots sport; it’s not what I want it to be, it’s what the league collective wants it to be.
It is hard for skaters who just want to do the sport, but you’re paying $8,000 for track space in Toronto, which means everybody’s gotta shell out $80 in dues every month. That makes it inaccessible to a lot of skaters. So a fan base would be lovely if it meant the league could actually sustain itself and the skaters could actually play regardless of financial obligations, but that’s really about all I’d want to change – to see it come up one notch to make sure that it was accessible, that people that had the talent to play got a chance.
DM: We’re seeing that a little bit. Companies like Riedell, a big skate maker, it sponsors a certain number of skaters every year. And there’s room as the community grows for the upper level to get a little bit more funding. It’s different by league as well. Some leagues–Minnesota, Portland, Rose City–pay way less to travel than ToRD does.
MH: To be honest, the idea of a sport that’s pretty much only followed by people who play it reminds me of poetry.
DM: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. (laughing)
MH: And poetry’s not dead, it’s just not usually read by people who don’t write it.
DM: I mean, I read a little poetry, but yes. Pretty much literature, literary writing now, it’s in that boat. Poetry is maybe at the bottom of that right next to short fiction–I also write short fiction. I’m involved in niche-y communities that don’t make money.
MH: This is the most marketable thing you’ve produced.
DM: It’s probably the most marketable thing I’ll ever write.
Finally, a sport for men: Tensions rise as men’s roller derby explodes
MH: This book ends in 2014. What are the big updates that you would have to have in this?
DM: The strategy has changed. Again, the sport doesn’t even look the same as it did when I finished the book. But mostly it’s growth tensions that are occurring right now. Men are becoming more and more involved. When I finished the book two years ago, they were much more of a niche part of the niche sport. It’s creating a lot more tension as men flood the game. I mention in the book that junior roller derby was growing much quicker than men’s and I’m not sure if that’s true anymore. I actually think it’s maybe even gone the other way now, even in the last 2 years, where men’s roller derby is outgrowing junior.
MMT: The juniors are growing up, but I also think in kids’ sports there’s much more fear of concussions, so participation in contact sports is taking a dive right now.
DM: We’ve seen a rise in concussions in roller derby the last couple years as players have gotten bigger, faster, stronger. In the last couple of years, we’ve lost a lot of really good skaters, locally and at the higher levels.
MMT: And the common theme is, “I can’t have one more concussion.” Their doctors are saying, “If you have one more concussion, you’re out–like, of your life. You’re on disability. Stop.” It’s not like breaking your leg, you’re out for 6 months and then you’ll be back at it soon. It’s serious. And I think that’s because gameplay has evolved and changed and direction of play has changed a lot just in the last couple of years.
MH: It doesn’t have the excuse of other sports–“We didn’t know about concussions!” This entire revival happened while people were more aware about head injuries.
DM: And it’s gonna be a bigger and bigger issue.
MH: What’s drawing men to the sport? What kind of tensions is that growth currently creating?
MMT: I think a lot of truths exist simultaneously with some intersection. In the beginning, a lot of officials were boyfriends or family members of derby skaters. It was an opportunity for couples to spend a lot of time together or a way for a skater’s male partner to not become another “derby widow.” A lot of referees caught the skating bug and yearned to play the sport rather than only officiate.
Similarly, I think more women either retired from the limelight to ref, or they entered derby wanting to support rather than be in the spotlight, so there was more flexibility for referee roles to be filled by women, and for skater roles to be filled by men.
The inclusive nature of roller derby also allowed some men who were turned off by other sports to be involved, similar to how women found a safe space in derby. The optimist in me hopes that there are a lot of feminist men out there that really love the idea of a sport dominated and mastered by women where they can strip off the macho facade the patriarchy ascribes to them, and just let them be themselves.
Alternately, I also think some sects of men’s roller derby waited to see what would happen with derby and are jumping in now because the bar has been set–or they grew tired of supporting the women’s sport as referees and burnt out from the lack of credit they were getting, and are ready to take the ball and run with it now. Luckily I don’t know any men’s derby players like that, but I acknowledge that they probably exist.
As for tension, I think there are some women that are waiting for men’s derby to help legitimize their sport. The world we live in says that it’s not a real sport if it’s a girls’ sport, and that causes a lot of tension. We hate that we might need men to sustain the game. There are also women that are afraid that roller derby will get away from us–that allowing men into the fold will open a Pandora’s box and that men will not respect us for its creation or its evolution and ruin it for everyone.
Personally, I just don’t want assholes in the sport. Male, female, transmasculine, transfeminine, genderqueer–play fair and work hard to sustain the parts that make roller derby great for everyone, and we’ll all be fine.
DM: I think the simple answer to the growth of men’s participation is visibility. The more men who see other men playing it, the more they feel that it is an option for them. Also, the men’s game is growing most quickly in Europe, where in many instances, they were not far behind the founding and development of the women’s leagues, so it was normalized very quickly. In Canada, especially, I think men are having a harder time breaking through because the women’s game has been so long established.
I can understand the tensions around the growth of the men’s game. A lot of women feel as if men are intruding on something that belongs to them: men have so many athletic spaces already, the question seems to be why do they need this as well? I think there is also a fear that the men’s game will find acceptance in mainstream media more quickly and more prominently than the women’s game simply because mainstream media is used to covering and validating men’s sports. I think this is a legitimate concern. Mainstream sports media has not traditionally been a safe or supportive space for women.
MH: Has the more recent explosion of men’s roller derby had any tangible effect on the women’s game or are they still evolving together?
DM: I think they’re evolving together. They play the game differently, men and women, which is really fascinating to watch. I’m still expecting men to start playing like women more, because the women play a more strategic, slower game. Men’s derby I still find for the most part–and it’s not universal–very aggressive.
MMT: It’s sloppy. It’s hit-and-run.
DM: But super fast. It can be very exciting at times because it’s so fast. But it’s still a very sloppy game and I don’t know if it’s bodies–
MMT: I think it’s centre of gravity.
DM: Men play an upper body game. Women, even though they’re blocking, they’re bracing, they’re getting low, where the men are very upper body, shoulder checks–
MMT: It’s a hippy game, and I think a lot of men’s derby players are coming from hockey backgrounds so they think they need to do these big shoulder checks. It’s not like you can throw somebody into the boards with roller derby. There are no boards. You have to stay on the track to be legal. It can be just as simple as learning from the women that have been playing it, how to lower that centre of gravity. I really think that’s why it looks so different.
DM: The men have really not changed the fundamentals of the game, in any way at all, with the way they play it. They play a less sophisticated version.
Ahead of the pack: Derby and the bleeding edge of sports culture
MH: In the chapter on the uniqueness of derby sports culture, you draw on a number of other writers and researchers. One of them is Michael Messner, who you paraphrase as saying, “Sport is often the final place where progress can be seen in mainstream culture.” Which makes derby, though not a mainstream sport, radical in some of the things that it expresses. Given your derby backgrounds, what sort of things do you see in traditional sports that give you the most culture shock?
MMT: The sports machoism really is a huge turnoff. That’s what attracts me to derby among everything else: that I can’t deal with that bravado and, I don’t know, just a bunch of gorillas out there spitting and swearing.
DM: It’s not even the athletes.
DM: It’s the audience and the fans.
MMT: It’s the Don Cherrys, the misogynist, racist–
DM: I love sports, but what I hate the most are the fans. And in roller derby, when you go into that space, you know that it’s going to be a very, very different crowd. It’s going to be a very progressive crowd, very queer-positive, very forward-thinking. And that’s the biggest difference I think I notice.
MMT: Derby is a safe space, whereas I don’t get that with other sports. I don’t hold my wife’s hand at other sports.
DM: I’m pretty sure that ESPN3’s coverage of the flat track championships last year was the first time that two teammates have been making out in the middle of the championship celebration on a sports broadcast. And the cameras didn’t treat it like anything, they were all celebrating. How often do you see teammates make out after winning a championship? Never, I don’t think, outside of flat track. What drew me to the sport is that it does have enough sporty elements that it engages my fandom without assaulting my sensibilities.
A beautiful game?
MH: What does roller derby express to you at an aesthetic level? What values do you see in it?
DM: The sport is still growing, and there are still some problems to be ironed out, but I think it could potentially be a beautiful game on the track. That interplay between the offense and the defense happening simultaneously, at its best, can be really exciting to watch. When two teams are really on–the third-place game from the 2015 WFTDA championship between London and Melbourne is actually one of the best games of roller derby I’ve ever seen. It almost achieved that moment of beauty where a sport is just clicking and you’re seeing strategies play out and the game working the way it’s supposed to. That’s one of the rare instances where I’ve seen the game played up to its potential. So I do think it can get to that level of Spain in international football a couple years ago when they had that perfect team-dynamic passing, and it thrilled you just to watch them play. There are moments where that happens already, I think. That’s a testament to flat track’s development as a competitive sport, because you need to have a game that has figured itself out to achieve those moments. And we’re just starting to see them now. It doesn’t happen all the time yet, but we’re seeing those moments of real artistry on the track. That’s a good question, I think, about sports: the aesthetics.
MH: I think for people who begin as casual fans of most sports, it’s either an aesthetic appeal or a cultural thing where you’re spending time with people who are interested in it–like, I have to go to this thing as part of some sort of ritual that we do for some reason.
DM: That’s exactly how roller derby started for me. It was very much a ritual. I lasted 2 years as a fan who wasn’t involved, and it was more of a cultural thing for me. It was amazing just to go watch, and only later did the aesthetic appeal start to sneak in.
Meghan Harrison is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and performer whose poetry has appeared in/on Queen Mob’s Teahouse and Matrix, among other publications. She most recently published the chapbook Pride Fight. She tweets, mostly about sports, here.