Giving Roller Derby a Sporting Chance
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Giving Roller Derby a Sporting Chance

The first ever Roller Derby World Cup starts today and runs through Sunday. Will it get the coverage it deserves?

Team Argentina practices at the Bunker last night. Photo by {a href=""}Midnight Matinee 24{/a}/Joe Mac.

Hell on wheels. Brawny bruisers. Fishnet warriors. Booty-short brawlers. Flat-track fighters. Sure, these terms are catchy, but when it comes to describing the women who play roller derby, there’s one word, above all others, that should be applied: athlete. And when the World Cup—the very first of its kind in the history of modern flat-track roller derby—kicks off at the Bunker today, there’s a possibility that this historical moment will precipitate another: there’s a slim, but real, chance that the tournament could be covered as a legitimate sporting event.

Maybe we get sucked in by the “By day, X is a mild-mannered school teacher; by night, X is a rock ‘em, sock ‘em roller derby blocker” narrative—an overplayed scenario that seems to lead, or punctuate, just about every derby-related story that gets pumped out by the mainstream media. I get it, I really do: it’s cute. And it demonstrates a valid point: that roller derby players, like most unpaid athletes, are human beings with day jobs. But it also undermines what these women accomplish on the track. When the focus is on anything but the sport (be it on what the players wear, the names that appears on their jerseys, or the number of visible tattoos that the reporter can count on a given athlete), something—actually, the most important thing—gets lost along the way. And that “thing” is the game.

Members of Toronto’s CN Power (in pink) bump up against Michigan’s Killamazoo Derby Darlins during a February 26 match. Photo by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

The World Cup presents a unique opportunity for reporters: to create a new mould, and a new precedent, for flat-track roller derby coverage. Team Canada, Team USA, Team Sweden, Team Argentina, Team Australia, Team Brazil, Team England, Team Finland, Team France, Team Germany, Team Ireland, Team New Zealand, and Team Scotland have rostered the international “superstars” of the sport—that’s right: the best players in the world. Period. So we’re no longer dealing with one local rec team challenging another; this is a different league of competition entirely. But—and here’s the real question—how exactly will this level of playing be reflected in local sports coverage?

Jon Filson, the Star’s sports editor, takes partial editorial responsibility for the “preview”-style World Cup story that appeared in the newspaper’s Saturday edition. “It was a joint effort,” he told me, explaining that he and the Star’s features editor, Alison Uncles, assigned the story to Mary Ormsby—a feature writer and former sports reporter. Ormsby’s article included interviews with some of Team Canada’s top players—like ToRD’s Brim Stone and MTLRD’s Georgia W. Tush—and a few “scenes” from one of ToRD’s recent Bunker-housed practices. Although the kicker seemed a bit familiar (“Georgia W. Tush owns a sports store. Brim Stone is a biology grad who minored in English. 8Mean Wheeler has four kids, three dogs, a tank of fish and a fire-bellied toad”), it was clear that Ormsby had done her homework. She’d taken the time to actually understand some of the mechanics of the sport.

Due to the physical intensity, roller derby is heavily officiated. Numerous referrees are on duty during the bouts, while paramedics are also on site in case of serious injury.Photo by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

But can we expect this kind of mainstream coverage moving forward?
“That’s a tricky one,” says Filson, who has, in fact, assigned a reporter to cover the World Cup. “This is a one-off. We’re covering [the Cup] as an event. Future coverage? That would all depend if the interest is there. If we see a mass level of interest [in roller derby], then we’d look to up the coverage, but I’d be very doubtful.” Another reason that the Star might not spill as much ink on derby as it would on other sports? Filson pointed to (what he called) roller derby’s “logistical issue”:

“Frankly one of the problems derby has is it’s unnecessarily complicated. It is! Try to explain it to somebody—it’s difficult. There’s a lot of lingo to it. There’s a lot of rules. It’s like trying to explain what ‘offside’ is to someone who never watches hockey.”

True, roller derby isn’t the easiest sport to explain to the uninitiated, but many would argue, and I would too, that it’s no more difficult to explain than hockey, football, or baseball. It’s just less visible, and therefore coherent coverage often necessitates a short summary of the game.

Dave Miller, better known to his flat-track friends as the Derby Nerd, does what no other local writer is even attempting to do in Toronto: he provides “hard sports” coverage of both local and international bouts on his blog.  Of course, Miller isn’t being paid to write these features—and he doesn’t have a house-style to conform to, or Editorial Powers That Be to appease. Still, he’s mastered the art of writing derby play-by-plays coupled with thorough and informed analysis. When asked about the “difficulty” of covering derby, Miller had this to say:

I’ve always written (including a little bit about other sports), and the roller derby pieces are no more difficult to write than anything else. The process of writing itself has its challenges, and sports writers are usually pushed to a deadline by a paycheck. Roller derby isn’t quite at that point yet, so covering it in any sort of depth requires even more discipline and dedication.

Miller, who confesses to always being “a bit of a sports nerd,” discovered flat-track roller derby when he was living in Montreal. After moving to Toronto a few years back, Miller said he felt “comfortable enough to start writing about [derby]”—and thought that Canadian derby deserved the same calibre of coverage that some of the American bouts were receiving.

Brim Stone, member of ToRD and Team Canada. Photo by {a href=""}Midnight Matinee 24{/a}/Joe Mac.

In my brief interview with Filson, the longtime editor says he’d observed that the sport was “struggling with itself.” This thesis of sorts was what what ultimately predicated Ormsby’s article.

“[Roller derby] does have those WWE elements to it,” he contends. “You know, the silly names and all that. It’s fun; and when I say silly names, I don’t mean that as a negative—it’s part of the appeal of the sport. But it makes it hard to put roller derby beside more serious sports.”

As an amateur derby player myself, I can’t help but wonder: does the name on my own team jersey—one that doesn’t match the byline on this article—make my game-day efforts on the track any less legitimate? And the fact that roller derby is (like hockey or football, I might add) a contact sport—does that one factor, when coupled with a few pairs of ripped fishnet stockings, warrant a staged-wrestling comparison?

“I think that the WWE elements are slowly fading away,” says Miller. “I also don’t think that it’s fair to say that the sport is struggling with itself; I would say it’s maturing, and there are growing pains along the way. People often forget how young flat-track roller really is, probably because they equate it to the banked track roller derby of the ‘60s and especially the ‘70s when it had turned into sports entertainment.”

Miller also suggests that both Canadian derby and the Canadian media have a bit of catching up to do. “In the US, which is about three years ahead of Canada in terms of playing and covering roller derby, we are finally starting to see an increase in [in-depth] coverage. I think that it will start here eventually.” 

Maybe it’s easier to think about derby players as Clark Kent–esque comic book characters, whose seemingly dichotomous lives and eye-catching uniforms render them categorically “other” to say, swimmers or runners or speed skaters. But this kind of thinking—and subsequent reporting—just won’t cut it any more. The World Cup is a world-class tournament featuring some of the world’s best roller derby athletes, and the tournament’s stories deserve not only to be told, but to be recounted by informed reporters.

“I wish [the players] luck,” says Filson, who underscores that “it’s tough for women’s sports to get any kind of credibility,” because “the interest just isn’t there. Lacrosse went though this 15 years ago—and there were a lot of doubters. But it become a legitimate sport quite quickly. So the model [for roller derby] is there.”

Model or no model, given names or nicknames, the inception of the World Cup tournament signals a historical moment for women’s flat track roller derby. The question remains, though: will the weekend’s coverage reflect this?

The Roller Derby World Cup starts today and runs through Sunday. Most tickets sold out, but webcasts will be shown on the Cup’s website.

See also:

Profile: Toronto Roller Derby League

CORRECTION: December 1, 2011, 1:11 PM The first photo was originally credited to Midnight Madness, rather than Midnight Matinee. We made a Midnight Mistake.

CORRECTION: December 1, 2011, 6:20 PM Dave Miller was originally and mistakenly identified as Derek Miller in the article.