“Back in the ‘good old days’ of modern derby (not even ten years ago, btw), part of the goddam POINT of it was to not be like other sports.
To not be mainstream.
To not blend in.
Because we do that every damn day in our regular lives, for the most part. Roller derby was never really considered a mainstream sport, ever.”
– Tara Armov, Knuckle Dragging 101: Derby Rant (10/06/10)
The concept of mainstream doesn’t exist as we used to know it. Instead of one huge mainstream, we have a bunch of smaller streams that are all really close together. From far away, this gives the appearance of a mainstream, but its really not. The internet leveled that playing field.
– Micah Hopkins, part-time social commentator
For the past couple of years, derby has been facing, and will continue to face an identity crisis. As Tara Armov pointed out in her derby rant (linked above), there is a growing movement in derby to make the sport more mainstream and professional. The opposing viewpoint, naturally, is to keep the status quo, or, at the very least, resist a movement toward mainstream and professional derby. Like most hot-button issues, extremists exist at both ends of the argument, and their voices are the ones most often heard – regardless how loosely tied to reality their arguments actually are.
The most absurd thing about this issue, to me, is that those arguing the issue seem to think this is a black and white situation. Either you’re for derby being mainstream and professional, or you want derby to stay Hard Kore and Punk Rawk. That attitude, to me, seems to be the antithesis of Derby more so than whether or not the local newspaper reports bout scores, or if the sport is ever considered for the Olympics. Most everything that derby has accomplished up to this point has been on its own terms. Why then is it expected that there will be a radical change in that mentality if the popularity of derby and its fan base continues to grow?
Sport versus Counter-Culture
Skaters are becoming more and more skilled and athletic, and the sport is becoming more demanding of those attributes as a result.
I have no problem admitting that I am a fan of derby more for the sport than the counter-culture aspect. Despite that, I still have a great appreciation for the culture of derby, and have no desire to see it go away. What I don’t understand, however, is the belief that if the popularity of derby grows, the culture aspect will cease to exist. It reminds me of fans of a band that would buy the band’s newest album the day it came out, play the album non-stop, go on endlessly about the awesomeness of the album, but months later, when the songs from the album were being played on the radio or MTV, would claim that the album sucked – regardless that the tracks on the album didn’t change at all.
The Denver Roller Dolls and Team Legit choose to skate with their given names. Bay Area has Hellarad and a fan base that seem to be comprised of dejected Oakland Raider fans. The Oly Rollers appear to take the sport aspect of derby more seriously than any other league (save for maybe now the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls). Jet City uniforms have the derby names of the skaters on the backs. Dumptruck chooses to announce in a professional wrestler’s unitard. And pants-off dance-offs are still a part of the afterparty. All of these things are great in their own unique way. I just refuse to believe that all of it would have to change as derby continues to grow.
Change In Action
Slightly more than two months after Tara’s derby rant, she took part in the Red Bull Banked Jam at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. The event pitted the Windy City Rollers against the L.A. Derby Dolls in a banked track bout. Tara posed in her rant, “Whatever I get from derby, it does NOT come from the mainstream, so why try to pander to it?” Yet she was a willing participant in the most corporate sponsored derby event that has taken place during this incarnation of the sport. For a point of reference, Less Than Jake was the half-time entertainment. Despite this, according to her blog post in the aftermath of the event, she reflects, “The Red Bull-sponsored game against Windy City was fun. Really fun.”
Despite this, Tara reflects “The Red Bull-sponsored game against Windy City was fun.
Maybe this is a sign that roller derby can have its cake, and eat it, too. It doesn’t seem to be that Red Bull required anyone to not use their derby name. From the photos I’ve seen, it doesn’t appear that Red Bull asked the teams to change their uniforms. In fact, Tara mentions how professional Red Bull was to deal with. If this is the start of a movement to make derby more professional, maybe it was the right step.
I hope there does come a time in the future of roller derby that skaters won’t have to pay dues to skate. I hope that leagues won’t miss out on the talents of an amazing skater because that skater can’t afford to skate. I hope that when a skater sustains a major injury, there is primary insurance for that skater, so that they don’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars because they didn’t have their own primary insurance. I hope that leagues can get enough sponsorship money that they don’t feel the constant pressure of having to fold due to a lack of funds. I hope leagues are able to skate in decent venues, ones with real bathrooms, and real heating and cooling systems, on track surfaces that aren’t conducive to a high-rate of injury.
Maybe those hopes aren’t Punk Rawk, or Hard Kore. Maybe, if those things happen, derby will be mainstream and professional. Maybe, but I don’t think so.