Is roller derby a sport? Thoughts on athleticism and spectacle

(Photo/Chilli Padi Derby Grrrls) According to some, these women are Not Athletes.

This article made the Rounds O’ Outrage on tumblr yesterday, in which sports writer Jody DiPerna said she refused to cover roller derby because it has as much to do with sports as the WWE Grand Slam championship:

The point is that I usually write about people like Sidney Crosby, Darrelle Revis and Maya Moore while roller derby has more in common with, say, Captain Lou Albano, the Iron Shiek and the Lady Gaga. It is performance and costume and atmospherics with athletic ability mixed in. Entertainment first, athletics second.

DiPerna wrote that over a year ago, so who knows if she’s changed her stance on this, but the essay came to my attention at a time when I was considering the odd state of sports culture in our country.

This line of thinking started when I read maybe the ten-thousandth internet comment, in which someone said they didn’t think female athletes should make more money or get more respect because they can never compete with men.  Maybe what pushed me over the edge was a commenter in a recent Slate article, who suggested that the reason why women sprinters did not make as much as their male counterparts is because they are not as exciting to watch.

Let’s parse this, shall we?  The men’s 100m world record is 9.58 seconds and is held by Usain Bolt.  The women’s 100m world record is 10.49 seconds and is held by Flo Jo.  We are taking about less than a second difference here.  We are talking about people who can sprint faster than 99.9% of human beings who have ever walked on the face of this planet, and yet because of that 0.91 second, women’s sprinting is boring to watch.

Obviously, dude is speaking from a place of deeply ingrained sexism, so hardwired into his brain that not even a smashed world record would convince him women’s sprinting was worth his attention because what’s important is not the athletics of it but the fact that it involves, ew, girls.

But what struck me beyond that was this idea that, for a sport to be exciting, it has to be bigger, faster, better than before.  It’s not enough for an athlete to just win their particular competition; they have to set records, they have to be the best ever, they have to set a new threshold for those who come after.

That’s not a sports culture, yo.  That’s a culture of spectacle.

Guy Debord wrote about the Society of the Spectacle back in 1967, and I think his general points hold true – that we have become a society of watchers rather than doers, and that consequently we become so drugged by the “watching” that we need bigger, more spectacular things to keep our attention and our interest.  (Yes, I did just reference Debord in this blog post. My French Situationist critical theory brings all the boys to the yard.)

Our sports culture is not one that is necessarily an appreciation of athletics as much as it is a love of spectacle.  We like shit big, and we like it flashy.  We want pageantry – and if you don’t think this is the case, then I suggest you’ve never been to a college football game before – and we want excitement and drama and all that.  Sure, a lot of people are like, “Dude, check out the amazing ball-handling skills of that power forward,” but overall, as a culture, we want the spectacle.  We crave it.

So what does this have to do with DiPerna and her post?  Everything.  DiPerna draws a false dichotomy between entertainment and athleticism, as if the two aren’t inextricably bound in our culture.  She says she doesn’t cover roller derby because it’s entertainment, not sport.  Well, where do we draw the line?

By every objective measure I can think of, roller derby is a sport.  It involves physical activity.  There is strategy.  Teams compete against each other.  There is a consistent method by which the matches are scored.  The outcome is not decided before the match.

So the players have funny names. So they wear fishnets.  So girls with tattoos and Bettie Page bangs like playing it.  So what.  It’s still a sport.  It just happens to be a very entertaining one that’s played almost exclusively by young women.

Do we dismiss professional basketball because dudes who dunk with flash?  Do we suddenly write off professional football because Chad Ochocinco is…well, because Chad Ochocinco is?  I don’t think so.

I respect DiPerna for taking what might have seemed like an unpopular opinion when she wrote the article, but I wish she would have thought this through a little more.  Instead, it ended up seeming a bit like she found roller derby and the enthusiasm of its adherents annoying, and that rather than owning her annoyance, she had to construct a defense that didn’t make her seem like she was just hating for the sake of hating.

27 responses to “Is roller derby a sport? Thoughts on athleticism and spectacle

  1. This is a great article. I read that article (and commented on it!) back when it came out. The author seemed to have less of a general sexist problem, and more of a problem with the theatrics of roller derby, which is ridiculous. Roller derby is a team sport for theatrical types of people. It’s appealing for a reason.

    Anyone who says they “just don’t like women’s sports” is some combination of sexist and a fake sports fan. I’m not a big fan of women’s basketball- I’m more into the physicality of the men’s game- but I enjoy women’s soccer more than men’s. I was talking to a male friend about women’s sports recently, and he mentioned that he was liking women’s basketball and soccer more than both men’s games recently in a cerebral sense simply because women’s teams tend to run plays and stick to them. I think this is a pretty common thing- men (and women) with a sense of appreciation for the mental aspects of sports, rather than, as you put it, “the spectacle,” are turning to women’s sports for that.

    • Yeah, I didn’t think the author’s dislike of roller derby was sexist, either. It just seemed more like personal distaste on her part that she attempted to dress up with rhetoric that didn’t make her look like a hater. However, her jibes at girls with Bettie Page bangs did a pretty good job of undoing whatever she was trying to accomplish with her argument.

      Re: blanket dislike of women’s sports – Brian made the same point, that no real sports fan dismisses all women’s sports just because they are played by women. I’m not saying that there aren’t legit reasons to dislike women’s sports – or men’s sports, for that matter – but I don’t feel like I hear reasons like the ones you’ve given as much as I hear, “Well, women can’t dunk and that’s boring.” People who make anti-women’s sports arguments based solely on an evaluation of excitement reveal themselves to be very superficial in terms of their sports-fandom.

      • “People who make anti-women’s sports arguments based solely on an evaluation of excitement reveal themselves to be very superficial in terms of their sports-fandom.”

        Yup. It reminds me of the Women’s World Cup this summer- SO many d-bag guys were either like, “women’s soccer sucks!” or “Hope Solo is hot!”, one or the other. And then all these guys I know who truly appreciate sports were like, “FUCK YEAH THIS IS AWESOME! USA USA USA!”

      • I’m so glad that only a few guys I ran into were like that. Most of the guys were really into the Women’s World Cup, which was excellent.

        I did, however, have the misfortune of watching the final match in a group of people that included three girls who would not stop talking about how stupid soccer is and how they don’t get it. The idea that they could a) not watch it or b) watch it and learn something didn’t seem to enter into their minds.

    • I so agree. Plus, it’s one of those questions that is often subject to a person’s taste. Like, I’ve heard people say golf is not a sport, which I just don’t get. Sure, people might find it boring, but it’s as much of a sport as anything.

  2. “It just happens to be a very entertaining one that’s played almost exclusively by young women.”

    And this is the most convincing argument I’ve heard for considering roller derby a sport–which, for the record, I do, and don’t understand how anyone who has ever seen a bout couldn’t. But I dunno, I still have a hard time with roller derby overall, to be frank. My friends who have done it swear by it up and down, but I just know that the times I’ve gone, it’s been hard for me to take it seriously because there’s so much emphasis on the “hey we’re wearing sexy outfits!” aspect of it. So I understand how someone who isn’t friendly to the concept of women as athletes might not see it that way, actually. As a guy sitting next to me in the stands said, “It’s great entertainment…and they’re hot!” Now, women doing pretty much anything becomes entertainment, and if they’re below, oh, 60, they’re also judged on their attractiveness. But it seems like that’s part of the very point of roller derby. That said–my friends who do it were not athletic types and have marveled over what doing roller derby has taught them about their bodies and their capabilities. Certainly that’s feminist and not to be discounted.

    • You make a good point about the whole “ooh sexy ouftfits!” aspect of roller derby. I’ll admit this is something I do not have a firm opinion on. I know that when I see something like the Lingerie Football League, I get annoyed because it feels like legit athletes are being pornified in a mocking way, and in ways that can have serious consequences for their health. (Minimal padding for full contact football on astroturf? Seriously?)

      But then at the same time, I also understand that some women want to wear sexy clothes, even when they are playing sports, and then I understand that even if the outfits aren’t overtly sexualized, people can still look at the athletes and think about how hot they are, as with beach volleyball. I kind of end up playing a mental game of feminist ping-pong here, because I see how problematic this is from a structural, societal point of view yet I think the women should be allowed to wear booty shorts if they want to.

      I’d be curious to hear from ladies who play derby, to hear their perspectives on the kinds of clothes they wear while playing.

      I have read that some leagues were trying to move away from the pseudonyms-and-costumes aspect of roller derby specifically because of concerns that they might not be taken seriously as athletes. I imagine that as it becomes more mainstream, we’ll see more of this happening.

      • Lady who plays derby here!

        I just started playing a few months ago (flat track, not banked, if that makes a difference), and was initially unsure of the whole costume-y aspect of it, too. From what I’ve seen in my league, and the teams we’ve played against, most people wear their team shirt – generally a t-shirt, ours are just cotton t-shirts, some leagues have athletic jersey material ones (we’re jealous, so much more breathable!), along with any or all of the following possible bottom half options:
        – tights (fishnets or not)
        – leggings
        – knee socks
        – booty shorts
        – panties (generally boy-short style, full bum-coverage)
        – shorts
        – capris

        I personally wear purple tights, knee socks and boxer shorts – I don’t think I’d find fishnets comfortable, since I pull knee braces and knee pads on over them, and they offer slightly less protection from road rash if I fall.

        Part of the reason for the minimal shorts/whatever is probably just a range of motion thing – the skating and crossovers and everything else is super-physical, and tights+booty shorts really don’t restrict motion at all, where even my boxer shorts do, a little. There also aren’t generally uniform bottoms – a lot (most?) of leagues are skater/coach run, and generally don’t have a ton of money.

        Another point to mention is that the games are generally (in my experience) held in the spring/summer, in arenas once the ice is out. The arenas are rarely air conditioned, and once you have the track set up, the spectators inside, and the game going, it gets really uncomfortably hot in there sometimes.

        The t-shirts are the main uniform clothing item, and some girls customize theirs, cutting it into a tank top, or off-the-shoulder style shirts.

        Another point to mention is that, at least on the teams that I’ve observed (central/western Ontario), there is a really big range of body shapes and sizes, and for me, personally, I’ve found that playing derby hsa really helped my body confidence – everyone I’ve met so far is all kinds of friendly, and players (even on opposite teams) are always complimenting each other – on both how they play, and how they look/what they’re wearing – there really isn’t any judgement from other players whether you’re wearing hardly anything at all, or playing in jeans and a t-shirt. It also has, as Autumn says, taught about what my body can do – my big thighs were never my favourite body part, but I’ve seen through this that they give me a lot of power and speed while skating, for example.

        Basically what this strangely long (sorry!) first comment ever on this blog is trying to say, is that I also thought that the clothes were all about looking sexy for the audience, and that the games were just a bunch of girls on display, but have found out that really, anyone dressing up for the games is dressing that way because they want to, and it really is a seriously athletic sport – not the WWE-style entertainment it was years ago.

      • Thank you for the detailed comment! And don’t apologize for the length – you wrote about exactly the kind of things I was curious about.

        As I said in a comment to Autumn, I tend to prefer to wear smaller clothes when running for reasons that are mostly practical, but I can see how others would think that’s unnecessary and maybe overly sexual. I was also thinking about how we used to wear spandex shorts when I played high school volleyball, and how we all balked at first, but after a while, we could see how the smaller shorts gave us more freedom. This is a roundabout way of saying that I understand what you are saying about the tights+booty shorts being functional.

        I’m glad to hear that derby has been such a positive thing for you. You are so right about thighs – we have this idea that thinner thighs are preferable in our society, but thighs that are bigger tend to have a lot of power and strength, which I personally think is a way better quality to have than thighs that don’t touch. I mean, when I do squats, I’m not doing it with the goal of whittling them away. I want them solid and strong so I can run up hills like a BAMF, you know?

        Anyway, thanks for the excellent comment. 🙂

  3. You know, upon further thought, I’m violating one of my own personal standards here: I’m not really listening to the women who are doing derby. I am personally troubled by the emphasis on sex appeal in the sport, but the women I know who have done it fall all over the spectrum–one’s a burlesque dancer so is very into playing with ideas of semi-public display of sexuality; another wears the outfits because they’re “fun” to her and a part of the whole thing, and she seems to take it more as a uniform than as a way of expressing her sexuality. Hmm. Also, that’s interesting that some leagues are moving away from the pageantry of it–and I do suspect that’ll help it be taken more seriously. And intellectually I sort of object to that, but if I’m being honest with myself I know that that would be my reaction to it.

    (Also, I had more of a chance just now to dig deeper into your post and I love the points you make about the “society of the spectacle,” which I think is possibly even truer now than it was in 1967. Linking to this in my weekly roundup, and not just ‘cuz you linked to me, I swear!)

    • Hey, thanks for the shout-out! I’m honored!

      Yeah, I think the question of the outfits is more complicated than just “is it exploitative or not,” and I think it’s definitely important to keep in mind that because, say, I don’t think I’d do one thing, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in people who do choose to do that one thing. Like, for instance, I wear short shorts when I run, and I’d like to get to the point where I feel comfortable running in those shorty bun-huggers and maybe a sports bra. Sure, I’ll admit that it can be attractive and sexy, but part of it is also that I really just don’t like to wear a ton of clothes when I run. But I know that a lot of women would rather rip their eye-teeth out with a pair of pliers than wear anything more revealing than some snug capris.

      Like I said, this is something I am all over the place about, because I can see all of the different perspectives. I think that, in the end, I come down on the side of trusting the woman to make the right choices for herself, and being okay with that choice, even if it’s not one that I’d make for myself.

  4. I’m a derby player and I’m currently writing a blog post on this very topic and how it frustrates me as an athlete. I’m happy to have found your blog and I’ll be sure to pass on the link when I post it!

  5. Derby player here! A lot of leagues actually ban fishnets because they’re trying to get away from the entertainment-based and over-sexualized history of roller derby that a lot of fans and members of the public just can’t seem to get away from. Most skaters in my league do not have tattoos. We practice 2-4 times per week until we’re beat. We show up to practice no matter what else is happening in our lives. We aren’t professional athletes, but we take it just as seriously. There’s no question that anyone who has actually seen roller derby (in particular, flat-track roller derby), can see that it’s a legitimate sport.

    As for what we wear… the only reason it’s even being discussed or noticed is because women are doing it. When we ourselves do it, we continue the double-standard that men have created where a woman can’t play a sport, run for office, or be in any kind of spotlight for any kind of skill, without having her clothing critiqued.

    Most derby players spend a ridiculous amount of our time explaining the sport to people who have outdated understandings and images of it. Roller derby has come a very long way from 10 years ago and beyond. We’re not violent, angry women (that’s one). We’re not doing it to get dates (that’s another). We’re not performers, we’re athletes. And without getting into the logistics of wearing non-baggy clothing while playing a full-contact sport, we wear short shorts and tights because when you train hard and can do amazing feats, you feel like a superhero. So you dress like one!

    • Hey, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I know very little about roller derby, aside from the fact that I have friends who play it and love it. I have seen a match before – the Tampa Bay Derby Darlins – and I was blown away by how tough and agile the players had to be in order to play the sport. It’s hard enough to play full contact sports while on your feet but then you add skates into the mix…it’s very impressive and obviously very challenging and I agree that only someone who has never seen a match before would even consider the idea that it’s not a legitimate sport.

      You bring up a good point about the discussion of female athletes and the clothes they wear. Women kind of get it from all sides, because they get the normal standards of mainstream critique, where she’s expected to be appropriately feminine and sexy while still being somewhat demure, but then there is this feminist critique that happens as well, where the uniforms are analyzed in terms of sexual politics. And then what takes the absolute back seat in the discussion – at least, for everyone except the athletes themselves – is what is actually functional for their sport.

  6. Pingback: If you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter | Derby Girls·

  7. I just want to say that I read that entire article and all the comments. She was quick to dismiss it as a sport and then she was happy to say she would go to a bout. She wrote the entire thing having NEVER gone to a bout!!!!! After many people kept commenting with times a places she could attend one … it never happened.
    I have like ZERO care about people that want to talk smack and seriously have no real idea what they are bitching about to begin with LOL.
    I use to argue the same thing about golf… bunch of funny dressed guys swinging sticks on nicely mowed grass lol. Then I went out and played and holy cow! I wish more people could do that with derby. Just try it out … it would blow their minds!!!

    • I’m afraid to try derby, lol. Seriously, that is one terrifying sport. If I wasn’t a runner I’d be more inclined to try it, but if I ended up breaking my ankle or something, I’d be heartbroken over my inability to run.

      I love that you mentioned golf because that is a perfect example of something that is deceptively athletic. I have played golf before and it is very difficult and requires a good amount of athleticism. Plus, carrying your clubs all over the course can really be exhausting.

      The author of that original piece really dropped the ball on her research. I hate it when people try to fancy up their personal likes and dislikes by making huge value judgments about it It’s okay to not like something! I mean, I may not care for a certain writer, but it doesn’t mean that writer is not a writer.

      • You’re not kidding! Golf is killer (especially on the upper body and core). Derby on the other hand has risk of serious injury and requires a different kind of athleticism. It is like ballet on wheels, truly. The agility derby requires I think is over looked entirely too often. I feel like that is where the heart of the sport is. The ability to move like a quarterback on skates, take a hit, fall at incredibly fast speeds/tight quarters, and not die lol. I seriously wish someone would do a comparison between football and derby… (obviously minus the ball lol)… I think it might be shocking lol

  8. Thank you for the interesting commentary I play roller derby and just founded a team in a place where people had never even heard of derby in the last 20 years and it’s been very well received. There are a lot of misconceptions and I really do think alot of it has to do with the fact that this is a women’s sport. I really don’t believe we wear anything less then most other women sports, the only difference may be that we pair it some tights underneath, and honestly I think those help protect my legs from huge gashes from sliding across a concrete floor. It’s frustrating that women as athletes are just generally not taken seriously. Like look at the Williams sisters. More often then not stories about them are about their outfits they wear while playing tennis, then the actual tennis. I think as roller derby becomes accepted into more mainstream society it will help change the perception that you can’t be sexy, and play a sport. I mean what is wrong with taking charge of your self, your body and your image. I think a lot of women experience a bit of a rebirth after starting derby, and I think maybe having the confidence to wear a pair of booty shorts and strap on a pair of skates in front of a crowd of screaming fans no matter what your size (and we have girls that range from like 5 feet tall to over 6 feet tall) is a very liberating and awesome thing, and to change that will take away a big part of what derby is to the PLAYERS of the sport.

  9. Is this a sport? Why yes, YES IT IS! I have been a photographer of many mainstream and underground sports but this is one of the most athletic sports I have shot next to Rugby League and most of the top teams would give those Rugby League players a run for their money, most would not be able to keep up with the girls running the track for 2 solid minutes let alone on skates and blocking etc.
    I am truly proud to be apart of this SPORT and can’t wait to see what the future brings for it!

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