Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members roller skating counter-clockwise around a track. Roller derby is played by approximately 1,250 amateur leagues worldwide, mostly inside the United States.
A roller derby scrimmage in Utah.
|Highest governing body||WFTDA, MRDA, JRDA, FIRS|
|First played||1935, Chicago, Illinois|
|Team members||15 on roster, up to 5 on track during each jam.|
|Type||Indoor, roller sport|
|Equipment||Roller skates, helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouthguard|
Game play consists of a series of short match-ups (jams) in which both teams designate a jammer (who wears a star on the helmet). The jammer scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to hinder the opposing jammer while assisting their own jammer—in effect, playing both offense and defense simultaneously.
While the sport has its origins in the banked-track roller-skating marathons of the 1930s, Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon are credited with evolving the sport to its competitive form. Professional roller derby quickly became popular; in 1940, more than 5 million spectators watched in about 50 American cities. In the ensuing decades, however, it predominantly became a form of sports entertainment, where theatrical elements overshadowed athleticism. Gratuitous showmanship largely ended with the sport's grassroots revival in the first decade of the 21st century. Although roller derby retains some sports entertainment qualities such as player pseudonyms and colorful uniforms, it has abandoned scripted bouts with predetermined winners.
Modern roller derby is an international sport, mostly played by amateurs. Most teams are all-female teams, but there is a growing number of male, unisex, and junior roller derby teams. It was under consideration as a roller sport for the 2020 Summer Olympics. FIRS, recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the official international governing body of roller sports, released its first set of Roller Derby Rules for the World Roller Games, organised by World Skate, that took place September 2017 in Nanjing, China. Most modern leagues (and their back-office volunteers) share a strong "do-it-yourself" ethic that combines athleticism with the styles of punk and camp. As of 2019, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) had 468 full member leagues and 46 apprentice leagues.
Contemporary roller derby has a basic set of rules, with variations reflecting the interests of a governing body's member leagues. The summary below is based on the rules of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). In March 2010, Derby News Network claimed that more than 98% of roller derby competitions were conducted under WFTDA rules. For example, members of the United Kingdom Roller Derby Association are required to play by WFTDA rules, while members of the former Canadian Women's Roller Derby Association were encouraged to join the WFTDA.
Basics of play
Roller derby is played in two periods of 30 minutes.:4 Two teams of up to 15 players each field up to five members for episodes called "jams". Jams last two minutes unless called off prematurely.:5 Each team designates a scoring player (the "jammer"); the other four members are "blockers". One blocker can be designated as a "pivot"—a blocker who is allowed to become a jammer in the course of play.:7 The next jam may involve different players of the 15 roster players, and different selections for jammer and pivot.:7
During each jam, players skate counterclockwise on a circuit track. Points are scored only by a team's jammer. After breaking through the pack and skating one lap to begin another "trip" through the pack, the jammer scores one point for passing any opposing blocker.:33 The rules describe an "earned" pass; notably, the jammer must be in-bounds and upright. The jammer's first earned pass scores a point for passing that blocker and a point for each opponent blocker not on the track (for instance, serving a penalty, or when the opposition did not field five players for the jam). If the jammer passes the entire pack, it is a four-point scoring trip, commonly called a "grand slam".
Each team's blockers use body contact, changing positions, and other tactics to help their jammer score while hindering the opposing team's jammer.
Play begins by blockers lining up on the track anywhere between the "jammer line" and the "pivot line" 30 feet in front. The jammers start behind the jammer line.:12 Jams begin on a single short whistle blast, upon which both jammers and blockers may begin engaging immediately.
The pack is the largest single group of blockers containing members of both teams skating in proximity, arranged such that each player is within 10 feet of the next.:11 Blockers must maintain the pack, but can skate freely within 20 feet behind and ahead of it, an area known as the "engagement zone".:13
The first jammer to break through the pack earns the status of "lead jammer".:7 A designated referee blows the whistle twice, and skates near, and points at, the lead jammer. Once earned, lead jammer status cannot be transferred to other skaters, but certain actions (notably, being sent to the penalty box) can cause it to be lost.:8 The lead jammer can stop the jam at any time by repeatedly placing both hands on their hips.: If the jam is not stopped early, it ends after two minutes.:5 If time remains in the period, teams then have 30 seconds to get on the track and line up for the next jam.:5 If the period expires, it does not halt a jam that is underway.
A skater may block an opponent to impede their movement or to force them out of bounds. The blocker must be upright, skating counterclockwise, in bounds, and within the engagement zone. Blocking with hands, elbows, head, and feet is prohibited, as is contact above the shoulders or below mid-thigh, and blocking from behind.:14
Referees penalize rules violations.:36 A player receiving a penalty is removed from play to sit in a penalty box for 30 seconds of jam time.:29 If the jam ends during this interval, the player remains in the penalty box during the subsequent jam until the interval ends.:30 The penalized player's team plays short-handed, as in ice hockey.
However, the "power jam", derived from hockey's "power play", does not cover any short-handed situation but only the case where the jammer is penalized. In this case, that team cannot score. While the lead jammer is penalized, no one can prematurely end the jam.
It would be pointless to play if neither team could score; thus, a jammer is released from the penalty box early if the opponents' jammer enters the box. The second jammer's penalty is then only as long as the amount of time the first jammer spent in the box.:31 A player "fouls out" of the game on the seventh penalty, and is required to return to the locker room.:32
Players skate on four-wheeled ("quad") roller skates,:11 and are required to wear protective equipment, including a helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, knee pads, and mouth guards. All current sets of roller derby rules explicitly forbid inline skates for players. (USARS requires quad skates for all skaters. WFTDA and MRDA permit inline skates for referees, but virtually all referees wear quad skates.) Individual teams may mandate additional gear, such as padded knee length pants, similar to what aggressive skateboarders wear, and biologically specific gear such as a hard-case sports bra for female players and protective cups for males.:39
Strategy and tactics
Offense and defense are played simultaneously, a volatile aspect that complicates strategy and tactics. For example, blockers may create a large hole for their jammer to pass through and score, but this same maneuver might also allow the opposing team's jammer to score.
Strategies (high-level plans toward achieving the game's goal, which is to outscore the opposition) include the following:
- Ending the jam: The lead jammer can "call off" or end the jam at any time, controlling the opposition's ability to score points. The strategy for a jam is not to score a lot of points but to outscore the opposition. Often, the lead jammer scores as many points as possible on the first scoring trip, and then ends the jam before the opposing jammer can begin a scoring trip. If the jammer gets the lead but falls behind the opposing jammer, the coach may conclude that the team will be outscored and direct the jammer to call off the jam.
- Passing the star: The jammer for a team may "pass the star" (may perform a "star pass") to the pivot—that is, hand the helmet cover with the star to the pivot, which turns the pivot into the jammer.:9 Passing the star does not nullify any earned pass of an opponent that the former jammer made, but passing the star forward never constitutes an earned pass. A jammer might pass the star because of fatigue, injury, or because the pivot is in a better position to score. Passing the star is also sometimes referred to as "passing the panty", as helmet covers are sometimes known as "panties".
- Penalty-killing: Captained by the pivot, blockers adapt their play to a penalty situation. For example, a short-handed team may try to make the pack skate faster to slow down scoring action until the team returns to full strength.
Tactics (deliberate conceptual tasks in support of the strategy) may include the following:
- Walling up: Two or more blockers skate together to make it difficult for the opposing team (especially its jammer) to maneuver. They may skate side-by-side and use a "wide stance" to maximize the blockade, but must not link with or grasp each other, or otherwise form an impenetrable connection. The ability to suddenly form a wall denies the opposition time to respond. A wall can inhibit, slow down, and ultimately trap the opposing jammer. An effective wall may last for an entire jam. Variations on the tactic include the following:
- Backwards bracing, in which one skater, forward of the wall, skates backward to sight the jammer and direct teammates forming the wall.
- A skater may break off from the wall to actively challenge the opposing jammer, with a teammate replacing the skater in the wall.
- If the opposing jammer tries to pass the wall on one side, players may abandon the other side to fortify the active side of the wall.
- Jammer tactics, in response to a wall or other obstacles by the defense, include the following:
- Pushing through gaps in the wall or inducing the wall to separate by use of physical force.
- Evading the obstacle to one side or the other.
- Juking, where the jammer seems to be skating to one side but quickly shifts to the other side.
- Rolling around the end of the obstacle (spinning 360°) to end up forward of it.
- Using teammates to impede the defense from adjusting, such as by setting screens.
- Using a whip, where one or more teammates grasp the jammer's hand(s) and swing the jammer forward, transferring speed and momentum to the jammer.
- Using the inside curve of the track to leap out of bounds but land in bounds.
- Goating: The pack is defined as the largest group of in-bounds blockers, skating in proximity, containing members from both teams.:11 In the "goat-herding" tactic, one team surrounds a blocker of the opposing team and then slows so that that group becomes the pack. The rest of the opposing team, skating ahead, are thus put out of play and cannot legally block the goat-herders' jammer.
- Running back or recycling: When a skater bumps the opponent jammer off the track, the jammer can only re-enter the track behind the skater. The skater skates clockwise on the track toward the rear of the engagement zone to maximize the time the jammer must spend before returning to action.
- Bridging: By separating up to 10 feet, blockers can stretch both the pack and the engagement zone, allowing teammates to keep hindering the opposition jammer. For example, in the strategy of running back (see above), coordinated action by the four skaters other than the jammer could force the opponent jammer to detour a full 40 feet before returning to action.
Up to four referees skate on the inside of the track. In flat-track derby, up to three additional referees skate on the outside of the track. They call penalties, award points, and ensure safe game play.:36 Referees must wear skates and typically wear white and black stripes.:38
Non-skating officials (NSOs)
NSOs take up a range of positions inside and outside the track, start and time the jams, record and display scores and penalties communicated by referees, record the number of each skater on track for a given jam, and time and record skaters in the penalty box.
Professional endurance races
The growing popularity of roller skating in the United States led to the formation of organized multi-day endurance races for cash prizes, as early as the mid-1880s. Speed and endurance races continued to be held on both flat and banked tracks in the century's first three decades and spectators enjoyed the spills and falls of the skaters. The term derby was used to refer to such races by 1922.
Evolution to contact sport
The endurance races began to transform into the contemporary form of the sport in the mid-1930s, when promoter Leo Seltzer created the Transcontinental Roller Derby, a month-long simulation of a road race between two-person teams of professional skaters. The spectacle became a popular touring exhibition. In the late 1930s, sportswriter Damon Runyon persuaded Seltzer to change the Roller Derby rules to increase skater contact. By 1939, after experimenting with different team and scoring arrangements, Seltzer's created a touring company of four pairs of teams (always billed as the local "home" team versus either New York or Chicago), with two five-person teams on the track at once, scoring points when its members lapped opponents.
On November 29, 1948, before television viewership was widespread, Roller Derby debuted on New York television.:89 The broadcasts increased spectator turnout for live matches. For the 1949–1950 season, Seltzer formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL), comprising six teams.:95 NRDL season playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for a week. During the late 1950s and 1960s, the sport was broadcast on several networks, but attendance declined. Jerry Seltzer (Leo's son), the Roller Derby "commissioner", hoped to use television to expand the live spectator base. He adapted the sport for television by developing scripted story lines and rules designed to improve television appeal, but derby's popularity declined.
1989 saw the debut of RollerGames, an even more theatrical variant of roller derby for national audiences. It used a figure-8 track and rules adapted for this track. Bill Griffiths, Sr. served as commissioner while his son, Bill Griffiths, Jr., managed the L.A. T-Birds, who (according to the storyline) were seeking revenge on the Violators (led by Skull) for cheating in the Commissioner's Cup. The other teams included the Maniacs (led by Guru Drew), Bad Attitude (led by Ms. Georgia Hase), the Rockers (led by DJ Terringo and consisting of skaters who were also professional rock and roll musicians), and Hot Flash (led by Juan Valdez Lopez). It ran one season, because some of its syndicators went bankrupt.
In 1999, TNN (now Spike TV) debuted RollerJam, which used the classic rules and banked oval track, but allowed inline skates (although some skaters wore traditional quad skates). Jerry Seltzer was commissioner for this version.
Contemporary roller derby
Roller derby began its modern revival in Austin, Texas in the early 2000s as an all-female, woman-organized amateur sport. By August 2006, there were over 135 similar leagues. Leagues outside the U.S. also began forming in 2006, and international competition soon followed. There are over 2,000 amateur leagues worldwide in countries including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, Singapore, UAE, and Egypt. In many international leagues, gear and equipment must be imported. Roller derby's contemporary resurgence has been regarded as an aspect of globalization which demonstrates "the speed with which pop culture is now transported by highly mobile expatriates and social media, while also highlighting the changing role of women in many societies".
Many roller derby leagues are amateur, self-organized and all-female and were formed in a do-it-yourself spirit by relatively new enthusiasts. In many leagues (especially in the U.S.), a punk aesthetic and/or third-wave feminist ethic is prominent. Members of fledgling leagues often practice and strategize together, regardless of team affiliation, between bouts. Most compete on flat tracks, though several leagues skate on banked tracks, with more in the planning stages.
Each league typically features local teams in public bouts that are popular with a diverse fan base. Some venues host audiences ranging up to 7,000. Successful local leagues have formed traveling teams comprising the league's best players to compete with comparable teams from other cities and regions. In February 2012, the International Olympic Committee considered roller derby, amongst eight sports, for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games.
In 2009, the feature film Whip It was based on roller derby and introduced general viewers to its rules and culture. The WFTDA encouraged leagues to coordinate with promotions during the film's release to increase awareness of the leagues. Furthermore, corporate advertising has used roller derby themes in television commercials for insurance, a breakfast cereal, and an over-the-counter analgesic.
|Guinefear of Jamalot||Guinevere of Camelot|
|Mazel Tov Cocktail||Mazel tov, Molotov cocktail|
|O Hell No Kitty||Hello Kitty|
|Sandra Day O'Clobber||Sandra Day O'Connor|
|Punky Bruiser||Punky Brewster|
|Roly Mary Mother of Quad||Holy Mary Mother of God|
|Ania Marx||On Your Marks|
|Princess Lay-Ya Flat||Princess Leia|
|Smack Ops||Black Ops|
|Trauma Queen||Drama Queen|
Most players in roller leagues skate under pseudonyms, also called "derby names" or "skater names". These typically use word play with satirical, mock-violent or sexual puns, alliteration, and allusions to pop culture. Referees often use derby names as well, often shown on the backs of their striped uniforms. Some players claim their names represent alter egos that they adopt while skating.
Copying of derby names has attracted legal and sociological analysis as an example of indigenous development of property rights. New players are encouraged to check derby names against an international roster to ensure they are not already in use.
The names of roller derby events are also sardonic and convoluted—for example, Night of the Rolling Dead (Night of the Living Dead), Knocktoberfest (Oktoberfest), Spanksgiving (Thanksgiving), Seasons Beatings (Seasons Greetings), Grandma Got Run Over By a Rollergirl (Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer), Cinco de May-hem (Cinco de Mayo), and War of the Wheels (War of the Worlds).
Roller derby is a contact sport, and injuries can occur. Superficial injuries include torn eyelashes and "fishnet burn", a stippled effect of falling while wearing fishnet hose. However, torn ligaments, broken bones, and concussions also occur.
Some leagues prominently display their injuries, to embellish the image of violence or machismo. However, some skaters say the sport is reasonably safe if skaters take precautions. The rules require appropriate medical professionals on-site at every bout,:39 even if not required by laws or arena regulations. The WFTDA offers insurance for leagues in the United States with legal liability and accident coverage, but it recommends that skaters also carry their own primary medical insurance.
Although the early 2000s revival of roller derby was initially all-female, some leagues later introduced all-male teams and all-gender games; as of May 2013 there were over 140 junior roller derby programs in the United States, and many more around the world.
College roller derby is also expanding in the United States. The University of Arizona's Derby Cats describe themselves as the first-ever official college flat-track roller derby team. The first intercollegiate derby bout took place on March 3, 2017, when the Claremont Colleges roller derby team defeated Arizona State University.
The website FlatTrackStats compiles ratings of WFTDA teams, adjusting them after every bout based on how the actual score compares to the predicted score. The WFTDA's own Stats Repository has comparable information and often is updated at halftime of a bout.
Roller derby bouts are now streamed online, and there are archived videos of past bouts and tournaments. The WFTDA offers live streaming video of its tournaments at
wftda.tv. Derby News Network (
www.DerbyNewsNetwork.com) offered live streaming video and archived video including events outside the WFTDA.
Governance and organization
The largest governing body for the sport is the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), with 397 full member leagues and 48 apprentice leagues. WFTDA membership is a major goal of aspiring leagues. Other associations support either coed or men-only derby; the largest organization supporting male roller derby is the Men's Roller Derby Association (MRDA). Within the United States, the Junior Roller Derby Association governs play by those under 18. It modifies the WFTDA rules for minors, such as prohibiting hitting and accelerating into a block. Some U.S. leagues decline affiliation with a national organization because they prefer local governance.
USA Roller Sports (USARS) is recognized by the International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as the National Governing Body of competitive roller sports in the United States, including speed, figure, hockey, roller derby and slalom. WFTDA and USARS maintain a reciprocity agreement for insurance purposes.
Outside the United States, many roller derby leagues enjoy support from their national skate federations, such as Skate Australia, the British Roller Sports Federation, and Roller Sports Canada. In Europe, roller derby was recognized as a sport in Paris in 2010 by the Federation Internationale de Roller Sports (FIRS), which reports directly to the International Olympic Committee. As of 2017, FIRS has been accepted as the international rule set by the International Olympic Committee. Teams competed under the FIRS rules at the 2017 Nanjing Games. The former Canadian Women's Roller Derby Association worked with the American federation.
Since 2006, the WFTDA has sponsored an annual championship. In 2008, it adopted the "Big 5" format: four regional playoffs and a final championship tournament. As of 2019, the WFTDA postseason includes two playoffs that feed into the Championship tournament, plus three standalone, regionally-based Continental Cups. The WFTDA also recognizes eligible tournaments hosted by member leagues.
Zaina Arafat asserts in Virginia Quarterly Review that roller derby defies heteronormativity and patriarchal standards. In Egypt, Arafat says, there are expectations that a woman will not show visible scars, will have an unblemished body for her husband, and will refrain from activities that may damage her body. She says roller derby in Egypt is subversive, as it acts as an indirect political statement.
Carly Giesler states that skaters enact sexualities that create or reclaim an identity, and their role parodies "hegemonic scripts of sexuality" through the use of costumes, derby names and personas. Roller derby acts as a unique stage for female athletes, letting them rebut constraints society places on women and female athletes. Giesler argues that female sports objectifies them for the male gaze, but roller derby turns this on its head by disregarding gender roles and norms.
- Until 2019, the jammer also scored a point by passing the opposing jammer. There were 5 potential points per trip.
- Before 2013, there were "major" and "minor" penalties, the former included any player's fourth penalty, and it was strategic for a key player to deliberately commit such a penalty when it would have least effect.
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