Hell on Wheels: Portland’s Rose City Rollers (LJP)

by Lucas Schwartz

“Box her out! Don’t let her get around the outside!” screams T-Nasty, one of Portland’s top blockers. 

Skaters slam into each other as ‘jammers’ from each team try to score points by finessing their way through a wall of opposing players. One crowd member lets out a primal scream as the home team, the Cherry City Rollers, scores 5 points. The energy in the air is intoxicating, and I am left amused about by how utterly ‘Portland’ the culture around the sport is; a huge line forms behind on-tap microbrews, and music from the Rocky Horror Picture Show blares from the loudspeakers.

Roller derby is unlike any other sporting event I have attended. I naively assume that the bout – roller derby games are called bouts – will take place in a second-hand stadium. I realize I’m wrong when we roll into a rather bleak warehouse complex on the outskirts of downtown Salem, home of the Cherry City Rollers. From the car, I walk into the grey building, buy a $10 ticket, and take a seat next to a man wearing a shirt that plainly says “ ‘Merica.” My little brother is out of place as one of the few youngsters; 20-50 year olds make up much of the attendance. Sponsor messages from lawyers and urgent care clinics adorn the walls, and the the warehouse is harshly lit with fluorescent lights. In the corner, there is a merchandise booth next to a concession stand fully stocked with soda, hot dogs, and beer. A greying man in his 50’s wearing a checkered shirt slowly skates around the circle, making sure the linoleum track is up to par. He holds the highly esteemed position of bout referee. The venue is about half-way full when both teams filter out onto the track and begin warming up. To my surprise, opposing team members jokingly punch and push each other as they engage in civil conversation. I am taken aback by their camaraderie, for in less than fifteen minutes, they will be colliding with each other and mercilessly shoving off the opposition to make it to the front of the pack. While the teams warm up, more and more fans enter the warehouse, many of whom are chowing down massive plates of chilli nachos.

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A skater warming up before the bout

In the past, I had heard whispers of Portland’s legendary derby team, but I had never experienced the sport first-hand. I suppose my notion that roller derby was an ‘underground’ sport is what initially drew me in; something in me has always been attracted to emerging subcultures and new technologies, ranging from drone racing to 3D printing. Made up of over 400 skaters with ages ranging from seven to 60 years old, the Rose City Rollers is renowned as one of the best leagues in the world. Located in Portland, Oregon, the Rose City Rollers includes nine teams: four home teams, two travel all-star teams, two youth teams, and one recreational team. Tonight’s team is coyly named the Break Neck Betties – the most decorated team in the Rose City Roller league. It’s easy to understand the existence of this sport in a city as ‘hip’ as Portland, but roller derby has spread throughout the world – teams can be found in rural, midwestern towns and in countries ranging from England to China.

In a nutshell, roller derby bouts consist of a designated ‘jammer’ and four blockers from each team. At the beginning of every round, known as a jam, the jammers try to get past a wall of the opposing team’s blockers. The jammer that successfully makes it past each blocker becomes the lead jammer. Lead jammers have the opportunity to call off jams by tapping their hips in an attempt to prevent the other team from scoring more points. One fan informed me that calling off a jam is a popular tactic used by the winning team in order to ensure that their opponent will not have any chance to score points. From then on, jammers continue around the track and try to accumulate points by passing blockers again and again, earning one point for every opposing blocker they pass. After the 60 minute bout, the team with most points takes home the title.

The crowd grows restless as both teams assemble and prepare to start the bout. A woman in a grey hoodie casually walks out into the middle of the track, sets her IPA down on the track, and sings the national anthem as the crowd rises and gazes at the American flag hanging in the corner. Soon after, the ref blows his whistle, and the skaters dash off in a flurry of movement. It’s challenging to keep track of everything that’s going on in between the flailing bodies and sprinting flashes of color. A volunteer passes out a roller derby 101 handbook to try and alleviate the confusion undoubtedly clouding some of the audience members.

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Skaters tussle around the track in Salem, OR

Although complicated, roller derby certainly attracts some devoted fans. I briefly chat with a local enthusiast who has been attending Cherry City’s bouts for seven years. His long blond hair is tied off into a ponytail, and he thoughtfully scratches his beard as he watches players skate past. With a resounding slap, he hits his leg in frustration as the Rose City Rollers score five points once again. “I like that the sport is a mix of skill and brute-force. The ticket price isn’t too shabby as well,” he says as skaters continue their laps. Just eight minutes in, Portland’s Rose City Rollers are destroying the opposition. The score is 71-1. “The game isn’t going as well as I would like, but Portland’s Rose City Rollers are one of the top teams in the world,” the fan tells me during halftime.

Things don’t improve for Salem’s Cherry City Rollers in the second half; Portland has a whopping 300 point lead. This outcome isn’t completely unexpected, though; Salem has lost many key skaters in the past year. Even though Cherry City is getting pulverized and a few of their players have been sent off for foul plays, like charging from behind and blocking with their heads, the air of friendliness remains between both teams. Nani, known on the track as Yoga Nabi Sari, is a skater for the Guns N’ Rollers, one of the Rose City Roller’s home teams, and also for their all-star travel team, Wheels of Justice. When not practicing with her team or working out in the gym, Nani works as a librarian. While the combination of these two occupations may not seem to go hand-in-hand, it’s quite obvious that she has both the intellect of a librarian and the zeal of a skater. On the subject of friendliness between teams, Nani said “derby is still small enough where a lot of people know each other. While not as present in national games, it’s common to see playful shenanigans against local teams.” The half-time whistle is blown and both teams go off into their respective corners. Cherry City clearly isn’t bothered by their impending doom – a few members of the team congratulate Portland’s jammer on her incredible performance. “The element of friendliness in roller derby has to be partially due to how empowering it is to be a woman in a sport where you are essentially giving consent to other player to be rough with your body, and where people use their different body shapes to their advantage,” says Shannon Lord, a.k.a Whippet Good, a skater alongside Nani on the Guns N’ Rollers.

Adele Pavlidis, author of Sport, Gender, and Power: The Rise of Roller Derby provides an interesting viewpoint on the issue of gender in this sport, noting how “roller derby presents an opportunity for women to position themselves as intelligible subjects, capable of complex and at times dangerous improvisation” (Pavlidis 7). Nani mentioned something about the sport’s intrinsic female empowerment that I had never thought of before: “When someone mentions roller derby, your mind immediately jumps to women skating around a track. This is in stark contrast to other sports, where you have to specify women’s basketball or women’s soccer.” This distinction is clearly vital for skaters. “I would not want to change the level of men’s derby, which holds little prestige” said Tenacity Remington, better known as T-Nasty to devout fans, “It’s great that they have a league, but it’s really empowering to be part of a sport where women dominate for once.” The league’s mission statement echoes the female empowerment ideals admired by skaters, stating  “The Rose City Rollers’ mission is to serve women and girls who want to play the team sport of roller derby, connect with an inclusive community, and realize their power both on skates and off” (Rose City Rollers). In today’s world filled with bigotry and misogyny, roller derby feels like a refreshing change of pace from traditional, male-heavy sports. After watching my first bout, I could see the allure of ditching Monday Night Football and fully embracing this progressive sport.

Despite the mission statement’s commitment to inclusivity, it seems the ethnic makeup of roller derby skaters is largely consistent. “The sport is so fucking white” T-Nasty said in an exasperated tone. I could not help but notice the lack of diversity when I watched the bout in Salem – the crowd was a sea of white; coaches, referees, fans, and skaters are mostly caucasian. This could be partially attributed to the fact that Portland and Salem are some of the whitest cities in the country (Statesman Journal 2015), but T-Nasty informed me that diversity around the sport is lacking in every city she travels to for bouts. Where does this lack of diversification stem from? Is it a byproduct of the sport’s creation during the segregated mid 1900’s? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear something has to be done if the sport wants to stick to its rallying cry of inclusion.

****

Cherry City’s jammer helplessly pushes against the wall of Break Neck Betties while Portland’s jammer skillfully weaves her way around Salem’s four blockers. The sly jammer completes the lap skating backwards, taking in some of the crowd’s cheers. A ref wiggles his fingers at the scorekeepers, signifying that Portland has once again completed a lap, scoring five points. The score is 178-10. Picking up speed, the jammer hurdles around a corner and fruitlessly tries to slow down. Her skates squeal out from under her as they lose grip, and the jammer braces for impact. With a resounding yelp, she flies through the air and comes crashing down onto the hard track, landing inches from my feet. I grab my legs and ball up in my seat, and through the massive hockey mask, the jammer gives me a little smile as if to say ‘sorry!’. After regaining my composure, I notice the sign taped to the back of the seat next to me: “SIT HERE AT YOUR OWN RISK”.

****

As you might imagine, many injuries result from roller derby bouts. The close-quarters contact is a breeding ground for concussions, broken bones and more. Even though skaters wear knee pads, wrist guards, mouth guards, and fully fledged hockey helmets, there have been some pretty serious injuries in the sport. Each of the skaters I interviewed all have had their fair share of accidents. From back pains to crushed neck bones, wounds have kept the skaters off the track for as long as nine months. The sport clearly takes a toll on people, and T-Nasty estimated that the average time a skater can stay competitive in a league is no more than 4-5 years. “If I could change anything about roller derby, I would prevent all injuries,” she said adamantly. “I would cut 10 years off my life if it meant I could be injury free.” I sense T-Nasty is not the only skater who would take this deal – the resentment surrounding injuries is commonplace in the sport.

Conceived in 1933 by Leo Seltzer, roller derby was a hit from the get-go. Great Depression America adored the sport as it helped fill the void of accessible entertainment. At the time, members of roller derby were well respected, and in many cases, skaters were treated like celebrities. With benefits including health care and subsidized housing, roller derby skaters lived a plush life during one of America’s most challenging eras. Breaking new ground, the sport reached a once overlooked demographic with unprecedented success: housewives. Listening to bouts on the radio, many housewives were given the rare opportunity to escape their monotonous daily routines. This support among women doubtlessly propelled derby to its high standing in the mid 1900’s  (Mabe 21-31).

Today, roller derby has connotations with flying teeth, black eyes, and magnificent falls. When it first made an appearance, however, the sport was much more concerned with endurance – the skater’s goal was to skate continuously for twelve hours. This all changed when Seltzer introduced a points system, which awarded the fastest and most aggressive players. This new approach shifted the sport’s emphasis from endurance to more combative conduct such as hip checking, body blocking, and even brawls. The sudden pivot from endurance to full-contact was very well received by the public – bouts were often filled to the brim, and security guards would have to escort skaters in order to protect them from enthusiastic fans (Mabe 31-33). By 1941, roller derby had taken its place as a staple of American life.

While immensely popular in the mid 1900’s, the fervor that once surrounded the sport has since dwindled. T-Nasty has not seen a lot of fan engagement in recent years. “Most of the people that usually come are friends or family of the skaters. Sometimes a co-worker will come, but only if I’m really persistent with them,” she said, “The sport deserves a lot more attention.” It’s not like roller derby is a small side-gig that people play to kill time – the sport is a massive time commitment. While skaters are not paid or given benefits such as health care, they can invest upwards of 14 hours of their time per week in the sport between practices, travel, and team meetings. A full-time college student, T-Nasty finds it arduous to balance her schoolwork with the sport. Whippet Good also finds the behemoth commitment hard to manage. “It’s really hard to maintain a healthy marriage if you have a job and skate – especially if your wife is on a roller derby team as well.”  All three of the skaters I talked with clearly want roller derby to become a professional sport like it used to be in the past. Their extreme commitment to the sport surely deserves some compensation. “Going to a roller derby bout is so much more accessible than going to a Timbers game – tickets are cheaper, and you don’t have to pay $15 to park” says Nabi. “Once we hit that critical mass of fans, the sport will take off again. Right now, it’s all about getting the derby word out there,” T-Nasty said enthusiastically.

As with most revived sports or cultures, roller derby has certainly experienced its fair share of change over the past few years. The seriousness of the game has intensified, and the sport is much more concerned with athleticism and strategy than it has been in the past. “The first league I skated with is a great example of how the sport has changed,” described Whippet Good, “The league ultimately ended up splitting over the issue of how serious we wanted to be. One group wanted to preserve the fun fishnet stockings and booty shorts that reigned over 20 years ago, while the other school of thought wanted to increase the seriousness of the sport.” The latter opinion has since prevailed; roller derby has pivoted to a serious sport and is straying from its purely entertainment-based beginnings. In fact, some skaters are dropping their fun stage names in an effort to be taken more seriously; T-Nasty plans to use her legal name, Tenacity, in coming seasons to help the cause. Gone is the derby culture of the 90’s, consisting of televised roller derby bouts similar to staged WWE wrestling. There are no longer alligators in the center of the track waiting for skaters to fall, delighting onlookers, and faux skater personas have long since left the sport as it has become increasingly intense (Barbee 26-27). Roller derby has been reincarnated.

Unfortunately, because many people have not been able to move on from their image of roller derby in the 90’s, the sport is associated with many wide reaching stereotypes. “As a woman playing roller derby, I definitely encounter stereotypes,” said Whippet Good, “a lot of people will say things like ‘watch out, she plays roller derby – she will beat you up’ or others will try and hypersexualize players.” These preconceived notions are undoubtedly products of exposure to an earlier era of the sport. “It really annoys me when I hear these things, because although roller derby used to look like that 20 years ago, the sport has universally changed.” Additionally, there is a broad stereotype that most skaters are lesbian. “While the ethnic makeup of the sport may not be diverse, we have skaters that identify with all sexualities. It’s a testament to just how inclusive of a sport this is” commented T-Nasty. Derby culture is trying to move away from ideas instilled by short-lived T.V. shows that aired during the late 90’s, but it is clear that programs such as RollerJam or Rock-n-Rollergames have clung to the minds of people as an idea of what derby really is.

Roller derby is steadily making its way back into the spotlight. The future of the sport, however, is unclear. With more misogyny and bigotry in the public eye every day, how will the sport be received as its coverage widens? Will people be receptive to a shift from male-dominated sports to the introduction of a women-dominated one, or will they discard the game? Whippet Good, Yoga Nabi Sari, and T-Nasty all hope that one day, people will be able to look past the stereotypes that come with the sport. If this happens, then who knows, maybe roller derby will land a Monday Night timeslot on primetime T.V.

Works Cited

Barbee, Jennifer, and Alex Cohen. Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller

    Derby. Soft Skull Press, 2010.

Hughes, Dick. “Salem: Diverse in Oregon, Not in U.S.” Statesman Journal, 21 Mar.

    2015, http://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/opinion/columnists/dick-hughes/2015/03/

    21/salem-diverse-oregon-us/25164849/. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.

Lord, Shannon “Whippet Good”. Interview. 29 Oct. 2016.

Mabe, Catherine. Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest

    Sport on Wheels. Speck Press, 2007.

Pavlidis, Adele. Sport, Gender and Power: The Rise of Roller Derby. PDF ed.,

    Ashgate Publishing, 2014.

Remington, Tenacity “T-Nasty”. Interview. 30 Oct. 2016.

Rose City Rollers: Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby in Portland, Oregon.

    www.rosecityrollers.com. Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.

Sari, Nani “Yoga Nabi Sari”. Interview. 29 Oct. 2016.

Schwartz, Lucas. Cherry City Rollers. Digital file, 22 Oct. 2016.

Schwartz, Lucas. Rose City Rollers. Digital file, 22 Oct. 2016.

Schwartz, Lucas. Skater Warming up. Digital file, 22 Oct. 2016.

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