Orange is the New Roller Derby

Yes, I’m comparing roller derby to prison*.

Feel free to add how else roller derby is like the amazing Netflix series Orange is the New Black in the comments at the end of this post.

No pack.

You get a uniform
And sometimes they’re ugly**.

You don’t choose your teammates (but you do choose your friends)

You’re all in the same place, but for different reasons

Your family no longer understands your actions

Getting here is scary
And after a while things get easier. You move up in the ranks. Maybe one day you can run the kitchen. I mean jam.

It’s full of lesbians (Or people who at least temporarily express their queerness)

It’s awkward to run into your derby-skating ex. Or be on the same team with her

Small victories can mean everything

You sacrifice for your teammates

Family visitation
Sometimes, on a weekday in-season, a roller derby skater gets time to see her family or friends. It’s a special, rare moment where the inmate/skater can ground herself in her support system. If only for an hour or two.

And these

*This is the truth disclaimer. I was the statewide prison reporter for my last newspaper. Roller derby is exactly nothing like real prison. But this TV show is fun and roller derby is fun and I’m fun, so here you go.
**But they’re worn by good-looking women, so there’s that.

All images from http://orangeisthenew.tumblr.com/

How to write about roller derby: A case study with James Dator and Greensboro Roller Derby

This week roller derby got fair news coverage. That, my friends, should, in and of itself, not be news. But it is. And it’s great news. Here’s the story, written by James Dator for SB Nation and picked up by the Philadelphia inquirer.

What’s different about this article is that it is about the legitimacy and growth of the sport without screaming, “This is real, you guys!”

I talked with Dator about his coverage of roller derby. As a journalist myself, what was the most interesting was how he threw out objectivity. And how doing so allowed him to tell a truer story.

Here’s what he said about that: “I feel it would have been disingenuous to try and depict something as important as the legitimacy of female contact sports through derby without believing in it too; I think readers would have seen right through that.”

The result has been a lot of Facebook shares, clicks and chatter in the derby community. So I had to see what the North Carolina league he covered thought too.

“It feels like an article about any other sport.  This may seem a silly thing to be so excited about but anyone who’s involved in roller derby knows it’s kind of a big deal,” Alexandroid said. “He captured all the passion, the triumph, the heartbreak, the hard work and the time that goes into being a part of a roller derby league.”

Greensboro Roller Derby photo by Frayed Edge Concepts LLC.
Greensboro Roller Derby photo by Frayed Edge Concepts LLC.

In a previous post on The Dashboard, I wrote about how journalists always miss the real derby story. I focused on money, but in a later post clarified that that post went viral because we’re sick of cliche “isn’t this quirky!” coverage and because we know this is a huge global movement.

As a skater-journo, I get both sides. Journalists need objectivity. Skater-writers can’t write about derby for a newspaper for the same reason journalists don’t interview their dads for stories. Also, by the nature of traditional media, journalists don’t have time on tight newspaper budgets to delve deep, so they end up seeing fishnets and knee-high socks and going with that. I get it.  Lastly, daily papers usually restrict stories to between 500-1,200 words. (Dator’s was more than 5,500.)

And as a skater, I get why all of that blows. Dator broke the barrier that prevents traditional journalists from reporting about our sport truthfully. That barrier is “objectivity.”

I also talked with the league he covered about their side of things. Here it is (Read Dator’s story first). So, on The Dashboard today are two consecutive interviews, first with the writer, then with a skater from the league.

For background, you should know that Dator’s publication, SBNation has this to say about how it covers sports: “SB Nation was born through the passion of a frustrated sports fan who used to be a print reporter. He felt like no traditional media outlet was covering his team the way that he wanted, which was with a passionate, authoritative voice that would also remain true to a lot of the journalistic principles. In short, professional quality, fan perspective. We firmly believe that sports objectivity is a myth. We’ve always been forthcoming about the fact that we’re relentlessly passionate about the teams and sports we cover.”

Here’s my interview with James Dator:

Were you familiar with derby before reporting this story?
Not outside of the stereotypical view. I, like many still had this perception of the neon-clad, 80’s WWE style derby — not the sport it is today.

Why did you choose to do derby as a story?
Covering professional sports can be draining because of the overwhelming negativity. Seeing my first derby bout was a rekindling of what I love so much about sports in the first place, away from the big-money and extreme fame. A group of people who are in love with a game, and get to share that love with like-minded people. It’s not about having the perfect physique, or the ideal height — it’s about wanting to compete, and willing to sacrifice yourself for it. That’s why it’s so compelling to me.

What surprised you most about the sport?
There was something pure about derby that I haven’t seen in other sports. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of being in a smaller town, but it’s rare to see people play so hard against each other with no jealousy or resentment. The final whistle sounds and it’s all over. The competitors who were trying to obliterate each other are taped up with an ice pack, and having a drink later that night. The mutual support was refreshing, and rare.

How long did it take to report it and how did you go about it?
Roughly five months from first bout to final product. I attended four bouts, roughly 10-15 practices, as well as one team meeting and a conducted a score of interviews — most of which were left out of the piece when I chose to narrow the focus to Susie “Miller Lightnin” Williams.

How did you approach your reporting of this?
Ultimately I think it was pretty simple: The exact same way I approach covering any sport. Typically my work involves NFL coverage, so I took the skills I use to diagnose a practice, or see where a play went wrong and applied that to a new medium. Changing my approach would have done derby a disservice.

Why did you choose to report it this way?
It was hard because there were enough compelling storylines that I could have gone 20 different directions. The interpersonal relationships between skaters, husband/wife teams who both are a part of GSORD, referees who give up hours of time for their role in the sport. The common thread every skater wanted was simply the opportunity to be taken seriously.

Yup.

To that end Susie Williams was the epitome of someone who straddled the line between the fun/community aspect of derby, and the seriousness of wanting the sport to take the next step. She’d been with the league since the very beginning, and was one of the few skaters left who was there for each of the league’s milestones.

How did being a newer, less traditional form of media change the way you covered derby?
As a writer it’s about having the support of editors who are willing to move outside the mainstream, and who have the faith in telling a story that wouldn’t fall inside the traditional 24-hour news cycle. I think traditional sports media is stuck within traditional thinking, and doesn’t give an audience enough credit. Yes, people want to hear about the latest professional sports news — but there’s room for that coverage, and pushing the envelope with subject matter that speaks to the core reasons sport is loved in the first place.

Can you touch on objectivity? You aren’t objective. I’ve seen your Tweets. (ex: “Give derby a chance. I guarantee there’s a team wherever you live, and it a fantastic sport.”)
I certainly didn’t walk into the piece thinking “I’m going to fall in love with this sport,” but here we are. The notion is to serve the story, and to tell that to the best of my ability. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to spend so much time with these women and not inherit some of their passion for roller derby. That said, I think I had the luxury where accurately telling their story, and being a fan of derby weren’t mutually exclusive.

Do you think you not being objective matters? Do you think it allows you to tell a truer story?
The story could have had a very different ending if WFTDA didn’t approve their membership, and Susie’s retirement came well after the piece was written. If this was a different piece, then yes — I think objectivity would be important. However, I feel it would have been disingenuous to try and depict something as important as the legitimacy of female contact sports through derby without believing in it too; I think readers would have seen right through that.

Woah. (If this blog had a glitter font, I would have made that last sentence be glitter. Moving on.)

Why do you think so many other publications often fall into that cliche “By day Heather Steeves is a journalist for an upstanding newspaper, but by night she straps on eight wheels and is a rough and tumble roller girl …” sort of story?
I think it’s because they don’t properly respect roller derby as a sport. The ‘by day, by night’ conceit is set up if the punchline is “ISN’T THIS ZANY?!” I find those piece immensely condescending. If someone works a day job, and plays rec-league soccer afterwards it’s not quirky, so why should derby because of skates and nicknames and the culture behind it?

How and why did you pick the WFTDA recognition as the engine of your story?
It was serendipity really. I think the best stories happen organically like that. Derby itself is interesting, but to arrive right as Greenboro was getting ready to take the step from WFTDA apprentice league to fully-fledged member was too perfect not to be the underlying story behind the league’s growth.

Were there parts you left out that you didn’t want to? What were they?
It’s less that there are parts I wanted in, and more that there are five more stories waiting to be told — they just didn’t fit in this piece.

How is the story being received?
The reception has been very good, and what’s most satisfying is seeing leagues all over the country telling their followers that my story was accurate, or did the sport justice. In the end that’s all I wanted, to tell a story I found compelling as accurately as I could. This wasn’t something that needed to be embellished, because the sport is interesting enough itself.

That’s the end of my interview with the writer James Dator, your new favorite guy. But it got me curious about how the league, Greensboro Roller Derby, felt. I talked with Alexandroid, a skater there. Here’s our interview:

Why did you let James have the access he did?
When James contacted us, he let us know he wanted to tell the story of the sport of roller derby, not the novelty or the shtick as is so common with a lot of the coverage we get. He’d gone to a bout of ours previously and told me he was immediately hooked. We read his other pieces and were familiar with the site and knew the kind of stories they run, knew they take sport seriously, and were confident they could do the sport we all love so much justice.

I saw you guys had coverage by your local TV station, which did the cliche derby story — did you know this would be different?
We hoped it would be but there’s always that lingering apprehension.  We’ve been on the morning news four or five times and while beyond grateful for the exposure and despite the fact that most reporters really have made the effort to research the league and ask about game play, a lot of it has been “lawyer by day, roller girl by night” coverage that is so common.  I think going into any kind of potential news coverage, you always hope this is going to be the one that covers it like an actual sport.  We knew James was a legitimate and talented sports writer which we felt would immediately give the article more weight than being just a story in the lifestyle section.

Did James treat you differently than other reporters you’ve dealt with?
He treated us like athletes instead of oddities which we’re thankful for more than he can possibly know.

He took a very different approach to telling derby’s story — what did your league think of the final article?
It was better than we could have imagined. It feels like an article about any other sport.  This may seem a silly thing to be so excited about but anyone who’s involved in roller derby knows it’s kind of a big deal. He captured all the passion, the triumph, the heartbreak, the hard work and the time that goes into being a part of a roller derby league. The picture he paints really is honestly and truly Greensboro Roller Derby and we feel like he’s done a great service to our league and to our sport.

Anything you wish wasn’t in there? Anything you wish he’d added?
There are always some nerves involved when waiting for a finished piece of media on your league because you never know how it’ll turn out. This was a big deal for us so the stakes were a little higher. Without sounding like we’re sucking up, we really feel like it’s perfect.

Do you think that using your WFTDA approval process was newsworthy?
I do. Besides lending a narrative to the piece, the fact that roller derby has a governing body makes it more able to be related to other sports. Being able to say “we’re getting/we got accepted into the NHL or NFL of roller derby” I think will make people realize roller derby is a permanent, legitimate sport.

Do you think the story reflected on derby as a whole?
All leagues are different and have their own paths but we all have the same struggles and issues and victories, no matter how big or small. Telling our specific story is obviously going to be different from other leagues’ but I think there are parallels that tie us all together. He highlighted not only the athleticism but also the community and the importance of charity work. The fact that James takes the sport and its players so seriously reflects well on roller derby and I hope others agree.

Anything else you want the derby world to know?
We know we were ambassadors for the entire sport in the article and hope we did roller derby proud.

5 things to know about outdoor roller derby

When we first started, my last league skated in an old school building’s gym — 60 feet by 40 feet, maybe*. So, when the sun came out in Rockland, Maine, we traded our dusty gym in for the high school basketball courts (which would fit a WFTDA track).

For us, it was analogous to keeping a pony in a tiny dark stall for months and then letting it loose in a sunny hay field. “Finally,” I thought. “This is where we belong. On a derby track. A real one. … this is bigger than I thought.”

You can see I wore boot covers (99 cents) and they got torn to shreds. Photo by Eric Baseler, summer 2011.
You can see I wore boot covers (99 cents) and they got torn to shreds.
Photo by Eric Baseler, summer 2011.

But, like snakes and thistle in a field, with freedom come certain dangers.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Go early, be prepared
If you can’t lay a permanent track, you’ll need your rope/tape measure and chalk each time. And 20 minutes.

Also be prepared for the public. People see a bunch of women (or men, or children) on skates and get curious. If you have fliers for your next event, have some on hand. And if you have someone off-skates, maybe assign that person to be the spokesperson for the day.

2. Outdoor surfaces can hurt
Skin peels off your body so much easier on concrete, tar, tennis court. Make sure to wear capris, even if it’s hot. Bring the first aid kit every time.

3. They can hurt your skates too
If you’re a toe-dragger — even an occasional toe-dragger — outdoor surfaces can also rip your leather right off your feet. (No, not literally) You might invest in toe guards or duct tape.

4. New wheels not necessarily a necessity
If you’re on an even-enough surface, like a basketball court or a tennis court, you probably don’t need to spend another $30-100 on outdoor wheels. Outdoor surfaces like that do wear down any ridges you might have on your wheels, so if you have a boner for perfect, new wheels, well, you probably already have outdoor wheels and I don’t know why you’re reading this. If you’re frugal and don’t care too much if your wheels are beautiful, they shouldn’t affect them too much.

It’s a basic lesson in friction — gritty surfaces are tackier (hence why they excoriate you with ease). So, on a super-friction court, you should consider using a less sticky wheel. Outdoor wheels (the stickiest) are a poor choice for a basketball or tennis court, in my opinion. Sticky on sticky.

That said — if you’re on a super shitty surface, like bumpy tar, you will want outdoor wheels.

Personally, I used my old indoor wheels for outdoor derby, my outdoor wheels for skating outdoors for leisure and my indoor wheels for indoor derby.

5. You’ll need more water than you think
I drank more than a gallon once. Your teammates will forget their water. Also bring sunglasses and sunscreen.

6. Know when the sun goes down
If you’re skating in the evening, you might want to check when the sun goes down. And prepare, accordingly. I wrote about the Maui Roller Girls’ set up — they practice outdoors at night. Also, if you’re playing on public space (like a high school basketball court), check your city’s ordinances about noise, curfews, etc.

*Such tight walls.

The “mercy rule” breaks my soul

I have only one thought on the 2014 World Cup rules announced today, really:

It takes incredible hurdles to create magnificent victories. Our heroes don’t come because they face everyday circumstances — they come out of harrowing times.

Therefore, I loathe the mercy rule that Blood and Thunder announced today. According to DNN, it states: “If a team is leading by 100 points with 20 minutes remaining, the leading team will be awarded a ‘technical knock-out.'”

I think the mercy rule crushes the soul of roller derby fans. Part of the fun is rooting for an underdog and vicariously living through their victories (even if it’s just “SHE GOT LEAD JAMMER!). As a derby fan I love the second half. I know teams come back. I know they re-think, re-energize and re-evaluate their play and adapt. Part of the satisfaction I get is seeing the smarts of the sport — OK, Team B, you’re losing. Now what?

Because isn’t that what real victory looks like? — Figuring out that who you are isn’t good enough and that to rise to the task you must be better than you thought you could be. I think so.

And from a practical standpoint: Blood and Thunder also reduced penalties to 30 seconds (or, if the other jammer it out and scoring, the penalized jammer only serves one scoring pass in the box) — OK. I can live with that. Hypothetically, someone great could score 40 points in a powerjam minute. 20 points in a half-minute — assuming you could goat the jammer that long under this rule set. 100 points is still only five (magically awesome) power jams away.

Come on, Blood and Thunder, don’t take away the chance of a great story with amazing heroes conquering the seemingly unconquerable. It’s not who we are.

An ode to the spam comments on my blog, may you “find this content digestible.”

I get a *lot* of spam comments. Some of them are a little hilarious. Most of them are just nonsense. Which is a little hilarious.

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Team USA tryout approaches, skater Grim D Mise turns to … a beauty pageant? Well, yeah!

In less than a week some of the best roller derby skaters in the East will try out for Team USA. Which means it’s time to catch up with Maine Roller Derby skater Grim D. Mise (read this first.), who I’m following through the tryout. The plan is to chat with her the day before the tryout, the day after and once she hears the results.

Here’s Grim:

I last talked with you in Mid-May. What’s changed since then?
I have new muscles in strange places.

Which places?

With one week left, what’s the plan for training?
Rest! Well, kind of. I’m still skating, I’m still Crossfitting, but the intensity is a lot lower. I’ve put my body through a lot over the last few months and what it really needs now is a chance to rest before the big day. I’ve also been extremely sick for a week and I’m only just now recovering from whatever virus I had. For the 2-3 days leading up to tryouts, I plan to continue with light cardio but I’ll mostly be stretching and foam rolling religiously.

What Grim calls "rest." Photo by CrossFit Vindicta
What Grim calls “rest.”
Photo by CrossFit Vindicta

How are you preparing mentally?
Visualization is one of my favorite tools of mental training. I think about roller derby pretty much non-stop and I often joke to my leaguemates about how when driving home, I get carried away with visualizing doing awesome and amazing things on the track and I constantly drive past my road. It happens at least once a week.

Most recently at the Northeast Derby Convention in May, I was invited to participate in an all-star scrimmage as part of, “Team Smarty.” Yes, that Smarty. It was a tremendously fun and helpful experience to be able to have before the Team USA tryouts. Skating with/against skaters of that caliber quickly exposed all of my weaknesses, and some that weren’t very apparent to me. One of the biggest being, self-doubt. Until that scrimmage, I honestly thought I was as confident as I could get on skates and I firmly believed I had a fairly solid mental game. NOPE. Turns out I had some work to do.

At North East Derby Convention. Photo by Joe Medolo.
At North East Derby Convention. Photo by Joe Medolo.

So I entered a Pin-Up girl contest at Northeast Chop Shop in Windham, Maine. What? I know. There’s logic to this decision, I promise. Basically, I had to figure out what filled me up with so much anxiety and doubt. I can list all the reasons here, take up a page or two doing so, or I can narrow it way down and simply say that I had to figure out how to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and being a contestant in a pin-up contest was a situation I was highly uncomfortable being in. Entering that contest was an opportunity to learn how to deal with my mental hang ups. My goal for the contest was to make it through without crying or throwing up. If I could do that, I would have felt successful. So what happened?

Photo credit: Mad Stork
Photo credit: Mad Stork

I told myself to have fun. I took home first place, some sweet prizes, and a SATIN SASH! I made some friends too (one of whom plans to try out for Maine Roller Derby in the Fall!). Focusing on having fun took off so much pressure that I was finally able to feel comfortable. Sometimes a situation calls for unconventional methods. This one certainly worked out better than I had imagined it would.

Are you going with anyone else from Maine?
Yes! My super ultra hyper amazing teammate, Spry Icicle (you know, the one who actually scored points against Gotham that one time we scrimmaged them?) is trying out as well. She’s MRD’s head of training and she’s swell.

Do you have any pre-derby rituals you know you’ll do?
This is a ritual both Spry and I share, but yes, we listen to music and paint our nails. For myself, there are two constants to this ritual: Metal and sparkles. Otherwise, I eat what I feel like eating and I might watch my favorite motivational video once or twice. I might also hula hoop.

Are you going to do anything else while you’re down there? Anything derby?
We are going down to Pennsylvania early to watch all the outstanding derby at the East Coast Derby Extravaganza. I’m going to be working the Turn Two Skate Shop table for most of the weekend while at the event, but I’ll be sure to catch as much of the action as possible.

Are there any skaters you’re hoping to see at the tryout?
Yes! Aside from obviously being excited to share the track with current Team USA skaters, some of my Rogue-mates (my banked track team, “Team Rogue”) will be there and a few of the Boston ladies are trying out as well. Also, and I hope her plan wasn’t to fly under the radar and then blow everyone’s mind away the day of tryouts, but Buster Skulls will be there and she’s got a killer shot to make the team.

You’re the jammer on the line for Team USA and you get to pick your four blockers. Who are they?
I’m pretty sure I may have suffered a slight brain aneurysm thinking about how to answer this but I’d love to see this blocking line up: Slaydie, Smarty Pants, Sassy, Bonnie Thunders.

Anything else you want people to know?
I mostly just want people to know how grateful and endlessly appreciative I am for all the support they’ve given me. I’m so lucky to  have friends and family like I do. It feels really good to have a whole state behind me and that feeling is something I plan to tap into during tryouts. Rock Coast Rollers, Central Maine Roller Derby, Bangor Derby, Maine Roller Derby, Derby Lite: Portland, Maine and New Hampshire Roller Derby (I know you’re not a Maine league NH, but you gals continue to inspire us Mainiacs and you’re always genuinely supportive) — THANK YOU!

Lastly, (here’s where it gets a little mushy) my fiance has been one of my biggest supporters since we met almost three years ago. I decided to stop drinking in preparation for Team USA tryouts and AJ joined me. He’s a huge source of strength when I need it most and without his loving encouragement and support, I’d be lost.

Barf! Grim and soon-to-be Mr. Grim (or TUGBOAT). Photo by Kissy Kicks.
Barf! Grim and soon-to-be Mr. Grim (or TUGBOAT). Photo by Kissy Kicks. (JK on the barfing. Sorta.)