I'd like to put to rest the argument that roller derby is not a real sport. In researching past coverage on the subject, I have discovered that writers always make a point of mentioning how far derby has come in legitimizing itself, or how the mass media has a history of focusing on the more sensational aspects of the bouts, sensationalizing the fishnet stockings worn by players and turning up their noses at the playful atmosphere in the arena as a reason to take it less seriously.
Here's what I know: In the two hours of roller frenzy I experienced last month during the third bout of the 2012 Mad Rollin' Dolls season, I saw women get kicked in the back of their helmets with roller skates, women skating shoulder to shoulder violently falling to the concrete floor and then, bruises developed and skate wheels spun, I saw women picking themselves back up to skate their asses off for the rest of the thirty-minute periods.
"Not a sport" some say? Inside the taped-off flat track of modern roller derby is a battleground of athleticism and serious competition. The only difference I notice between derby and other sports is that when it comes to competition, derby girls do it with style. And compared to other sports, their fans seem to have a hell of a lot more fun.
Titled "Malice In Derbyland: Madhatter's Mayhem," the third official bout of the season was well attended by fans both new and old, many of whom were sporting odd hats in celebration of the night's ode to eccentric headpieces. This was one of the aspects of derbydom that makes roller derby more exciting than your average sport -- there's a theatricality to it, an inspiring sense of flair.
Also unlike other sports, there is no clapping along to Steve Miller Band songs or advertisements for the newest brand of Dr. Pepper. Instead, you have announcers dressed like Abraham Lincoln asking you in earnest to buy merchandise to help support noble causes, such as the Alzheimer's Association. And where on a more somber night you'd have players donning seriously rendered two-tone athletic shorts and football jerseys, the derby uniform is uniquely tailored by the contenders themselves, each having their own jersey style which is then imitated by the avid fans who root for their teams with a devoted pride.
Sitting both in the stands and around the track, these fans are an eclectic group, hard to pin down or generalize. There are derby husbands, skaters in furry boots, nacho aficionados, clueless bystanders and many others who comprise their own categories, their scalps adorned in burger hats, cow crowns and even two who came in full spirit of the night's theme dressed as The Red Queen and The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. Yet the one thing that remained consistent between athletes and fans throughout the night was an attitude of acceptance and love for the sport, both for what I think is fair to call its spectacle (in the best sense of the word) but also the fierce competition.
"On the track it's a battleground," says the Reservoir Dolls' Dutch Oven, who along with her team won the first of the night's bouts with a score of 166 to 129 over the Unholy Rollers. "But playing is a lot of fun, and through derby you meet a lot of people, both fans and other athletes, who become important people in your life."
This is one of the repeated phrases I heard from fans and athletes alike during the bout, the idea of a "close-knit camaraderie." Unlike a football or hockey game where fans of opposing teams sit on opposite ends of an arena or stadium, derby fans rub shoulders with one another in stadium seats, share blanket squares on the floor, all the while hoping, at least a little bit, that a ref will miss an illegal elbow that sends a player flying into the crowd.
Some of the players even have their own unofficial fan clubs, which lends a degree of rock stardom to the atmosphere. Many were on their feet to applaud the return of the Vaudeville Vixens' Darling Nikki as she came back from an eleven-month maternity hiatus.
"She's just amazing on skates," says one Vixens fan wearing a pink bunny hat, the jersey color of her favorite team. "I've honestly missed her, and am excited to see her back in action."
Also due to the close-knit aspect of the sport, these same rock star athletes are eager to see their most appreciative fans in attendance.
"We have a fan named Denim Dan," says Nefarious, captain to the Vaudeville Vixens, who along with her team beat the Fox City Foxz, 196-85. "He's probably the most rabid and definitely is a Reservoir Dolls fan, but he roots for me and one of my teammates Major Kusaknocky, which is awesome."
"There's this one guy named Mike, who comes to a lot of bouts," says Dutch Oven about one of the fans she looks forward to seeing. "He used to be a huge Reservoir Dolls fan, but now he's a fan of some of the other local leagues in Wisconsin and he'll tell me, 'I can't come to your next bout because I'm checking out some other teams.'"
"And I'm honestly thankful he let me know," Dutch adds with a laugh, "because I'd be worried if he wasn't there."
After the bouts are over and the night comes to a close, the fans make their way through the aisles to their cars, stopping to shakes hands and interact with the players in the hallway. Many fans, from ages 8 to over 40, even stop to get player photographs signed. Everyone is reminded about and invited to an after party at the Inferno where the good times and interaction can continue.
"In your regular life, all the girls have their own jobs," says Nefarious with a smile on her face and a temporary tattoo glittering on her neck. "But on the course and in the ring we get to be something else."
The Mad Rollin' Dolls' next bout is Saturday, March 17 at the Alliant Energy Center.