A post I read this morning discusses the moves by the Auckland Roller Derby League to try and position themselves as a “legitimate” sport. To do so, they are abandoning what the author refers to as the trappings of the “spectacle” of roller derby – the names, the costumes etc, to move to a more “serious” approach. One League member is quoted as saying “You can’t have a name like ‘Cunty McTaintStain’ and expect people to take you seriously”.
While I have no argument with what ARDL are attempting to do, I do wonder about what the “legitimacy’ being chased is. The author also notes “Legitimacy for a sport is hard for a lot of sports. Watch the strength and skill of a rhythmic gymnastics routine then think about all the times you’ve heard people say that it’s not a sport.” Rhythmic gymnastics. Roller derby. Do we notice the pattern that legitimacy here is difficult for what are predominantly female sports.
So who determines legitimacy? What makes a sport “legitimate.” It is interesting that the automatic assumption that male-dominated ball sports are “legitimate” while female-dominated ones, not so much. What is the appropriate ratio of “spectacle” to “sport” that is needed for a sport to gain legitimacy. Why are the outfits of derby players non-serious, while the oft times garish colours of football teams are OK? Or the body hugging outfits that many women are forced to wear when participating in Olympic sports? Why is it legitimate to refer our Australian cricket captain as “Pup” but player-chosen nicknames are non-serious?
Roller derby, played competitively, requires a high level of athleticism, strength and fitness. Players usually have to attain significant levels of skills and fitness to be able to participate in bouts. Training is a serious business, demanding commitment and fitness and a willingness to keep pushing yourself. As someone who has just started training, I can attest that it is not easy – even being able to stand up and skate properly requires a degree of practice and training. The level of physical ability, training and aptitude is no different from any other sport played at a similar level.
What is different is that the sport is largely player organised and controlled. It is not a money-making enterprise which promotes television bidding wars. It is not owned by millionaires as a hobby which makes them money on the side. It represents genuine grassroots participation and control. Its structures are not the same as other sports, it does not have a dominant command-and-control structure. And most of all, it is not (predominantly) played by men.
My view is that our modern versions of the various codes of football, cricket and even events like the Olympics which are the spectacles. They are profit-driven where the athletes are mere widgets, disposable as soon as they are no longer of use. Watching Moneyball demonstrates exactly how players traded as commodities, their own views and desires completely irrelevant. The spectacle of the AFL draft is exactly the same – the players have little control over their destinies. These sporting events have their dancing girls and advertising and musical interludes and the structures try to ensure that teams remain competitive so that crowds will maintain engagement.
Roller derby in its current incarnation is an unashamedly women-dominated sport, in its players and organisational structures. If women who play it like to call themselves by entertaining names and wear sparkly hot pants, how does this make it any less a sport, unless you are examining it through the lens of patriarchal, traditional, male-dominated sports. Fishnet stockings do not reduce the athleticism of a sport, just as dancing girls at half time don’t (apparently) reduce the legitimacy of football. Why should roller-derby be boring, or be less than its players/participants/owners want it to be just to squeeze into a label bestowed by men? Who cares what they think anyway? If people cannot understand and appreciate a sport for what it is, whatever the packaging it comes in, who needs their seal of approval anyway?
Update 28 February 2013: Today has been a funny old day in this debate, learning that Short Stop was voted online Australia’s best sportswoman, but then not even rated in the Top 25 as “legitimate” sports disapproved and could handle this idea. Surfing has made it to legitiamcy though! Christine Murray, Short Stop, has competed for Australia in the World Cup, proved her versatility and her ability to compete at an international level when playing banked track roller derby with the Gotham Girls last year and is always an impressive (and modest) athlete to watch. Her skills and athleticism are outstanding, and she is inspiring to watch. But I doubt the organisers and judges of this event have ever even seen a roller derby game. And then, we are faced with this sort of commentary about whether it is a sport or not.
This questioning of roller derby’s legitimacy again at a time when “legitimate” sports are being revealed as corrupt and drug ridden is entertaining. If the scandals around sport are what it takes to ensure legitimacy, then count me out. And believe me, when I come home cover in sweat and exhausted from 2-3 hours of derby training, I certainly don’t feel like I am just preparing for someone else’s entertainment. Any more than your average footballer does at any rate.