PHOTO FRIDAY: Roller Derby Through The Lens Of A Newbie
Story & Photos by Michael Brunk
I recently had the good fortune to spend a Saturday evening in Seattleâ€™s Key Arena, surrounded by roaring crowds cheering on skilled athletes. No, not basketball. Something far more interesting to a non-sports fan like meâ€¦ the Rat City Rollergirls.
Part rock and roll and part spectacle, with a solid base of physical sport underpinning things, roller derby is enjoying a modern resurgence. Iâ€™m old enough I can remember watching roller derby on TV but I have to admit I didnâ€™t recall the details as I wandered into the venue.
Fortunately fellow photographer and roller derby super-fan Claw Kelsay noticed my deer-in-the-headlights expression and took the time to lay a little roller derby Zen on me.
First off, the Rat City Rollergirls arenâ€™t a team. Theyâ€™re a league! I was fuzzy on that point at first. Turns out there are actually four teams that compete against each other within the league and a traveling all-star team that competes against other leagues in the Womenâ€™s Flat Track Derby Association.
Claw went on to explain how the competition actually works.
A match consists of two 30-minute periods. In each period there are multiple 2-minute segments called â€œjamsâ€ where each team can score points. Each team sends five players out to skate. The jammer, the offensive player who can scores points for their team. A pivot, who runs the defense and can swap places with the jammer. And three blockers who work to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring.
As play starts, the defensive players from both teams start skating in a formation known as â€œthe pack.â€ The two jammers start skating when the last skater in the pack passes a line on the track. The goal of the jammers is to catch up to the pack, pass everyone and then catch up again and start scoring points.
One point is scored each time a jammer passes a blocker or pivot. Two points are scored if the jammer passes the opposing teamâ€™s jammer. The first jammer to pass the pack becomes the lead jammer and can either keep skating and score points or call off the jam.
Of course, the job of the blockers and pivot is to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring points while aiding their own jammer. They can use their hips and shoulders to block opponents but elbows, knees, heads and hands are all off limits.
Still, itâ€™s fair to say that in the midst of all this excitement a skater might earn a penalty or two. A major penalty sends them immediately to the penalty box for one minute, while a total of four minor penalties results in a trip to the box.
It was all a bit confusing at first but once the action started I picked up on it quickly enough. It helps that the skaters wear helmet covers to indicate their role. Jammers have stars on their helmets, pivots have stripes and the blockers wear a bare helmet. The points can roll in fast and furious, but a team of referees and officials keep track and the scoreboard is your best friend there.
The May 1st bout I attended was the second to last match of the season and would determine which two teams would skate in the upcoming championship bout. The evening saw the Derby Liberation Front competing against the Sockit Wenches and Grave Danger going head-to-head with the Throttle Rockets.
The first matchup, while exciting, turned out to be heavily weighted towards the Sockit Wenches with a final score of 258 to 56. Hey, I said the points piled up quickly.
The second bout was the real excitement for the evening as the Throttle Rockets and Grave Danger swapped the lead back and forth right down to the wire. In a final jam that had the crowd on its feet, Grave Danger managed the nail the coffin lid closed on the Throttle Rockets with a final score of 132 to 104.
I have to confess, after spending an evening photographing the event I really enjoyed myself. Traditional, professional sporting events have never held much of an attraction for me but thereâ€™s something about roller derby I find compelling. Yes, thereâ€™s an element of theater with the campy player names, costumes and mascots but you canâ€™t deny that these women are truly athletes. And theyâ€™re doing this because they love it, not because someone is paying them truckloads of greenbacks.
That lends a different vibe to the whole, family-friendly affair. The skaters really embrace their fans and the fans in turn seem to have a vested interest in the success of the league. That investment has seen the Rat City Rollergirls move from a small skating rink in White Center to a former hangar at Magnuson Park to their current digs at Key Arena where theyâ€™re breaking attendance records for roller derby across the country, with over 5,700 fans at their April 10th match.
A final point Claw shared with me was the â€œdo it yourselfâ€ ethic that the league embraces. The skaters not only get on the track and compete, they also run the league with most of the women wearing multiple hats organizing and managing things when theyâ€™re not working out and practicing. Now thatâ€™s dedication and a role model for empowerment I can get behind.
Contrast this with the recent news out of Philadelphia where a baseball fan was taser’d for running onto the field. Iâ€™m not arguing that the fan had any business being on the field, but it does lend weight to the idea that modern, professional athletes are too often pampered and protected from their fans.
I canâ€™t help but think that if this had happened at a Rat City Rollergirls match, one of the women would have simply hip-checked the offender into the VIP seats and pressed on with the jam. And probably still have extended an invitation to the after-party along with the rest of the fans.
You can learn more about roller derby and get information about the June 5th championship match between the Sockit Wenches and Grave Danger at the Rat City Rollergirls website.
You can also check out this audio slideshow I put together. Note, this has a musical soundtrack so check your volume before clicking!