What it was, was roller derby

by Keith Barber

I arrived at the Camel City Thrashers’ Fall Brawl at the Greensboro Sportsplex on Saturday afternoon with no real understanding of what women’s flat-track roller derby was all about. I figured I was in for a 90-minute baptism of fire, but what I gained was a true appreciation for the athletic and, at times, balletic nature of this fascinating sport.

I felt a bit like the character Andy Griffith created in his famous recording, “What it Was, Was Football.”

Like the country bumpkin at his first college football game, I wanted it to be a visceral experience and I wasn’t disappointed.

The event consisted of a number of scrimmages. The final match of the day was intra-squad scrimmage for the Camel City Thrashers, Winston-Salem’s amateur roller derby squad.

I was in for a 90-minute baptism of fire, but what I gained was a true appreciation for the athletic and, at times, balletic nature of this fascinating sport.

As I entered the gymnasium, I noticed it been taped off into an oval with three rings. At that point, I realized I actually knew almost nothing about roller derby aside from what I had witnessed on television as a youngster in the 1970s. At that time, roller derby had become akin to a female version of professional wrestling with scripted bouts where two hot blondes would end up pulling each other’s hair, and referees would try to break it up before getting knocked to the track by one of the players.

The bout between the Camel City Black and the Camel City White began. I watched two players place skullcaps on their helmets with stars emblazoned on the side. I would later come to find out these scoring players are known as “jammers.” As I watched the jammers try to get past what I coined the roller derby equivalent of the peloton in cycling. I would later learn that this grouping of skaters is known simply as “blockers.” Obviously, some blockers would help their jammers and hinder the other team’s jammer. The three referees on skates remained within the inner loop and blew their whistles in a certain cadence and aggressively enforced the rules. There was bumping and elbowing in the pack but nothing too violent. Size and strength differences between skaters seemed to matter less than sheer talent and ability. The fastest skaters typically scored the most points in a given round.

I later learned that there are strict rules regarding physical contact of a jammer. Players are not allowed to use their hands, elbows, head or feet to knock a jammer off their stride. Contact above the shoulders or below mid-thigh is also prohibited. And jammers cannot be contacted from behind, only from the front and sides.

When players broke the rules, referees didn’t hesitate to send them to the penalty box. I would later found out that seven penalties can lead to a player’s ejection. I witnessed no major spills by Camel City players on Saturday. It was clear the sport’s strict rules had a lot to do with that.

As a DJ played hip hop inside the gymnasium, the PA announcer introduced the players by their AKA’s. Michelle O Bam ‘Ya, BF Skin Her, Sour Bash Kid, Nita Beer, Ivana Schoolya, Anakin Skyblocker, Trac Killa, Diesel Dome, Shayna Command and the Killer Purple were just some of the colorful names adopted by the Winston-Salem players.

The first two jammers toed the start line or “pivot line.” On the first whistle, the pack made its way around the oval. Moments later, the second whistle signaled the jammers and the bout was underway. Elbows flew and “whips” hurtled their teammates forward as the Black Team gained an early edge and built an insurmountable 100-33 halftime lead. At the bout’s conclusion, I was most impressed by the intensity and passion of the players. Roller derby is a sport that has great fan appeal and should catch on as these athletic, graceful ladies breathe new life into century-old sport.