Professional athletes are revered for their skills, and generously rewarded for their ability to win championships and draw huge crowds. In 2014, the Miami Marlinså signed Giancarlo Stanton to a $325 million contract – the richest in sports history; Jay Cutler makes over one million dollars a game as a Chicago Bear; and who wouldn’t want to earn $145 million for playing basketball, like Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans?
Money is one thing, though, and passion is another. The thing that can get lost in the heartless mix of big paydays and lucrative endorsements is the strong and steady pulse of a sport. If you want to see what happens when athletes pour their heart and soul into a game, you don’t need to travel to Atlanta to see the Falcons or the Braves, or Nashville to see the Predators or the Titans; you only need to go as far as the Chattanooga Convention Center to see the Roller Girls do their thing.
The Chattanooga Roller Girls are a flat-track roller derby team made up of local women from different walks of life. From young ladies who are still figuring out life to career women, mothers, and wives, there’s no one mould for a Roller Girl. Some are young, some are middle-aged, and they even range physically from lithe and agile to built-to-block. They all share two things in common, though: they play for free, and a fire burns in each of them for the sport, their team, and their city.
This much was evident on June 4, when the Roller Girls hosted teams from Cookeville, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala. For two hours, Chattanooga’s skaters put everything they had on the track in a pair of action-packed bouts. I went in cold, knowing little about the sport, and by the time it was over, I was a fan.
Roller derby 101
Roller derby is an exciting spectator activity. But to like it, you’ve got to understand it. Have you ever watched [insert your favorite sport here] with someone who didn’t have a grasp of the rules? I’ve watched football with people who didn’t know what was going on, and instead of screaming and cheering and jumping out of their seat (like me), they sat there looking puzzled and bored. Fortunately, the basics of roller derby are simple.
A roller derby match (typically called a bout) is divided into two halves, each of which is split into two-minute shifts called jams. Each jam begins with eight players (four from each team) grouped together into a pack. The pack is made up of blockers. Behind the blockers are two more skaters – one from each team. These are the jammers, the ones who score the points. You can tell who the jammers are because they have a large star on their helmet.
When the referee blows his or her whistle, the jammers try to skate through the pack, but are met with the hips, rears, and shoulders of the opposing team’s blockers. Once the jammers have broken through, they can begin scoring. They earn a point each time they legally pass a member of the opposing team. The team with the most points at the end of the bout wins.
So what’s illegal? Elbows, tripping, back-blocking, and passing out of bounds. Any player who performs one of these actions earns a penalty; serious penalties nets a 30-second trip to the penalty box. The jam ends when the lead jammer places her hands on her hips, or time runs out. Thirty seconds later, a new jam begins.
Just having fun
Once I understood what was happening on the track, I sat back and enjoyed the ride. In roller derby, the action is nearly constant; during a jam, the teams are playing offense and defense at the same time, so there’s a lot to take in. It was a thrill watching Block Mage, Quads of Kaos, and Bully Von Beat’em (awesome nickname) form a defensive wall and attempt to hold back the Tragic City Rollers’ jammer, even as Goldie Knocks (Tabatha Armour of “American Grit” fame) zipped around the track and then slipped past the opposing teams’ blockers.
The athleticism and resiliency of the Roller Girls was impressive. Not only do the ladies have to pull off some fancy footwork in skates, their head has to be in the bout as they form strategies on the fly. They also have to absorb a barrage of slams, bumps, and shoves even as they give as good as they get.
Make no mistake: roller derby is physical. Knockdowns and falls are frequent and spectacular, and if it weren’t for the protective gear the girls wear (helmets, elbow pads, wrist guards, and knee pads), injuries would be more common than they are. As it is, Roller Girls have suffered knee and shoulder injuries, jammed and broken fingers, bruises, bloody noses and lips, and worse. Stack’ddd Chassi (another great nickname) told me about how she accidentally popped an opposing jammer in the jaw while turning around with her arms extended. She apologized profusely, even as she continued to block her.
The Roller Girls don’t dwell on the physical risks of the sport, though. “It’ll get in your head, and roller derby is as much a mental game as it is a physical one,” Shank Williams Jr., one of four nurses on the team, told me. (Some of the other Roller Girl professions include homemaker, funeral home director, graphics designer, and chef.)
Given the intensity of roller derby, it would be understandable if the occasional fight broke out or flurry of four-letter words flew off the track. Heck, professional baseball has been in the headlines for a number of brutal, dugout-clearing brawls, and those guys get to take a long breather between each play. Yet I never saw tempers flare, and I didn’t hear a single bad word. A true contact sport, roller derby can be physical without becoming aggressive, making it an excellent family spectator activity.
Plenty of moms, dads, and kids were there the night of June 4, as were hundreds of other fans. The bouts took place in Exhibit Hall A at the Chattanooga Convention Center, where officials had created an oval track using pink tape. A few feet beyond that, a border of warning tape provided a barrier spectators were not allowed to cross. They could sit on the floor along the tape, though, as many people did, or in one of the chairs surrounding the track. Although there didn’t appear to be a bad seat in the house, those who arrived early claimed the best spots, and got an up-close view of the action that’s rare for a contact sport.
The atmosphere only added to the excitement. People cheered on their favorite skaters as music thumped in the background and Rabbit, the Roller Girls’ official sportscaster, provided blow-by-blow commentary over a loudspeaker. The score was projected on a nearby wall along with the time left in the half, making it easy to track the status of the bout.
Merchandise and concessions were also available, as was a table with materials about Crabtree Farms of Chattanooga, the Roller Girls’ non-profit of the evening. One of the defining characteristics of the team, which itself is a non-profit organization, is its efforts to support the community. Orange Grove residents serve as cheerleaders, and the Roller Girls themselves take time out of their busy schedules to participate in a variety of charitable events throughout each year. Up next for the team is the Running of the Derby Bulls Fun Run in July, which will benefit the American Cancer Society. (For more information about this event, see the Events Calendar on page 13.)
While I was impressed with the size of the crowd, there were a few clusters of empty seats, meaning the Roller Girls could use more cheering voices as they compete to improve their ranking in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. This is where you come in. The best way to introduce yourself to the fun and excitement of roller derby is to simply go, like I did. The Roller Girls’ next home bout will take place Saturday, Aug. 13, when they host Vette City from Bowling Green, Ky. You can purchase tickets online at chattanoogarollergirls.com. At $10 a pop for adults and $5 for kids, it’s cheaper than the movies, and will give you way more bang for your entertainment buck.
As I talked with several of the Roller Girls that night, I heard one thing over and over: they aren’t just a team, they’re a family. They’re also finding out more about themselves. Women who have never competed in a sport before are learning that their bodies are strong, and they’re letting go of years of negative thinking and perceived imperfections. This environment has nurtured the formation of powerful bonds among the diverse, yet like-minded, group of women. They are also discovering that each of them has unique skills to contribute to the squad.
The Roller Girls might not be pulling in million-dollar paydays, but they’re gaining something valuable in return for their efforts and giving it back to the community in spades. Just go, and you’ll become a fan.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of this week's Hamilton County Herald.