Sunday, April 3, 2011

Wheel Appeal

Last night was the first match of the season for Jerzey Derby Brigade Roller Derby!

Roller skating sports, such as races and a version of polo, have been around since the 1880s. From the beginning, these events were rough and tumble. They also were crowd pleasers. Leo Seltzer (1903-1978) saw an unexploited opportunity in them, and in 1935 he invented the team sport of Roller Derby. From the beginning, Roller Derby was mixed gender, with men and women alternating on the track. Seltzer made some tweaks and adjustments over the next few years in light of actual experience, but by 1939 the fundamental rules that still prevail today were in place.

Seltzer scored a hit. Teams sprouted up, and, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, bouts sold out arenas around the country and were broadcast on the radio. It was always a bruising sport, but, after the arrival of television, broadcasters pressured the professional teams to ham up the action visually. For good business reasons they did, but Seltzer never liked this, and he strove to ensure at least the scoring of matches remained honest in order to keep derby a legitimate sport rather than just theater. He obviously succeeded, because derby coaches repeatedly were caught betting with each other on bouts – no insider ever would take the other side of a bet in a fixed bout.

Derby kept a dedicated following, but by the 1970s economics had turned against the professional teams. Other sports won the most lucrative TV contracts, and the costs of transporting the teams to bouts around the country soared. Seltzer said the 70s oil crunch was the final blow. The sport ceased to profitable and the professional leagues shut down.

Derby never went away entirely. Amateur local teams continued to skate, and there were several attempts in the ‘80s and ‘90s to revive the leagues. In 2001 a revival effort finally got real traction with the formation of all-female Roller Derby leagues in Texas that quickly attracted fans. Similar leagues cropped up in other states, and there are now a couple hundred women’s Roller Derby leagues in the US alone, and at least as many more around the world.

One night last year, I whimsically Google-searched for a local team. By “local” I meant somewhere in the northern half of NJ. To my surprise, the nearest team, The Corporal Punishers, skated in Morristown, 7 miles from my door. I attended their next bout which was against the Utica Blue Collar Betties. From the national anthem sung by the Four Old Farts to the post-bout wedding of one of the roller girls in the parking lot outside the rink, the night was enormous fun. The match itself was hard-fought with Morristown ekeing out a victory in the final minutes. I was hooked.

Last night The Corporal Punishers faced a second Morristown team The Major Pains, both of the Jerzey Derby Brigade (, in a sold-out bout. It was the very first bout ever for the newly formed Pains, so, unsurprisingly, the veteran Punishers dominated, the scoreboard reading 203-63 at last glance. For all that, it was hard-fought with the Pains offering some tough blocking that gave even the Punishers’ very effective jammer Assault Shaker (#AK-47) trouble; the Pains’ own jammers including Heinz Catchup (#57) and Maggie Kyllanfall (#187) showed strength and speed. Give them another couple of bouts and the new team will be a co-equal contender.

If the terms jammer and blocker are meaningless to the reader, an instructional video on the rules of the game is below. See you in the stands at the next bout.

Derby Rules

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