Blogs

Take your Balls and go Home

 

The history of gender in American sports has been largely one of exclusion.  For most of organized sports history, the thought of men competing alongside women has been largely dismissed.  Men sought to exclude and prohibit women from sports, forcing a policy of “separate, but equal'' that still exists today.  Roller derby, however, has a rich tradition of inclusion and embracing forms of co-ed competition.  In the past ten years alone, roller derby has set a new standard for gender inclusion that many sports should continue to adopt.

Gender discrimination in American sports can be tracked to the earliest forms of baseball.  Women and men organized teams, games, and leagues as the sport developed from infancy.  While the men and women traditionally competed separately, there are several notable instances where women competed against men and had competitive games.  However, before the women's game could get formalized, conservative institutions stepped in to limit womens participation.  Rules were established that limited and discouraged women from participating, mostly in the name of decency.

Softball was generally more accepting of women in sport.  In the 1933 Century of Progress celebration, softball made it's premiere, with separate men's and women's competitions.  Men's and women's softball continued to develop separately until co-ed slow-pitch was introduced in the later half of the twentieth century.  Men's fastpitch softball has since been relegated to a barnstorming sport, while women's fastpitch exists as one of the most popular amateur sports for young women.  Organized slow-pitch, in the male, female, and co-ed varieties struggle to sustain competitive leagues.

Co-ed sports--softball, volleyball, and basketball--are exceptions to a standard of “separate, but equal'' in sports.  These co-ed sports exist largely at the recreational level.  Competitive amateur and professional sports almost exclusively mandate a separation of genders.  Female opportunity in sport grew significantly after the passage of Title IX, which mandates equal educational and athletic opportunities for women in college.  However, this is limited to female-only sports.

Lacking opportunities to compete in separate women's sports, some athletes have attempted to compete alongside men.  These efforts are traditionally met with opposition.  For example, women wrestlers in high school do not have separate competition opportunities; they must compete with men.  They are often harassed, derided, and cat-called by opponents, teammates, and spectators.  Women often see limited competition, as potential opponents forfeit rather than compete against a woman.

In organized co-ed sports, special rules are put in place to elevate women; this is done under the assumption that women cannot compete at the same level as men.  In co-ed softball, if a man receives a base-on-balls, he gets two bases, and the next woman up to bat may elect to walk. Men must be pitched a separate ball that is designed to fly shorter.  In other leagues men must bat opposite handed with a little-league bat.  In basketball, baskets scored by women count for more points; men may not jump to block a woman's shot.  In volleyball, the teams must be balanced in both rows, and a woman must be involved in each side of a volley.  All this, to level a competitive playing field that may not be entirely unequal.

Where does roller derby fit in with all of this? Derby has arguably been more progressive than its historical counterparts when measured by co-ed opportunities.  In its original form, roller derby teams were co-ed, to an extent.  A traditional team was two teams, one male and female.  Bouts would alternate between having the men and the women on the track for a period.  Despite being separate, these two groups skated under a common banner, and were closer than any other sport of its time.

The rebirth of derby began as a revival of women's roller derby.  And while men were involved in the periphery as coaches and officials, the leagues were run by women.  Enter halftime of a 2007 Gotham Girls bout, the New York Shock Exchange exhibits the first modern men's roller derby bout.  Soon after, men's leagues form.  Coaches and referees shed their clipboards and stripes to form early leagues and develop the men's game.  But they do not do it alone.

Men's and women's derby are not separate institutions.  We practice and compete together.  Co-ed derby provides a model for other co-ed sports: No special gender rules.  Men and women jammers each score a point for passing the hips of another skater, there are no prohibitions against who can hit whom and how aggressively it can be done.  Equality of playing field is done by assessing skills and matching up teams and skaters against ones who are close to their own ability, instead of assuming that skill is based on genetic features.

The modern men's game is created with the consent and encouragement of women.  When the Brigade of Handsome Gentlemen started earlier this year, our sister league-Southern Illinois Roller Girls- could have easily echoed history and told us what men athletes have told interested women for years, ``This is our sport and you cannot be a part of it.''  Given the historical precedent of discrimination against women in men's sports, such a response is justifiable. 

However, in a situation that has been echoed in leagues across the world, women have collectively invited and embraced their male counterparts. The acceptance is not universal, several leagues and skaters do not support men's derby or their involvement as skaters.  Our leagues would not exist without the support of our sister leagues, most of us have been trained by women.  We practice together, skate together, and become a family.  The love we have for our teammates and support is not based on sex; it is based on community.

Where women could have told men to stay on the sidelines, they saw the hurt that exclusion breeds and made a historical decision for inclusion.  To my sisters who have opened their practices and bouts to men, it may seem like a simple act, but it sets a new standard for inclusion, one that should be echoed in arenas far and wide.  It is truly a commendable act.

On the week after Brigade of Handsome Gentlemen's first bout. I feel this is appropriate: To every one of my sisters and mothers, thank you.  Thank you for looking at history and not repeating it. Thank you for treating us as equals. Thank you for giving me the last team sport I will play. Thank you for teaching me to skate like a girl.

 

Ronnie Pains