When U.S. President Donald Trump signed his executive order implementing a travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries last month, it kicked off weeks of grim and constantly changing news about the legality of the order and the international travelers it affected. The sudden policy shifts have reverberated in the sports world, too, leaving many international athletes wondering what their futures are likely to hold.
It all couldn't come at a worse time for the young but fast-growing sport of women's roller derby. Since its revival in Austin, Texas, in the early 2000s, modern roller derby has been predominantly American, with most of the major tournaments and teams based in the U.S. The Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the sport's key governing body, accepted its first international member in 2009, and in recent years member leagues have joined the organization from Europe, Australia and New Zealand, South America, and Asia. There are a number of teams with skaters who are nationals of the seven targeted countries (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan) and for them this season presents an unprecedented challenge, with the prospect of both training and playing schedules being abruptly rearranged.
"As new info is popping up everyday, it is hard to know for sure what the situation will be like in a few months or even in a few weeks," Dorna Behdadi told VICE Sports. Behdadi is a charter member of the Gothenburg Roller Derby team in Sweden. They are also an Iranian national whose parents fled a country in upheaval (Sweden has historically received a large number of asylum seekers and refugees, something that the U.S. President has alluded to recently). Behdadi was not born in Iran and holds a Swedish passport, but Iran still considers them a citizen because of their parents. Travelers with dual citizenship from one of the seven countries were initially included in Trump's ban, although that guidance appeared to evolve in the days after the order's rollout. Overall, the situation is marked by confusion, even as the administration reportedly draws up a revised executive order.
Gothenburg Roller Derby had been planning to compete in a tournament called Coastal Chaos in Maine this June, but Trump's travel restrictions have made the team rethink those plans.
"If some of our players cannot participate because of racist regulations, the team will not partake in the event," Gothenburg Roller Derby posted to Facebook days after the travel ban was signed. "Sports should be for everyone to participate in, roller derby is an inclusive sport, and we will never accept discrimination on the basis of race, religion or citizenship."
Behdadi's story isn't unique. Mina Dadashzadeh is another Iranian national whose family sought refuge in Sweden years ago. As the co-captain of the Malmö-based Crime City Rollers, the highest-ranked Swedish team, and the second-highest ranked in all of Europe, she has the potential to take her team to the top—if she can join them in competitions.
The WFTDA Championships are held at the end of the playing season in November each year, pitting the top twelve teams in the world in a relentless three-day knockout tournament that has been broadcast by ESPN for two years running. Crime City Rollers are currently ranked 13th in the world, and there are crucial upcoming tournaments in the U.S., like the Big O, which takes place in Oregon each May and which the team had been anticipating would be the main focus of their season. If travel restrictions mean that Dadashzadeh can't make it, however, Crime City says they will not play without her. "My spot on the roster was not compromised by this at all," Dadashzadeh told VICE Sports. "The team did not want to go on those terms, and it would have been the same if it was any player on the charter. We don't leave anyone behind because they have the 'wrong' ethnicity."
If that happens, Crime City would be looking at the prospect of hosting a WFTDA playoff that they themselves were not able to qualify for. Just days after Trump signed his original executive order, the WFTDA announced that one of the key playoff tournaments would be held in Malmö this September. It will be the first WFTDA playoff to be held outside North America. If Crime City is unable to compete in the U.S. with their captain, however, they might not make the rankings mark. Because of the sheer weight of ranked competitors being in America, playing solely in Europe puts teams at a huge disadvantage in points, and it would be essentially impossible to organize competitive games in Europe to make up for that difference.
Both Behdadi and Dadashzadeh point out that their journey here had already been long and rocky. Both players hold Swedish passports as a result of their families seeking refuge in the country, and both already had to go through a more extensive vetting process to play in the U.S. than their teammates last year. While most Swedish nationals fall under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, Behdadi and Dadashzadeh's travel arrangements required several hundred dollars of administrative fees, a trip to Sweden's capital and in-person interviews, as well as extended follow-up screening questions upon their arrival in U.S. airports.
The reaction from the rest of the roller derby community has largely been supportive of players who might be affected by the Trump administration. On February 7, the WFTDA released a statement against what it called "the United States' discriminatory executive order." "We believe the diversity of our member leagues, volunteers, staff and worldwide community makes our organization stronger, and we are committed to inclusive and anti-discrimination practices," the statement continued. "As an international organization, free and open travel is vital to our community."
Roller derby as a sport has been known for its broadly progressive views, boasting some of the most liberal policies around gender identity of its players. Leagues across the world have boasted on social media of their member's participation in such events as Pride Marches, and their local Women's Marches on January 21. Individual teams have also rallied to the defense of those affected by the travel ban. A day after the WFTDA's statement, the defending world championship team Rose City Rollers' Wheels of Justice posted their own response to Facebook:
"We rise for the WFTDA, and for roller derby worldwide.
We rise for those who are unable, for those long gone, and for those yet to take up the call. We rise for love, for equality, for you. We are all refugees cast away from the shores of society past and welcomed, with arms open, into the nation of this great sport, into this incredible culture we call our own.
We are Justice, and your walls cannot hold us back."
The WFTDA is not the only sporting organization to speak publicly about the Trump administration's policies. It also does not necessarily have the same broader institutionalized support and historical standing as groups such as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which have both expressed concerns with the implications of the executive order on their members. On January 30, for example, the USOC announced, "Recognizing the extraordinary power of international sport to bring people together in a peaceful celebration of friendship, excellence and respect, the U.S. government has today advised us that it will work with us to ensure that athletes and officials from all countries will have expedited access to the United States in order to participate in international athletic competitions."
But a great number of sports played at elite amateur levels (and high personal cost) do not fall under the International Olympic Committee's auspices, and have had no opportunities to take advantage of such exception. Regardless of size or history, sporting organizations are clearly concerned by recent events in the U.S., and the uncertainty around future decisions is sure to affect them all.
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