Meet the Men of Roller Derby, a Niche Sport Within a Niche Sport
Roller derby has been a sport long dominated by women. We hung out with local team the New York Shock Exchange to see what the deal is.
All photos by Elyssa Goodman
Editor's note: This story originally appeared with the headline 'Meet the Men Bringing Balls to Roller Derby.' After publication, we received numerous complaints that the headline was offensive to transgender and genderqueer players. We agreed. So we changed the headline. We apologize for the error in judgment.
"Five seconds!" the referee yells.
Two rows of roller skaters form on the track, crouching with elbows and arms frozen as if daring each other to pass. Four white jerseys against four black jerseys, their wheels are completely still.
Those seconds seem endless, but then the ref blows the whistle. There's a clatter of skates against the green plastic floor as the jammers—the lead point scorers from each side—come from the back of the pack, attempting to make their way through the eight blockers. The skaters grunt and yell plays to each other, pushing and shoving in a mass of bodies, none of which want the other team's jammer to move forward. They quickly move around the track, two thrashing armies on wheels.
And this is only a scrimmage, one portion of a practice where skaters don't just review basic drills but also ram the hell out of each other as they would in a real bout.
Two or three times a week, these skaters meet for practice at the Crash Pad, a former warehouse in Brooklyn that has been converted into a skating rink with a row of bleachers in one corner and large cushions lining the walls. The youngest skaters are in their early 20s, the oldest in their mid-40s. Some wear neon socks, some have bruises brighter than their tattoos, some have stickers covering their helmets. All show up with roller skates in hand to practice with the New York Shock Exchange, one of the top five men's roller derby teams in the world.
Shock Exchange skaters, some who come from as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are part of a growing contingent of men in a sport that has long been associated with, and dominated by, women. While the sport is strictly amateur and all roller derby teams are owned and operated by the skaters themselves, some players at the highest levels of women's roller derby have gotten sponsorships. Nobody in men's roller derby, however, gets paid to play, even on a team like the Shock Exchange which has been around for nearly 10 years.
The day after practice, many of the Shock Exchange players—who work as children's book editors, physical therapists, and wine store managers, among other professions—would hobble around their workplaces, quads sore and lower backs tight, some with fresh bruises or maybe even a black eye. But at practice on Tuesday, guys with pseudonyms like Carnage Asada, Abe Drinkin', Paul Funyun, Maulin' Brando, and Harm's Way were training for battle.
"We have to commit to something," Malcom Sex shouted to the group.
By day, Malcolm Tramm, 34, is an immigration lawyer, but on that Tuesday night as Malcolm Sex, he stepped in to run practice while the regular Shock Exchange coach was out of town. Tramm was preparing them for the Battle of Bunker Hill, a two-day men's roller derby invitational tournament in the Boston area hosted by Massachusetts Men's Roller Derby this past weekend. The Shock Exchange would be joined by seven other East Coast men's roller derby teams, from as far south as Raleigh, North Carolina, and as far north as Montreal.
"I expect a crowd that doesn't like us," Malcolm said to the skaters as they warmed up. "As far as I'm concerned, we're the only team who can beat ourselves."
"Most folks, when they think roller derby, they think women on skates smashing the hell out of each other," said Jonathan Dawkins, aka Jimmy Rage, president of the Men's Roller Derby Association. "Men's derby from the outside is seen like, 'What is this?' Because it's a niche of a niche sport."
Men's roller derby, though it follows the same format and rules as women's roller derby, is a smaller sphere of what's already considered a fringe sport. Historically, though, women haven't always dominated the game.
Roller derby began as a co-ed sport in the 1930s, first as a marathon skating competition for teams of two, which evolved into the format still played today: two teams of five players attempting to score points by having their lead skater lap members of the other team. As roller derby became more physical, with skaters—still on co-ed teams—theatrically shoving each other around the track, its popularity grew, and then skyrocketed in the late 1940s with televised bouts on CBS. While roller derby continued to pop up in the 1960s, the sport appeared to have reached its peak, and the original leagues were officially dissolved in 1973.
In the 1980s and 90s, roller derby briefly flirted with pro-wrestling-style staged bouts, but it didn't really re-emerge as a sport until 2003, when the Texas Rollergirls started up as an all-female team in Austin; the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the governing body of women's roller derby, was started the following year. This time, women became the stars of the sport. Suzy Hotrod, a member of the top-ranked Gotham Girls Roller Derby team, appeared in ESPN The Magazine's 2011 Bodies We Want issue, and today WFTDA bouts are streamed on ESPN3. As of this writing, there are 369 full member women's leagues registered with the WFTDA.
In 2006, Jonathan Rockey was actually inspired by the women's teams, specifically the Gotham Girls, to create The New York Shock Exchange. The first all-male roller derby bout didn't occur until 2007, between the Shock Exchange and Massachusetts-based team The Pioneer Valley Dirty Dozen. That same year, Rockey also helped found the Men's Derby Coalition, the governing body of men's roller derby, which in 2011 became the Men's Roller Derby Association, or MRDA. Today the MRDA has 68 active teams.
When Rockey—known simply as Jonathan R on the track—and I sit down to chat about the Shock Exchange, he shows me a photo of his three-year-old daughter in pink roller skates and helmet, tottering and smiling at the camera.
Like his daughter, Rockey learned to roller skate before he was even five. He entered the world of artistic figure roller skating which, he says "was not the coolest thing in the early '90s," but ultimately led him to roller derby. Knowing his love of skating, friends told him about Gotham Girls. In 2005, Rockey attended a bout and the post-game open skate with friends. A Gotham Girl noticed him teaching his friends different skating techniques. They needed more coaches, she said. Would he be interested in helping? After some initial hesitation--he was in grad school and didn't know how much time he'd have on his hands--he was in.
While involved with Gotham, a reporter at a women's championship game gave him an idea. "He's like, 'You know, I used to play roller derby. There are these women's teams popping up, why aren't guys doing it?' And I'm like, 'I don't know, I'll start a team, that sounds good!'"
The early response to men's roller derby, from both fans and female skaters, was mixed.
"A lot of folks really dug it," Dawkins said, but "there were a handful of folks that were like, 'We want this dead and killed right now because they're encroaching upon our territory and they're gonna take it over and ruin everything.'"
A 2012 documentary about men's roller derby called This Is How I Roll, produced by Joe Mihalchick aka Maulin Brando, captures some of this dynamic. At one point in the film, a heckler jeers the men of roller derby: "Play a real sport! Play hockey or something! You're men! Come on, be real men!"
Some women's roller derby players interviewed in the film were less than enthusiastic about the addition of men to what they see as their sport. In the film's trailer, Bonnie Thunders of the Gotham Girls appears in an interview wearing a tank top that reads "No Balls in Derby." She told Derbylife.com her initial feelings were that "there was a part of me that wanted something that men couldn't have," though her feelings have now changed and she values what the male skaters bring to the track. "With regards to the men having built something of their own, I believe they have and am very proud of them for pushing forward their own governing body, hosting their own bouts and tournaments, and continually moving their sport in the public eye," she told the site.
"This happens like once a year, that someone writes some Wordpress article about how men shouldn't play roller derby," said Mihalchick, 39. "But at the end of the day, it's just supposed to be a hobby; we're all supposed to have fun. Until we're being paid or this or that no one can tell anyone what it is they can and can't be doing."
The community of skaters and fans of roller derby is now more supportive than not, Mihalchick added. Shock Exchange skater Timothy Travaglini, aka Harm's Way, agreed.
"In the end, I think people fall in love with the sport, and they just want to do this thing on wheels with contact," he said. "We're just all lucky it's this women-influenced environment."
Travaglini, 45, who came from a background in rugby, has been with the Shock Exchange nearly since the beginning. The women of roller derby taught him to skate, one of them even by literally pushing him around the bridges of New York.
"We could not have been born without being under [the Gotham Girls'] wing," Travaglini said. "Every men's league has a women's team that they're at least slightly associated with. You're going to always get that positive influence."
In fact, the Shock Exchange welcomes anyone who wants to skate or scrimmage with the team, regardless of gender, and there is one woman who currently practices with the team.
Men's roller derby has also grown internationally, thanks in part to the Shock Exchange. For a team to become an official member of the MRDA, it must play least one bout against another MRDA team. With this in mind, a few teams in England contacted the Shock Exchange in 2012, inviting them to skate overseas. For nearly two weeks, the Shock Exchange toured England, by both fundraising and paying out of their own pockets. Those English teams were then able to play against and initiate other MRDA-aspiring teams across Europe. The Shock Exchange have completed similar tours of Australia and Argentina.
There's now a men's World Cup for roller derby, which will take place for the second time this summer, in Calgary. There are national championships and a slew of regional and invitational tournaments.
Men's roller derby "is just getting exponentially larger over every month," Dawkins said. In fact, on the day he and I spoke, the MRDA had welcomed a new team from New Orleans.
"Every single league I've ever come across," he said, "every single time they hear about a local men's league coming up, either literally or figuratively their eyes light up and they practically scramble to want to play these guys."
Dawkins sees a bright future for the sport. He believes that the number of MRDA teams could even be on par with the WFTDA's teams in seven years, when the former is the same age as the women's group is today. The challenge to growing the sport, he says, has been spreading the word about derby and getting men to choose it over other sports.
"It isn't necessarily that men's derby is going to dissipate anytime soon, it just may take a little extra time to grab, and when it grabs it doesn't go away," he said.
The Shock Exchange and the other men's teams continually recruit new skaters, handing out flyers at skate nights and bouts around town. Once men do join a league, he says, they almost instantly have skin in the game simply because the teams are skater owned and operated.
"Every single person has an investment in this, no matter how big or small, and every little bit counts," Dawkins said. "You need to have heart in this—blood, sweat, tears—to make it happen. And if people do, they stick around."
Paul Bozzo, 28, aka Paul Funyun, is one of those people. Bozzo moved to New York in hopes of becoming the next great American writer. Instead, he found himself holed up in his bedroom reading novels, feeling isolated. But when he found roller derby, everything changed.
"I kind of kick myself for not having known about roller derby earlier in my time [in New York] because I ... think about it as a guiding force in my life," he said. "It's given me a much better appreciation for people who work to have fun, who work to just build a community. The effort that people go to, to get people to come out and see their show, like their band is playing a show. This is my band."