I Shouldn’t Play Roller Derby Because… Part 1 – Danger

“I’d like to try roller derby, but it’s so dangerous!”

Our sport has as many safety precautions as your average building site.

Alright, so that’s not true. But there’s a heck of a lot you don’t know about roller derby, because it all goes on behind the scenes. In this post, and any other in the series, I’m going to assume that my audience knows as much about derby as the average person off the street. At most, Hypothetical You has seen a bout once or knows a derby skated. At least, they’ve never even heard of it. In between are the Yous who have watched Whip It, have heard about it from your parents, or asks every derby skater if its anything like Rollerball (no, it’s not). So it might surprise you that safety is a huge thing in roller derby. Skaters train a lot, and new skaters often train for months before they even get near the track to play competitively. The rules that govern the sport are heavily centred on the safety of the skaters – most of the penalties skaters can be given are related to accidental but dangerous actions, and theres limits on where you can hit people and what with to stop people getting hurt. Protective padding, helmets and mouthguards are required and checked by the referees, not only at the start of each game, but even at the end of half time. If your safety gear isn’t up to scratch, you’re not allowed to play.

So first, training. I think a lot of people’s concern of the “danger” of roller derby comes from the thought that they’re just going to be chucked into the type of thing they’ve seen on Whip It or in real bouts and expected to deal with it. In reality, before you even get near competitive derby, you have to pass Minimum Skills Requirements. These are a list of skills set out by WFTDA that new skaters have to be able to do before they are allowed to play, partly in order to keep them safe, and partly so they can keep up with the other skaters. So if you decide to start roller derby, you’ll find yourself starting either what many refer to as a “fresh meat” course – a series of sessions intended to teach you everything you need to know – or a recreational league. Either way, for the first few weeks, you’ll be learning how to skate, fall, turn, stop, and so on. To cut a long story short, your league won’t allow you to start the contact part of this sport until they’re absolutely certain you are comfortable with the non-contact aspects. You’re taught how to fall safely, how to safely take and give hits. You’re taught how to stand properly in order to keep your balance and minimise the risk to yourself and all other skaters if you do fall. You are trained to do everything safely and minimise risk to yourself.

Alongside this, there’s the rules. You may have watched Whip It, and you may have heard many a derby skater complaining that the one legal move in the entire film wasn’t even made on track (Bliss’ hip heck on the girl on the staircase is wonderfully executed with perfect form.) The majority of WFTDA rules are there to make sure gameplay is as safe as possible, and the rest are there to make the game more interesting or clarify loopholes skaters and coaches have worked out along the way. For example, they define legal blocking and target zones – ie, what areas of your body you can hit with and where you can hit other people with it. They look like this

Atlanta Roller Girls’ illustration of legal target and blocking zones – ie. Where I can hit you, and with what part of my body!

Basically, I can’t elbow you in the ribs (illegal blocking zone to legal target zone) and I can’t hip check you in the back (legal blocking zone to illegal target zone). I certainly can’t punch you in the face or kick you in the shin. And I certainly couldn’t, say, turn around and stick my elbow out so you skate your face straight into it, regardless of what my bench coach told me to do. All three of those last examples would be full on expulsions.
Of course, accidents do happen – you come in too hot to the back of an opposing skater and hit them in the back, or you fall and accidentally kick an opposing skaters legs out from under them, or you try to shoulder check a particularly small skater and accidentally catch them in the face instead. These are all penalty worthy actions. In short – if you do something dangerous accidentally, it’s a penalty (7 penalties and you’re out for the rest of the bout). If you do it purposefully, it’s an expulsion. If you regularly do it, you’ll be suspended for a certain number of games. Smashley Simpson was a total liability and, if she hadn’t already been suspended from bouting, her coach never would have even rostered her because of her attitude.

I don’t think I need to go through safety equipment in any real detail – helmet, mouthguard elbow pads, wrist guards and knee pads are the minimum requirements for derby, even during training. People also wear padded shorts, shin guards, nose protectors and so on, depending on how concerned they are that they might get broken. If your safety equipment is not acceptable, you are not allowed to skate. Even if you’re sat in the penalty box, the only equipment you are allowed to remove is your mouth guard.

I’m not saying injuries don’t happen, or that there isn’t an element of risk to the sport – as I’m typing this, I’ve read that one of my Facebook friends got a spiral fracture during her bout today. I’m just saying that the risk shouldn’t be overstated – everything in roller derby is designed to keep you as safe as physically possible. There’s no more danger than there is in any other full contact sport, but you wouldn’t tell anyone not to take up rugby, or American football, or any other sport because it could be dangerous, would you?

And at the end of the day, everything comes at a risk. I once knew a girl who tripped over uneven paving slabs and broke her collarbone. You could get injured doing anything, so you might as well take the risk and do something awesome.