Two years after I quit roller derby my broken bones and bruises have healed but I’m still wounded. Five years of my adult life were committed to skating and volunteering countless hours with Bay Area Derby Girls, a roller derby league based in Oakland, California. Although I came out of it with some amazing friends it broke me in ways that seem outrageous even to me. Roller derby is not what you think it is.
I had to learn the hard way.
I was in my mid-30s and decided to move back to San Francisco when I got the idea to play roller derby. It had been years since I had lived in The Bay so I wanted to set myself up with a new community for a fresh start in an area that had changed into a very different place than I knew growing up. I have always loved sports — especially offbeat sports — so I thought roller derby would be a great fit for me. In the past I had separated my alternative punk/goth tendencies from my sporty lifestyle because the two things didn’t go together. However, roller derby seemed to be this great thing where women like me could be offbeat and play sports, too!
People get into roller derby for all sorts of reasons but ultimately everyone who joins is looking to be part of a community and that’s exactly what they get. In fact, skaters are required to spend so much money on dues, so much money on gear, so much time at practice, and so much time volunteering that the instant you put on your skates for the first time it takes over your life. A common phrase is “derby widow,” referring to a skater’s wife/husband/partner who never gets to see their significant other because they are always busy with derby-related activities. But you think, “This is great! It’s worth it!” — and continue.
The public persona of the roller derby community is an inclusive female-empowered environment that welcomes primarily, but not exclusively, women of all backgrounds, sexual orientations, sizes, and shapes. That bill of goods was what attracted me to derby initially. In fact, that narrative is true — the derby community is very open to all sorts of people.
However, I eventually found out you will only be accepted in the long term if you are willing to sacrifice your personal beliefs and morals and fall in line with the status quo of the league. For example, if you like wearing quirky tights and quirky tights aren’t en vogue in derby right now, you should be prepared to be made fun of. If you aren’t the right kind of quirky, be prepared to be ostracized. If you are opposed to bullying, be prepared to be bullied — and not in a “full-contact sport shoving elbows” type of way, but rather in a deeply disturbing, abusive and emotionally damaging type of way.
I spent nearly a year skating with BAD’s recreation league until I finally was drafted to one of four home teams, The Richmond Wrecking Belles. My troubles started pretty much right away.
My first bout as a member of the Belles was in Santa Barbara. My schedule was tight so I had to fly down instead of carpool with some of my new teammates. It was an inconvenience both financially and time wise but I was brand new to the team so I wanted to show them that I was committed and I was genuinely excited. I thought I would be stranded at the airport until someone finally volunteered to pick me up (this same person would later become “coach” and say some horrible things to me).
I sat on the bench almost the entire game despite the team winning by over a hundred (maybe 200?) points while watching new draftees and people from other teams filling in instead of me. At the time I thought I just had to pay my dues (figuratively and literally — $50/month), so I brushed off the complete lack of communication with me about what to expect as far as participating in the game, as well as the disregard for the travel funds I spent and time off from work I took to get to that bout.
Even after several years of paying my dues I was still lied to about if I would get to play in away games and my travel expenses and time were always taken for granted. I didn’t want to be selfish or weak, I wanted to be a team player, so my mantra became, “Suck it up, buttercup.”
A few months later, I was working two jobs so my ability to attend practice was limited. One of my teammates told me that I need to commit to derby or else I will get kicked off the team, so I killed myself to get to more practices. Some time later I was laid off and I remember one of my teammates saying, “Do you have a job yet, Stacey? Sorry, that’s mean.” I couldn’t win.
Either I was working too much and not committed to derby, or I was the target of ridicule for being out of work. No-win situations reared their ugly heads often enough during my derby career and would show their asses in the form of hypocrisy. In a team meeting one of the “coaches” told me, “You need to be committed to roller derby, so you can’t go snowboarding.” So I backed off on snowboarding so I could commit more time to derby.
Later, there was the time I spoke up when a few skaters were campaigning to not attend team practice but deserved to skate in all bouts regardless — even while the rest of us went to practice and competed against each other for roster spots. One of those skaters — the same one who said that I couldn’t go snowboarding — told me that I didn’t know what it was like to have family obligations — or even to have a family at all — and that’s why I could go to team practice and why she shouldn’t have to.
This was especially insulting because I was helping to take care of my father, who was dying from ALS — and she knew this. I still feel a sense of frustration when I think about how petty, insensitive, and self-involved this woman was — a “coach” and “leader” of the team. She would scream at the other coaches (who told me it was “her” team so they had to do what she said) at practice: “I don’t want to skate with these people; they aren’t good enough” — referring to us, her teammates.
She would call women fat.
All. The. Time.
One of her cronies would make racist comments in person and on the league forum. I thought for sure she would be kicked out because that kind of stuff doesn’t fly in Oakland. Somehow, however, she thrived at Bay Area Derby Girls. It was horrible. Suck it up, buttercup.
Another member of the Belles would scream at and harass her teammates, hitting below the belt and making snide comments. Somehow she was voted into into being a “coach” (immediately after a very public bullying of another BAD member). Later she told me that I was the worst skater on the team and recorded our private conversations without my knowledge or consent. Every time she spoke I’d take a breath and think, “Suck it up, buttercup.”
Early on in my derby career I suffered an injury and broke my ankle. It was a bad break but very common for derby — two surgeries and ten months of rehab. With a few glorious exceptions, the women on my “team” ignored me. I attempted to reach out several times but eventually gave up. People would say, “Derby girls are weird about injuries. This is common.” I sunk into depression thinking that it was my fault for my ankle breaking. I was told it was my fault for skating on the bank track. It was something they laughed at. Suck it up, buttercup.
I made quick progress after my recovery but I was always treated like I sucked, like I wasn’t good enough, that I would never be good enough, and I could never catch up to the progress of my colleagues who didn’t get injured. Suck it up, buttercup.
I felt like I was going crazy. Right was wrong and wrong was right. I watched other people get bullied but I could not get any traction towards stopping it because I had no clout. My own situation was terrible and I was striving to keep my head above water. I noticed many people becoming complacent because sticking your head up meant that it got whacked. Complacency has never been my strong suit so I was always a target. Suck it up, buttercup.
It’s like an abusive relationship — if it was all horrible all the time it would be easy to leave.
Eventually, I left the team. One of the “coaches” called me to tell me that I was not rostered for the next bout. She then proceeded to lay multiple personal insults at me: You’re just not an athlete. Maybe you should find another hobby. People don’t like you. You’re not a good team player.
I started to cry, of course.
That’s when she said, “I know your dad is dying, but you need to stop crying because its really bumming out the coaches.”
I quit the next day. She sent me a text: “I didn’t want you to quit!” to which I replied with a heart emoji.
Suck it up, buttercup.
That wasn’t the end, though. I had quit skating but I believed in the mission of the league — to empower women through athleticism — so I continued voluteering at Bay Area Derby Girls. The mission was bigger than my feelings. Suck it up, buttercup.
I held the office of Director of Operations, an unpaid position of responsibility that included management of the warehouse practice space. This warehouse is a shithole, a death trap, a refugee of the overpricing of Bay Area real-estate. The building is rickety, the roof leaks, there’s mold, the plumbing sucks, it smells. The league deals: everyone knows what they are getting into.
When the league wanted to stage a public exhibition bout in the practice space, I said “no.” It is one thing for the league to practice in a shithole that isn’t up to code and quite another to invite spectators and their children into a shithole that isn’t up to code.
There exists an email thread in which members of the league tried to pressure me into allowing them to violate the fire code (this same thread also includes people talking about how to cover up this specific crime). I refused and tendered my resignation and was essentially told not to let the door hit my ass on the way out.
Later, after the Ghost Ship fire, I sent a message to the BAD board of directors, once again warning them of the hazards in the space. Bouts continue to be held in the space to this day, even as the city of Oakland mourns the Ghost Ship tragedy.
Try as I might, my pleas fell on deaf ears. Suck it up, buttercup.
I am writing this article now because the mess at Bay Area Derby has achieved critical mass. People are suffering. BAD continues monstrously to chew these people up and spit them out. I am one of many who suffered emotional trauma through my association with the league and there are others worse off than me.
The league casts victims as villains so that they may continue their abuse. I never spoke up about it because I felt like I just needed to deal with it and maybe it was my fault after all. I know I have personality quirks. I mess up. I should have been able to handle it. Suck it up, buttercup. But this type of bullying is past what people should ignore. It happens at other leagues besides BAD.
It’s toxic and it’s dangerous.
I am very embarrassed about what happened so I kept quiet about my experience except with my family and closest friends. I couldn’t “suck it up, buttercup” and I feel like I have failed. I still love skating, though, and when people ask me if I play roller derby I say, “No, not anymore.”
“What was it like,” they’ll ask, and I’ll reply, “Don’t do it. Those girls are mean.” They laugh and say, “Oh yeah, with their elbows? *shoving motion*” “Sure,” I say.
How can you tell a stranger, “No, they are cruel in ways you can’t even imagine, not in a physical sense, but emotional.” I don’t want to say that because I don’t want to come off as a drama queen. I don’t want to come off as weak. I don’t want to share my pain with strangers. I don’t want to think about the toxic culture and revisit it, even for a few seconds. I don’t want to seem like a victim of something that happens to children. But the truth is, adults can be bullied and the damage can be just as severe as it is to kids, including the worst possible outcome.
I will likely be harassed for telling my story. People will likely attempt to discredit me. That’s why people stay quiet about being bullied in derby; the harassment that ensues after you try to talk about your experience is often even worse than the original situation. It’s what cults do to people when they try to leave.
The fact is this is my story. My story is true. My story is not unique. My story is not the worst story. I’m putting this out here and you all know who I am. I’m not hiding anymore. My goal in writing this is not to try to affect the current members of BAD and derby in general. My goal is to warn to women who are thinking about joining a derby league. I wish I had gotten this warning.
For those who feel I may be speaking of them and derby too harshly, I say: Suck it up, buttercup.
UPDATE: My friend and former teammate also wrote about her experience with bullying at Bay Area Derby: Bullying: A BAD Gameplan