We Need To Talk About The Language Of Roller Derby

Roller derby has been around a while, and in that time, it’s picked up a few little… quirks. Quirks that just won’t go away. TVTropes has a page dedicated to the sport, listing the various frequently observed tropes, with one of them being Insistent Terminology — the words that people continue to use long after the term has been depreciated, abandoned, updated. Mostly this is harmless, with the two most obvious examples springing to mind being panties and bouts.

Panties

Because references to them are just about everywhere, I’ve found it a little hard to pin down the history of the word panties in a roller derby context. It seems to pre-date the existence of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association [WFTDA], and despite a good few more hours research than it really needed (I’m a nerd, okay?), I’ve still no idea where it came from, when, or why.

Panties are the stretchy cover that goes over a skater’s helmet, featuring either a star to identify them as a jammer, or a stripe, to indicate that they’re a pivot. WFTDA have never featured them as anything other than “helmet covers” in their rules, and I’m a bit stumped as to where the word originated.

Admittedly, the existence of the word leads to entertaining shirt and poster designs like this “Blockers Don’t Wear Panties” one…

…but it’s also kind of hard to take a sport seriously when a piece of gameplay equipment is likened to underwear.

And that’s probably why the derby community stopped using it. I’ve scoured WFTDA.com and WFTDA.org, and the only references to the various spellings and pluralisations of “panty” are in blog posts written by members of the community, strongly suggesting that our Head Ref’s guess that helmet covers were never officially panties in the first place may well be spot on… and it’s probably just stuck around because it’s silly. It doesn’t really do any harm, except perhaps to those leagues that are trying to make roller derby a super-serious competitive sport.

Bouts

Getting a little more serious: the word “bout” disappeared from WFTDA lexicon as of March 2014, in favour of “game”. The WFTDA FAQs still contain reference to the old terminology, however, with the explanation that each roller derby game is “a fight to the end”, similar to boxing matches.

And therein lies the problem: roller derby has been firmly establishing its place in the sporting world for some time now, and “game” sounds, well, just a little bit cleaner… and this is somewhat verified by Roller Derby Jesus, the creator of the sport, who shortly after the March 2014 rules change wrote:

“I have always avoided the term “bout” because it brings up the images of boxers or UFC or worse wrestling, and for a sport that is trying to differentiate itself from those kind of images, I don’t think that is good….and of course I have called them games all my life.”

This terminology still sticks around. In fact, having immersed myself in the roller derby community some time after the rules change in which “bout” was ‘redlined’, I was still using it myself until a couple of months back, when I was told that it wasn’t the preferred term anymore.

Like panties, bout isn’t really doing anyone any harm — except that it might put some people off — the community is just trying to move away from it, to improve the image of the sport.

However, not all language around roller derby is harmless.

Suicide Seats

Suicide seats are those closest to the track, possibly just a mat on the floor, and they’re so-named because of the risk of unexpectedly finding a skater in your lap (and I’m not just talking about girls in hot pants and fishnets; you too could have a referee kick you up the arse!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttb8NVdK5yE&t=32s

The term seems to be WFTDA-approved, as it too appears in their FAQs, and I’m pretty sure if there was anything out there by WFTDA saying “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t use this term anymore…” then the community would be celebrating so hard that the original statement would be easy to find.

The thing is, the roller derby community is full of people with mental health issues — and it’s sadly lost a number of people to mental illness and suicide, as well.

Leagues are guilty of using the “suicide seats” phrasing all around the world — and, yes, one of these photos was taken at my own league’s venue, The Thunderdome:

I am a little shocked, if I’m honest, that this wording has persisted as long as it has, because roller derby is well-known for being a positive influence in the lives of people with mental illness:

  • The Bipolar Mama talks about 5 ways roller derby helped her and I have to say I wholeheartedly concur with several of her points, particularly the one about having a sense of being needed and wanted)
  • Leeds Roller Derby collaborated in 2015 with Inkwell Arts, run by their local branch of the mental health charity Mind to put together Hit So Hard, an art exhibition about the sport.
  • Team Crazy Legs is a challenge team reclaiming a disablist slur to bring people with mental and chronic illness together and foster community.
  • Kat Smashley of Worcester Roller Derby wrote how derby helped her gain perspective on her eating disorder.
  • Crash Kale-ision of Auld Reekie Roller Girls attributes her mental resilience to the strength of the derby community.
  • Two skaters in Glasgow crowdfunded Resistance Roller Derby, a team for junior queer and trans skaters, in recognition of the higher rates of mental health issues and other injustices experienced by LGBTQ youth.

…and the thing is… there’s really no reason to use these words.

They’re problematic. They trivialise something that is so difficult for so many people directly involved in our community. People experiencing suicidal thoughts, people grieving the loss of loved ones and league members, people who have survived suicide attempts.

As a community, we take pride in supporting the people around us, and yet we continue to trivialise something so important, not just to society in general, but to our little pocket of it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“Trackside Seats. Over 18s only. You sit here at your own risk.”

When I took this photo, at a UKRDA British Championships game in March 2016, I didn’t realise the significance of the wording; in fact, at the time, I posted it to social media saying “What’s the worst could happen?!” — and when I went to look up the photo to use in this post, I was really pleasantly surprised to find that I had misremembered it: it wasn’t harmful, it warned spectators of the risks whilst being accurate and non-stigmatising.

It didn’t take much for Rainy City to change the signs at the Thunderdome.

I mentioned it first to a couple of other officials in the league, and after establishing that I had support from the members closest to me, I went to our PR manager, showed him the Champs photo, and asked if we could alter our signage. He didn’t even hesitate, didn’t need to question why I was asking, he saw immediately the flaws in the wording, and agreed to make us some new signs. As of now, the Thunderdome is doing it right.

If your league changes its signs too, or already had other wording anyway: please comment, let me know, send me photos!

Let’s use this as an opportunity, not to hate on the leagues that haven’t changed yet, but to encourage them to take steps to be more supportive to their members and spectators ♥