About six years ago, I heard that a friend of a friend was working to start up a local roller derby league in Atlanta.
I was slightly incredulous, with only the images of 1970’s roller derby in my mind, which more closely resembled the theatricality of professional wrestling than legitimate sport.
Thankfully, I was wrong, and the league survived. Not only did it survive, it thrived as the Atlanta Rollergirls.
Nowadays, the matches at the Yaarab Shrine Center routinely sell out more than a week in advance, with tickets costing $15 a bout. Perhaps it was the ticket price or my own intimidation factor walking into a subculture I knew absolutely nothing about, but I never managed to make it to any of the Rollergirl matches.
That is until very recently, when a friend of mine was making her home debut as a member of the Toxic Shocks. Better late than never, I suppose.
The first thing you need to know is that there is no camp or kitsch. Skaters have pads at every joint, a helmet and a mouth guard and Lord knows they need them, because before the night is over, every single one of them is going to end up on the floor multiple times. There are no throwing elbows or cheap shots, either. This is real sport.
The play is deceptively simple. Each team has a group of blockers headed by a pivot, which is the lead blocker who maintains the pace for each team. Behind both teams’ blockers are two individual skaters, one for each time, called jammers.
The goal of the game is for the jammers to make their way through the pack before the other and lap as many of the opposing skaters as possible. For each skater passed, the jammer scores a point.
This goes on for waves called jams that last up to two minutes, which begin with two short whistles as the pack first advances, then the jammers.
The blockers on each team work simultaneously to aid their own jammers in passing through the pack while blocking the opposing team’s jammer. At any time, the lead jammer (which is designated by the jammer who makes it through the pack first) can call off the jam.
The whistle blows four times, the points are counted and then the teams set up to do this again and again for thirty minutes.
All the while, penalties are called for minor and major infractions such as cutting the track. As penalties accumulate the number of players changes, and as a result, so does the game.
The jammers switch roles, as do the pivots. Every jam is different, and the tide can change remarkably quickly.
If you have any notions that this will be some sort of tarted up sport, think again. These women could kick your ass.
Watch them go sprawling to the ground and then immediately get back up, ignoring the melon-sized bruise which is likely welling up. There is ridiculous make-up and theatricality, to be sure, but that all takes place before the game. The game itself is all business.
While the gameplay is serious, the atmosphere is probably the most inviting I’ve ever encountered at a sporting event.
This is no closed clique that sneers at you if you dare to walk in their hallowed halls. There are plenty of volunteers who want you to know how the game is played, and what the organization is all about.
It’s about as punk rock as an organization gets, down to the local vendors selling their wares in the courtyard outside, but without the punk rock elitism.
This is a stardom that is earned, through sweat, hard work and guts. The play is the thing here, with the Atlanta Rollergirls being currently ranked No. 2 in their region.
If you want to see a dizzying array of statistics about this sport, you can certainly find them on the web if you look. If your interest is piqued, the league championship is coming up in Sept.