Monday, May 23, 2011

Girls and Contact Sports: But Won't They Break?

Topics sometimes seem to come in clusters around here, so it's time for another roller derby post!

I'm behind on my podcasts, so I only recently got to the latest episode of Derby Deeds. (If you play/ref/enjoy watching roller derby and like podcasts, this is the show for you.) The fine folks who run this show discussed the fact that a high school in Texas has a roller derby program now. I think this is marvelous, for a number of reasons. I've heard so many people say that if they'd had roller derby when they were teenagers, their lives would have been much better. I've officiated in a junior derby bout, and it was one of the best things I've ever seen. These girls were not fucking around.

Anyway, the hosts of the podcast talked about why it is unlikely that roller derby will catch on in high schools around the country, and it's very simple: it is a full-contact sport for laydeez. We let boys run head-first into each other and increase their chances of having life-long health problems in football, so this isn't a kid thing, it's a girl thing.

We also let girls participate in cheerleading, which studies have shown is the most dangerous sport in the world - more dangerous than roller derby and football. So why is it okay for girls to cheerlead, but not play football or roller derby? I don't know about where you went to high school, but our women's basketball team didn't have cheerleaders, if I recall correctly. The mens' team did. So it's okay for women to risk their lives and health to boost the morale of men, but not to play a contact sport themselves? Is that what's going on here?


  1. The whole 'girls shouldn't play a contact sport' may be a regional thing. Growing up in and going to public school in New England, field hockey and lacrosse were both huge sports in the high schools, field hockey especially. That sport was brutal and exciting to watch. I could certainly see roller derby catching on in the Northeast at least.

  2. @BostonDreamer Field hockey and lacrosse are definitely big in high school in New England, but I feel that support for women doing sports falls off dramatically when women are past high school. But you're right that there are regional and cohort variances.

    It's a shame that women aren't encouraged to do more active sports growing up, as it's a major contributor to osteoporosis. Most bone density is formed by the end of high school, and active sports contribute to increased bone density. Osteoporosis is less a "women's" disease but a "women who aren't active in their youth disease" which translates heavily into a disease among older, richer, whiter Americans -- making it highly visible/studied and thus normalized in the medical literature and world.

    And for me, I think that *all* high contact sports (including cheerleading) should be reconsidered among high schoolers and before given the recent studies of football players and brain injuries. This isn't to say that they should all be banned but that they need to be done safely (which goes beyond the pads and helmets used now) and with understanding of the risks.

  3. PS

    @BostonDreamer There's also a class component to your observation. Field Hockey has been an acceptable sport for young ladies for decades (though after college, they'd better settle down with a nice young man). Lacrosse is more recent, but it's very class-based (especially given the barrier to entry from the equipment). I don't think roller derby has enough cachet among blue-bloods to join field hockey and lacrosse. Derby is too rebellious and punk. I'm willing to be proved wrong, and certainly I can't say what will happen in 50-100 years, but for now I don't think it's likely.

    Another thing derby has against it is a connotation of being for lesbians (see the kerfuffles raised around "Derby Girls" thinking it was promoting lesbianism) -- even beyond the stereotype that plagues most women's sports. Right now, sports among young girls are seen as a way to make them "well-rounded" to beef up their extra-curriculars to get into a better college. Women aren't supposed to like it for the physicality or other unfeminine reasons.

  4. What Andrew said.

    Have you seen roller derby, BD? Not in Whip It, but live? It is... not lacrosse or field hockey. I'm not denying that those are contact sports, and I'm sure the players are very tough indeed. But roller derby, as Andrew indicates, is kind of a different ball of wax. It's gritty and tough and the girls without tattoos stand out more than the girls with them. It's got a large self-expression component, too. People inject their personalities into the game, which is one of the reasons people love it. That's what derby names are all about.

    And, yeah, people think it's for lesbians, or mostly lesbians, or turns people lesbian (heh). In other sports, like basketball, you'll see efforts to counteract that idea (see that whole kerfuffle over the FSU depiction of its women's team in dresses and whatever). In roller derby, no one tries to counteract it. No one in roller derby cares, in my experience. Very few do, anyway. And because it's skater-controlled, it can stay that way.

    I don't know. I think the communication centers in my brain are kinda shut down today. I should have left it at "what Andrew said."