Skate Names, Or: Why we need to stop worrying and love Derby.

Note: this article was first written more than a year ago, back when there was a steady tide of articles about “Why I am not skating under a derby name”. The uncritical acceptance of the arguments presented by most, even those who liked skate names, annoyed me, so I wrote the first version of this response. Due to various issues, it failed to get published the first time around, and the article grew to a size where having it on the Scottish Roller Derby Blog seemed to not fit with policy. I present it here as an artifact of a time when derby was a little less self-confident than it is now, perhaps.

Over the past couple of years, the “Derby Names” debate has become a growing topic of conversation in the Roller Derby community. It might just be my selective reading, but the majority of the published articles on the issue take (or are spun as taking) an anti- stance; a proportion not bourne out by the comments resulting, most of which are pro derby names. It is especially unfortunate that most of the true anti-derby-names articles repeat arguments that are seriously flawed and, in some cases, based on statements that are simply untrue. This includes the coverage of the issue in the celebrated “Derby, Baby” film, where the comments from the anti- side are never directly challenged by quotes from the pro- side (although both sides are allowed time).

This article, then, aims to partially redress the balance of the debate. I will try to show why none of the provided arguments against Derby Names are without problems, and why many of them should be dismissed out of hand.

At this point, I should make a distinction: some of the arguments made against derby names serve as reasonable personal reasons not to take a derby name; they do not serve as reasons for the sport as a whole to drop them. I will flag arguments which only work on the personal level when I come to them (and I have no issue with people deciding, for themselves, to skate under their real names).

With that extensive introduction out of the way, let’s get started.

Argument 1: “No Other Sport Has Athletes Perform Under Aliases”

This argument is the most often repeated justification for why Derby doesn’t get prime-time viewership, especially in the USA. It is also, of course, completely untrue. Most of the commentators are presumably American, and are thinking that all other sports are like the trifecta of American Sports – Baseball, American Football and Basketball – and, in fact, I suspect this argument could be more truthfully stated as “No Other American Sport Has Athletes Perform Under Aliases”. In this form, the statement is true.

However, there are many more sports in the world than the USA’s favourites (none of which has much traction outside the US). The World’s Favourite Sport, “Association Rules Football”, or “Football” as everyone but Americans and Australians call it, has a couple of nations who famously play under affectionate nicknames, the most well-known of which is, of course, Brazil.

Football does not have a widespread culture of aliases of course, but there is a far closer match to the position of Roller Derby in existing sports: the Japanese sport of Sumo.

Sumo, which is still wildly popular in Japan, requires all wrestlers to compete under a pseudonym, or shikona, which is regulated by the sport’s governing body. As in Roller Derby, shikona often incorporate puns or references to the personality the wrestler wishes to express; for example, the American Henry Armstrong Miller wrestled as Sentoryu, which means “fighting dragon” but also sounds like the pronunciation of his home town, St Louis, in Japanese (as in Derby, not all puns are as good as others). Shikona are taken very seriously, and any suggestion that they brought the sport, or the individual wrestlers, into some kind of disrepute would be considered shocking and offensive.

Of course, by even addressing this argument seriously, I’ve already missed the most fundamental objection to this position: why does it even matter if a sport does something that no other sport does? One of the glorious things about humanity is that we express ourselves through diversity. Complaining about that is simple parochial neophobia, and should be opposed on principle.

Argument 2: “Derby Names Make Derby Look Less Serious”

This second argument is a valid personal reason for not taking a derby name, and as promised I flag it as such. On the other hand, the general form of the statement makes some implicit assumptions that I find corrosive to the spirit of Roller Derby itself.

We can paraphrase Argument 2 as the “and when I became a man, I put away childish things” position. As a starting point of our deconstruction of the problems with this position, we can’t do much better than C. S. Lewis’s own extension of the Biblical quotation: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up”.

Worrying excessively about other people’s perceptions is a phenomenon of adolescence, both in individuals and in communities; becoming aware of others awareness of us invokes anxieties about one’s projected self-image. As with individuals, the healthiest groups are those who get through adolescence by realising that other people’s perceptions are really not as significant as they may feel.

The revived roller derby had as one of its core principles that it was a sport “for the skaters, by the skaters”. This quickly became a wider message about an inclusive sport, which welcomed women of “all shapes and sizes”, and which challenged traditional images of sporting women. Having confidence in yourself, regardless of if this fits into traditional norms, is thus an essential aspect of roller derby as a sport and a culture. It’s one of the primary reasons stated by new skaters for their interest in joining up, and it’s one of the most positive aspects of the culture for everyone involved.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that the reaction of some to increased media attention has been to worry about how roller derby can best fit in and be “like all the other grown-up sports”. No, derby names are not the most serious of roller derby’s paraphernalia. The question is: why should we care that they’re not? Being a well-balanced adult is about appreciating your ability to have fun, and, indeed, to express yourself, as much as it is about responsibility and social conventions. That means feeling able to skate under your own name if you feel it best represents you; it also means being able to skate under a pseudonym, without people condemning you for making roller derby look “silly”. Skate names are one of the first things that new skaters seem to think about; certainly when interviewing new leagues, it was clearly a question that all of the skaters had already been considering. Most relish the opportunity to express themselves in choosing a name which means something to them, or which helps them to adopt the right attitude on track.

All long standing fans of roller derby are well aware of the skill and professionalism that exists at the top levels of play (and, indeed, which is aspired to at all levels). We are aware of this despite the trappings which the author would have discarded. I am not convinced that this is a demonstration of tremendous perspicacity on our part; what people forget about the few negative newspaper articles about derby is that some people are paid to have dismissive opinions about things. The less reliable newspapers and the wider media routinely publish all kinds of nonsense about elements of non-mainstream culture, but no-one of any consequence pays any attention to them, and no-one sane actually tries to pander to their delusions. You can’t, as Abraham Lincoln noted, please all of the people all of the time; all you can do is not displease any of them by not risking anything any of the time. It would be a much diminished world if we never took the chance on risk.

Argument 3: “You’re not taking sufficient Pride in your Sport if you perform under a Pseudonym”

Clearly, this argument is similar to the above, although distinct (a comedian might not want to appear serious, but still takes pride in their work, for example). As such, it shares with the above argument a certain validity as a personal reason for not taking a skate name.

As a general statement, however, it falls very very short of being reasonable.

Argument 3 appears to be making a moral argument that should stand apart from sports, and apply to any particular human endeavour on the world stage. If it shows insufficient pride (or, as expressed mainly by Americans, “patriotism”) to play a sport under a pseudonym, should the same not apply to acting under a pseudonym, or performing music?

Clearly, the British Actors’ Union “Equity” would have issue with this position. As Equity requires all actors registered with it to have unique professional names, it is often the case that a performer will either modify their existing name (“Richard Grant” to “Richard E Grant”, where the E is a fictitious initial) or take on an entirely different one for performance (“David MacDonald” to “David Tennant”) in the interests of uniqueness. I imagine that David Tennant didn’t particularly feel a lack of pride in his numerous Best Actor awards just from their lack of  “David MacDonald” blazoned upon them.

Similarly so in the world of music. There are countless examples of popular, and successful, and sometimes even patriotic, musicians who perform under names which are certainly not those with which they were born. Gordon Sumner, for example, will be much better known to the world as “Sting”. As with Tennant, above, I suspect that Sting doesn’t mind that his Grammy Awards come with his performance, not his birth, name.

And, to belabour the point, so much more so now in the various Internet-mediated industries is the pseudonym considered normal. Markus Persson is still respected as an enormously successful games developer after Minecraft took off so unexpected, even though most of the world knows him as “notch”.

In fact, even the sporting world has its own counterexamples. Pelé, or “Edison Arantes do Nascimento” as his birth certificate would have him, is commonly regarded as possibly the most successful Footballer of all time. He is a national hero in Brazil, and, in fact, was once declared a Brazilian National Treasure partly to prevent him from playing for other nations. In the football culture of Brazil, at least, adopting an alias to play sport doesn’t demonstrate a lack of patriotism at all.

To suggest that a skater in high end roller derby cannot partake of the same cultural constructs as a performer at the top of their own career seems to be deliberately obtuse. Indeed, the special pleading that this seems to me to require feels slightly insulting to roller derby, implying that our skaters are less able to cope with a multifaceted identity than the rest of humanity. While there certainly is a double standard in Western society concerning Women’s and Men’s empowerment in identity choice, it doesn’t seem to me to affect the adoption of pseudonyms per se, although of course it does influence the acceptability of pseudonym presentation. While this is a significant issue, it’s also worthy of an article in itself, and outside of the scope of this one.

Indeed, even the now oft-cited example of international skaters at the World Cup “choosing to skate under their real names” is actually highly problematical for the argument: this phenomenon only actually occurred within Team USA (and Team Brazil, who didn’t have any skate names for most of their skaters anyway), with by far the majority of competitors perfectly happy to compete in a World Cup under their established derby names. The WFTDA 2012 survey backs this up: fully 89% of female skaters (and 93% of fans) did not agree that they’d enjoy roller derby more if competitors skated under their real names.  If people really worried about not being seen to be taking pride in their performance, wouldn’t this fraction be far higher?

Argument 4: “Offensive Derby Names Scare Off Broadcasters”

As with Argument 1, the first problem with this argument is that we take its implicit assumptions at face value. We are to assume that getting on National Sports channels, be it Sky or NBC Sports, should be a key aim of Roller Derby in the short to medium term, and that this is critical to the success of the sport.

This position is unsupported by available evidence. As the Derby News Network made clear in their first ever editorial [ ] it is not clear at all that the causal arrow points from Television to International Success. In fact, historically, the situation has been reversed: the inherently conservative sports broadcasting industry will ignore sports until they become so wildly popular that they have to pay attention to them.

DNN also make the beginning of a strong argument against the importance of Television in mass availability of bout footage. Before made all of the regionals pay-per-view-only (a decision that I concur with DNN on regarding as a retrograde step), footage of high-end Derby tournaments were as geographically available as they could be: by definition, anyone with a sufficiently fast Internet connection, anywhere in the world, could view them. DNN still provides international streaming of live bouts from across the world on precisely the same basis. The Blood and Thunder Roller Derby World Cup was watched by individuals across 50 nations. No Television company will ever give you that kind of distribution. (Despite my issues with their charging structure, I do much prefer (or DNN, or managing broadcasting themselves; it is much more in line with the “Derby Spirit”.)

There is an argument that the mainstream sports channels access a greater cultural breadth in their subscribers; there are many sections of society who are much happier with a television than a computer. While this is currently true, it is changing rapidly; recent polls show that an increasing number of people are cancelling their cable subscriptions in the USA to switch to internet streaming services, and the BBC’s iPlayer is in continual growth compared to its broadcasting arm. It’s a short hop across the internet from iPlayer to YouTube, or DNN, or

In any case, the 2012 WFTDA survey clearly shows that the majority of new fans and skaters come from word of mouth or watching “Whip It”, and the rate of growth doesn’t seem to be slowing at present. The only thing that pursuit of the big media can bring to this is a veneer of “mainstream legitimacy”, and I’m not sure why Roller Derby needs a bunch of old wealthy white men to tell it that it’s doing good.

Now that the spectre of the Broadcasters has been cut down to size, we should address the other side of the question: Do offensive derby names scare them off [and what should we do about it]?

It seems unquestionable that some derby names currently in circulation would be problematic for broadcasters (especially in the USA, where television is a little more socially conservative) to announce on air. The bracketed clause I inserted into the above question suggest, however, that there’s more than one approach to this issue, rather than the false dichotomy that the original phrasing implies.

Yes, getting rid of Derby Names entirely would, clearly, solve the problem of offensive derby names, in the same way that banning cars would entirely solve the problem of people dying in car accidents.

This seems like an extreme solution to the issue, where simply introducing additional checks in the existing Derby Name submission system would serve. (I am assuming here that, at some point, the poor overworked maintainers of the Master Roster would actually get some proper help, as they clearly can’t cope with the rate of submissions at the moment anyway.)

Despite the offensive Derby Names issue, there are other aspects that might equally well dissuade the average broadcaster from showing Derby. It is certainly not clear that Derby Names, in themselves, are dissuading all broadcasters.

Recently, all of the major UK broadcasters (the BBC, ITV and Sky) have produced features on roller derby. None of them seemed particularly put-off by derby names (although, of course, the converse danger of being caricatured by the names is still present), and all gave roller derby a pretty positive take. In fact, Sky have subsequently produced more spots on individual bouts, broadcasting them on the Sky Sports channel (rather than as frivolous filler pieces, for example). This is not the action of a channel which is not taking a sport seriously because its players tend to skate under pseudonyms, nor one that is scared off by the potential for offence in those names. In other countries, coverage has been even better: after coming third in the Track Queens: Battle Royal tournament, Stockholm Roller Derby achieved a full page article in the sports page of one of Sweden’s daily newspapers. The headline even referred to Swede Hurt as, well, Swede Hurt.

On the basis of history, it is more likely that the mere fact of Roller Derby being a predominantly Women’s sport is a significant impediment to screening by large broadcasters. Back in 1989, the then Head of BBC Sport, John Bromley, partly justified poor coverage of women’s sports with the statement “There is no audience for Women’s Hockey”. Similarly, it is only relatively recently that Women’s Football has experienced anything resembling consistent coverage on UK television (of course, still a tiny fraction of the coverage given to the Men’s sport).

When women’s sports have been broadcast by the mainstream media, there has been a tendency to both patronise and sexualise them; while this situation is improving with time, it is still the case that, for example Men’s and Women’s tennis is treated somewhat differently in the media. Roller Derby is precisely the kind of sport that is most problematic for big media, as it, like Women’s Rugby, directly challenges the gender norms that conservative media would like to enforce – it’s okay to see women looking pretty while doing gymnastics, or even wearing short skirts while hitting a ball in tennis (although it’s apparently not fair to let them play as long as men do, and making noises from effort causes comment), but women actively hitting each other is transgressing into traditionally male domains. This is historically far more of a problem for conservative outlets than some offensive derby names are, and something which requires society to catch up, rather than roller derby to shift itself to conform to an outdated set of cultural values.


About aoanla

Aoanla is a physicist/systems support guy for the UK bit of the LHC experiment at CERN in real life, and therefore already had some experience in looking at high-speed collisions before getting into roller derby. He writes bout reports for the bouts he turns up to on his own blog, but is now planning on writing articles and bugging people for interviews here, too.
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