Roller derby

Roller derby
A roller derby scrimmage in Utah.
Highest governing body WFTDA, MRDA, JRDA, FIRS
Nicknames Derby
First played 1935, Chicago, Illinois
Clubs 4,700+
Contact Yes
Team members 15 on roster, up to 5 on track during each jam.[1]
Type Indoor, roller sport
Equipment Roller skates, helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouthguard
Venue Roller rink
Olympic No

Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members roller skating counter-clockwise around a track. Roller derby is played by approximately 1,250 amateur leagues worldwide, most inside the United States.[2]

Game play consists of a series of short match-ups (jams) in which both teams designate a jammer (who wears a star on the helmet). The jammer scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to hinder the opposing jammer while assisting their own jammer—in effect, playing both offense and defense simultaneously.[3]

While the sport has its origins in the banked-track roller-skating marathons of the 1930s, Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon are credited with evolving the sport to its competitive form. Professional roller derby quickly became popular; in 1940, more than 5 million spectators watched in about 50 American cities. In the ensuing decades, however, it predominantly became a form of sports entertainment, where theatrical elements overshadowed athleticism. Gratuitous showmanship largely ended with the sport's grassroots revival in the first decade of the 21st century.[4] Although roller derby retains some sports entertainment qualities such as player pseudonyms and colorful uniforms, it has abandoned scripted bouts with predetermined winners.[5]

Modern roller derby is an international sport. It mostly comprises all-female amateur teams, but has a growing number of male, unisex, and junior roller derby teams, and was under consideration as a roller sport for the 2020 Summer Olympics.[6][7][8] FIRS, recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the official international governing body of roller sports, released its first set of Roller Derby Rules for the World Roller Games that took place September 2017 in Nanjing, China. Most modern leagues (and their back-office volunteers) share a strong "do-it-yourself" ethic[9] that combines athleticism with the styles of punk and camp.[10] As of 2018, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) had 423 full member leagues and 46 apprentice leagues.[11]

Game play

Contemporary roller derby has a basic set of rules, with variations reflecting the interests of a governing body's member leagues. The summary below is based on the rules of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).[1] In March 2010, Derby News Network claimed that more than 98% of roller derby competitions were conducted under WFTDA rules.[12] For example, members of the United Kingdom Roller Derby Association are required to play by WFTDA rules,[13] while members of the former Canadian Women's Roller Derby Association were encouraged to join the WFTDA.[14]

Basics of play

Position Helmet cover[1]:7 Responsibility
Jammer Stars Scores points by lapping opposing team members, which can include a point attained by passing the opposing team's jammer[1]:7
Blocker None Forms the pack,[15]:18 hinders the opposing jammer from passing through the pack, and helps their team's jammer pass through the pack.[16]
Pivot Stripe A blocker who may be converted to a jammer during the course of a jam,[1]:7 if the jammer's helmet cover is correctly transferred in a "star pass" maneuver.[15]:29 The pivot is often an experienced player who establishes team strategy during play and sets the pace of the pack.[17][15]:19

Roller derby is played in two periods of 30 minutes.[1]:4 Two teams of up to 15 players each field up to five members for episodes called "jams." Jams last two minutes unless called off prematurely.[1]:5 Each team designates a scoring player (the "jammer"); the other four members are "blockers." One blocker can be designated as a "pivot"—a blocker who is allowed to become a jammer in the course of play.[1]:7 The next jam may involve different players of the 15 roster players, and different selections for jammer and pivot.[1]:7

During each jam, players skate counterclockwise on a circuit track. Points are scored only by a team's jammer. After breaking through the pack and skating one lap to begin another "trip" through the pack, the jammer scores one point for passing any member of the opposing team.[1]:33 The rules describe an "earned" pass; notably, the jammer must be in-bounds and upright. The jammer's first earned pass scores a point for passing that opponent and a point for each opponent not on the track (for instance, serving a penalty, or when the opposition did not field five players for the jam). If the jammer passes the entire pack and the opposing jammer too, it is a five-point scoring trip, commonly called a "grand slam."

Each team's blockers use body contact, changing positions, and other tactics to help their jammer score while hindering the opposing team's jammer.


Play begins by blockers lining up on the track anywhere between the "jammer line" and the "pivot line" 30 feet in front. The jammers start behind the jammer line.[1]:12 Jams begin on a single short whistle blast, upon which both jammers and blockers may begin engaging immediately.

The pack is the largest single group of blockers containing members of both teams skating in proximity, arranged such that each player is within 10 feet of the next.[1]:11 Blockers must maintain the pack, but can skate freely within 20 feet behind and ahead of it, an area known as the "engagement zone."[1]:13

The first jammer to break through the pack earns the status of "lead jammer."[1]:7 A designated referee blows the whistle twice, and skates near, and points at, the lead jammer. Once earned, lead jammer status cannot be transferred to other skaters, but certain actions (notably, being sent to the penalty box) can cause it to be lost.[1]:8 The lead jammer can stop the jam at any time by repeatedly placing both hands on their hips.[1]: If the jam is not stopped early, it ends after two minutes.[1]:5 If time remains in the period, teams then have 30 seconds to get on the track and line up for the next jam.[1]:5 If the period expires, it does not halt a jam that is underway.


Any skater may block an opponent to impede their movement or to force them out of bounds. Blocking with hands, elbows, head, and feet is prohibited, as is contact above the shoulders or below mid-thigh, and blocking from behind.[1]:14


Referees penalize rules violations.[1]:36 A player receiving a penalty is removed from play to sit in a penalty box for 30 seconds of jam time.[1]:29 If the jam ends during this interval, the player remains in the penalty box during the subsequent jam until the interval ends.[1]:30 The penalized player's team plays short-handed, as in ice hockey.

However, the "power jam", derived from hockey's "power play", does not cover any short-handed situation but only the case where the jammer is penalized.[18] In this case, that team cannot score. While the lead jammer is penalized, no one can prematurely end the jam.

It would be pointless to play if neither team could score; thus, a jammer is released from the penalty box early if the opponents' jammer enters the box. The second jammer's penalty is then only as long as the amount of time the first jammer spent in the box.[1]:31 A player "fouls out" of the game on the seventh penalty, and is required to return to the locker room.[1]:32


Players skate on four-wheeled ("quad") roller skates,[1]:11 and are required to wear protective equipment, including a helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, knee pads, and mouth guards. All currently-played sets of roller derby rules explicitly forbid inline skates for players (WFTDA and MRDA permit inline skates for referees while USARS requires quad skates for all skaters; in practice virtually all skaters, referee and player alike, wear quad skates). Additional gear that is acceptable though subject to individual team rules include padded knee length pants, similar to what aggressive skateboarders wear, and biologically specific gear such as a hard case sports bra for female players and protective cups for males.[1]:39

Strategy and tactics

Offense and defense are played simultaneously,[19] a volatile aspect that complicates strategy and tactics. For example, blockers may create a large hole for their jammer to pass through and score, but this same maneuver might also allow the opposing team's jammer to score.[20][21]

  • Ending the jam: The lead jammer can "call off" or end the jam at any time, thus they control the opposing team's ability to score points. Ideally, the lead jammer scores as many points as possible and then ends the jam before the opposing team scores any.[22]
  • Passing the star: The jammer for a team may "pass the star" (may perform a "star pass") to the pivot—that is, hand the helmet cover with the star to the pivot, which turns the pivot into the jammer.[1]:9 A jammer might pass the star because of fatigue, injury, or because the pivot is in a better position to score.[23] Passing the star is also sometimes referred to as "passing the panty", as helmet covers are sometimes known as "panties".[24]
  • The whip: A blocker or pivot grasps the jammer's hand and swings the jammer forward, transferring some speed and momentum to the jammer.[25]
  • Walling up: Two or more blockers work together to take up as much space on the track as possible, to make it difficult for the opposing team to maneuver. "Walling up" means creating a wall at a strategic time, so the opposing team (especially the jammer) has no time to respond. A wall can inhibit, slow down, and ultimately trap the opposing jammer. An effective wall may last for an entire jam. Variations on the strategy include backwards bracing (one skater on the disengaged side of the wall skates backward to sight the jammer, while the remaining skaters act as a wall), the box wall (associated with Victorian Roller Derby League), and setting up blockers to rotate through the wall positions.[26]
  • Goating: The pack is defined as the largest group of in-bounds blockers, skating in proximity, containing members from both teams.[1]:11 In the "goat-herding" tactic, one team surrounds a blocker of the opposing team, and then slows so that that group becomes the pack. The rest of the opposing team, skating ahead, are thus put out of play and cannot legally block the goat-herders' jammer.
  • Bridging: Blockers move up to 10 feet behind the pack to stretch out both the pack and the engagement zone, allowing teammates to keep hindering the opposition jammer.[27]
  • Running back or recycling: When a skater bumps the opponent jammer off the track, the jammer can only re-enter the track behind the skater. The skater skates clockwise on the track toward the rear of the engagement zone to maximize the time the jammer must spend before returning to action.[28]
  • Penalty-killing: Captained by the pivot, blockers adapt their play to a penalty situation. For example, a short-handed team may try to make the pack skate faster to slow down scoring action until the team returns to full strength.[17]


WFTDA bouts are officiated by three to seven skating referees[1]:35 and many non-skating officials (NSOs). Referees skate on the inside of the track; in flat-track derby, some also skate on the outside of the track. They call penalties, award points, and ensure safe game play.[1]:36 Referees must be on skates (inline skates are allowed) and typically wear white and black stripes.[1]:38 NSOs take up a range of positions inside and outside the track, start and time the jams, record and display scores and penalties communicated by referees, record the number of each skater on track for a given jam, and time and record skaters in the penalty box. Volunteer leagues adapt when fewer than the optimal number of officials are present.


Type Number Responsibility
Head Referee 1 Responsible for the general supervision of the entire bout and has final authority on all rulings.[1]:35 The head referee will take the position of inside pack referee.[1] Along with the responsibilities of an inside pack referee, the head referee is also responsible for issuing expulsions[1]:35 and for announcing the results of official reviews.[1]:38
Pack Referee Up to 5 Located both inside and outside the track, pack referees are responsible for watching the skaters in the pack, pack definition and calling penalties.[1]:35[15]:29
Jammer Referees 2 Skating on the inside of the track,[15]:29 jammer referees watch the jammers of a specific team and wear a wristband (and optionally a helmet cover) in that team's color to identify which team they are watching.[1]:35 They award points for opponents passed by their jammer,[1]:36 and signal whether theirs is the lead jammer.[15]:29

Non-skating officials (NSOs)

Type Number Responsibility
Scorekeepers 2 Record points scored by jammers.[1]:36
Penalty Trackers 1 (min) Record each skater's penalties.[1]:36 Notify the head referee of skaters in the current jam who are in danger of fouling out.[1]
Penalty Box Manager 1 Head of the affairs within the penalty box. The manager can call penalties for penalty box violations or illegal procedures (like taking off your helmet in the penalty box). Also, the manager points where the player is assigned to sit, and times the jammers and executes, when necessary, a jammer swap.
Penalty Box Timers 2 (min) Ensure skaters sent to the penalty box serve their penalties;[1]:36 notify referees when a skater leaves the penalty box before her time is fully served.[1]
Jam Timer 1 Responsible for starting jams and for ending jams that run to two minutes, timing the thirty seconds between jams,[1]:36 and for calling an official timeout if the time between jams runs over 30 seconds.
Inside Whiteboard 1 Maintains a whiteboard in the center of the track that shows each skater's accumulated penalties.[1]:36
Lineup 2 Responsible for recording every player on the track in each jam:5
Scoreboard Operator 1 Update each team's score after every scoring pass.[1]:36[1]


Professional endurance races

The growing popularity of roller skating in the United States led to the formation of organized multi-day endurance races for cash prizes, as early as the mid-1880s.[29][30][31] Speed and endurance races continued to be held on both flat and banked tracks in the century's first three decades[32] and spectators enjoyed the spills and falls of the skaters.[33][34] The term derby was used to refer to such races by 1922.[35][note 1]

Evolution to contact sport

The endurance races began to transform into the contemporary form of the sport in the mid-1930s, when promoter Leo Seltzer[note 2][note 3] created the Transcontinental Roller Derby, a month-long simulation of a road race between two-person teams of professional skaters.[38] The spectacle became a popular touring exhibition.[39][40] In the late 1930s, sportswriter Damon Runyon persuaded Seltzer to change the Roller Derby rules to increase skater contact.[38] By 1939, after experimenting with different team and scoring arrangements, Seltzer's created a touring company of four pairs of teams (always billed as the local "home" team versus either New York or Chicago),[41] with two five-person teams on the track at once, scoring points when its members lapped opponents.[42]


On November 29, 1948, Roller Derby debuted on New York television—broadcasting well before television viewership was widespread.[43] The broadcasts increased spectator turnout for live matches.[44] For the 1949–1950 season, Seltzer formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL).[45][46] The NRDL consisted of six teams.[45] NRDL season playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for a week.[46] During the late 1950s and 1960s, the sport was broadcast on several networks, but attendance declined. Jerry Seltzer (Leo's son), the RollerDerby "commissioner", hoped to use television to expand the live spectator base. He adapted the sport for television by developing scripted story lines, and rules designed to improve television appeal; derby's popularity declined in spite of this.[47]

1989 saw the debut of RollerGames, a show which presented an even more theatrical variant of roller derby for national audiences, which ran one season for some of its distributors for syndication went bankrupt. It used a figure-8 track and different rules adapted for this track. Bill Griffiths, Sr. served as commissioner while his son, Bill Griffiths, Jr. served as manager for the L.A. T-Birds, who (according to the storylines) were seeking revenge on the Violators (led by Skull) for cheating in the Commissioner's Cup and stealing it from them when the Skull interfered with gameplay. The other teams included the Maniancs (led by Guru Drew), Bad Attitude (led by Ms. Georgia Hase), the Rockers (led by DJ Terringo and consisting of skaters that were also professional rock and roll musicians), and Hot Flash (led by Juan Valdez Lopez).

In 1999, Spike TV (TNN at the time) debuted RollerJam, which used exactly the same rules on just a banked oval track as classic roller derby, but allowed for inline skates to be used (although some skaters went with traditional quad skates). Jerry Seltzer was commissioner for this version.

Contemporary roller derby

Amateur revival

Roller derby began its modern revival in Austin, Texas in the early 2000s as an all-female, woman-organized amateur sport.[49] By August 2006, there were over 135 similar leagues.[50] Leagues outside the U.S. also began forming in 2006, and international competition soon followed. There are over 2,000 amateur leagues worldwide[51] in countries including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France,[52] Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Norway,[53] Sweden,[54] Denmark,[55] Israel,[56] Singapore,[57][58][59] Dubai,[60][61] and Egypt.[62][63][64] In many international leagues, gear and equipment must be imported.[65] Roller derby's contemporary resurgence has been regarded as an aspect of globalization which demonstrates "the speed with which pop culture is now transported by highly mobile expatriates and social media, while also highlighting the changing role of women in many societies."[2]

Many roller derby leagues are amateur, self-organized and all-female[66] and were formed in a do-it-yourself spirit by relatively new enthusiasts.[67] In many leagues (especially in the U.S.), a punk[68][69] aesthetic and/or third-wave feminist[70] ethic is prominent.[71] Members of fledgling leagues often practice and strategize together, regardless of team affiliation, between bouts.[72] Most compete on flat tracks, though several leagues skate on banked tracks, with more in the planning stages.[73]

Each league typically features local teams in public bouts that are popular with a diverse fan base.[74] Some venues host audiences ranging up to 7,000.[75] Successful local leagues have formed traveling teams comprising the league's best players to compete with comparable teams from other cities and regions. In February 2012, the International Olympic Committee considered roller derby, among eight sports, for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games.[76][77]

In 2009, the feature film Whip It was based on roller derby and introduced viewers to its rules and culture. The WFTDA encouraged leagues to coordinate with promotions during the film's release to increase awareness of the leagues.[78] Corporate advertising has used roller derby themes in television commercials for insurance,[79] a breakfast cereal,[80] and an over-the-counter analgesic.[81]

Derby names

Examples of derby names[82]
Guinefear of JamalotGuinevere of Camelot
Mazel Tov CocktailMazel tov, Molotov cocktail
O Hell No KittyHello Kitty
Sandra Day O'ClobberSandra Day O'Connor
Punky BruiserPunky Brewster
Roly Mary Mother of QuadHoly Mary Mother of God
Ania MarxOn Your Marks
Princess Lay-Ya FlatPrincess Leia
Anna MosityAnimosity
Smack OpsBlack Ops
Trauma QueenDrama Queen

Most players in roller leagues skate under pseudonyms, also called "derby names" or "skater names." These typically use word play with satirical, mock-violent or sexual puns, alliteration, and allusions to pop culture. Referees use derby names as well,[83] often shown on the backs of their striped uniforms. Some players claim their names represent alter egos that they adopt while skating.[84]

Whether a team should skate under real names or derby names is sometimes debated.[85] Some derby names are obscene, and this attracts controversy among other skaters.[86]

Copying of derby names has attracted legal and sociological analysis as an example of indigenous development of property rights.[10] New players are encouraged to check derby names against an international roster to ensure they are not already in use.[82][87]

The names of roller derby events are also sardonic and convoluted—for example, Night of the Rolling Dead (Night of the Living Dead), Knocktoberfest (Oktoberfest), Spanksgiving (Thanksgiving), Seasons Beatings (Seasons Greetings), Grandma Got Run Over By a Rollergirl (Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer), Cinco de May-hem (Cinco de Mayo), and War of the Wheels (War of the Worlds).[88]


Roller derby is a contact sport, and injuries occur. Superficial injuries include torn eyelashes and "fishnet burn", a stippled effect of falling while wearing fishnet hose.[89] However, torn ligaments, broken bones, and concussions also occur.[90][91][92] Fist fights occur in some leagues.[93]

Some leagues prominently display their injuries, to embellish the image of violence or machismo.[94][95] However, some skaters say the sport is reasonably safe if skaters take precautions.[96] The rules require appropriate medical professionals on-site at every bout,[1]:39 even if not required by laws or arena regulations. The WFTDA offers insurance for leagues in the United States with legal liability and accident coverage, but it recommends that skaters also carry their own primary medical insurance.[97]


Although the early 2000s revival of roller derby was initially all-female, some leagues later introduced all-male teams and unisex games; as of May 2013 there were over 140 junior roller derby programs in the United States, and many more around the world.[98]

As the sport of roller derby expands, so does the media devoted to the sport. Viewing roller derby bouts is now possible via live online streaming and archived footage of previous bouts and tournaments. The WFTDA offers live streaming video of its tournaments at Derby News Network ( offers live streaming video and archived video of both WFTDA events and non-WFTDA events. FiveOnFive magazine is devoted solely to covering the sport of roller derby, and covers diverse topics regarding the sport such as business, training, junior roller derby, and nutrition.[99]

Governance and organization

The largest governing body for the sport is the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), with 397 full member leagues and 48 apprentice leagues.[11] WFTDA membership is a major goal of aspiring leagues.[100] Other associations support either coed or men-only derby; the largest organization supporting male roller derby is the Men's Roller Derby Association (MRDA).[101][102][103] Within the United States, the Junior Roller Derby Association governs play by those under 18. It modifies the WFTDA rules for minors, such as prohibiting hitting and accelerating into a block.[104] Some U.S. leagues decline affiliation with a national organization because they prefer local governance.[105][106]

USA Roller Sports (USARS) is recognized by the International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as the National Governing Body of competitive roller sports in the United States, including speed, figure, hockey, roller derby and slalom. WFTDA and USARS maintain a reciprocity agreement for insurance purposes.[107]

Outside the United States, many roller derby leagues enjoy support from their national skate federations, such as Skate Australia,[108] the British Roller Sports Federation,[109] and Roller Sports Canada.[110] In Europe, roller derby was recognized as a sport in Paris in 2010 by the Federation Internationale de Roller Sports (FIRS), which reports directly to the International Olympic Committee. As of 2017, FIRS has been accepted as the international rule set by the International Olympic Committee. Teams competed under the FIRS rules at The World Roller Games 2017 in Nanjing, China.[111] The former Canadian Women's Roller Derby Association worked with the American federation.[112]


Since 2006, the WFTDA has sponsored an annual championship. In 2008, it took the current "Big 5" format: four regional playoffs and a final championship tournament.[113] The WFTDA also recognizes eligible tournaments hosted by member leagues.[114] Internationally, the first Roller Derby World Cup took place in Toronto, Canada, in December 2011.[115] The second World Cup took place in Dallas, Texas, in December 2014.[116] Since 2012, USARS has held an annual Roller Derby National Championship. In 2017, FIRS and the USOC recognized USARS to participate in the Nanjing games.[111]

Social significance

Zaina Arafat asserts in Virginia Quarterly Review that roller derby defies heteronormativity and patriarchal standards. In Egypt, Arafat says, there are expectations that a woman will not show visible scars, will have an unblemished body for her husband, and will refrain from activities that may damage her body. She says roller derby in Egypt is subversive, as it acts as an indirect political statement.[117]

Carly Giesler states that skaters enact sexualities that create or reclaim an identity, and their role parodies "hegemonic scripts of sexuality" through the use of costumes, derby names and personas. Roller derby acts as a unique stage for female athletes, letting them rebut constraints society places on women and female athletes. Giesler argues that female sports objectifies them for the male gaze, but roller derby turns this on its head by disregarding gender roles and norms.[118]

See also


  1. "Roland Cloni of Akron, world's champion roller skater, who yesterday tried out the track in the Broadway armory, where the national roller skating derby will be held this week, asserted new world's records can be established for flat tracks. The derby will open tomorrow and run until Saturday."[35]
  2. Sources disagree on whether it was Leo alone or with his brother, the skate maker Oscar Seltzer.[36][37]
  3. "Roller derby has entertained the masses in one form or another since the 1930s, when brothers Leo and Oscar Seltzer conceptualized the idea of a skating contest on a Chicago restaurant tablecloth."[36]


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  3. "Common Ground: the alternative sport of roller derby". YouTube. Retrieved 2013-02-15.
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