Roller Derby: Gender Bias, Equity, and COVID-19 with Erica Vanstone

Sports Are From Venus spoke with Erica Vanstone, the executive director of the Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association (WFTDA) about all things roller derby. For more information about the chaotic sport of roller derby, check out our Roller Derby Crash Course.

How and why did you get involved in playing roller derby? 

One of my good friends and I watched A&E’s Rollergirls when it came out in 2006. The show is focused on banked track roller derby, but my friend went out and found Philly Roller Derby (which was then called Philly Roller Girls) which was flat track, and she tried out. I came to her first game and I was so annoyed that the announcers weren’t telling us what was happening or how the game was played, that I decided I needed to pick up a mic myself. So I joined the league as an announcer in 2007, eventually officiated on skates in 2011, then tried out to skate in 2013. It took me a while to get up the confidence to do it but I knew I eventually would.

What does your day-to-day look like as executive director of the WFTDA? 

Typically, my days are pretty long. I wake up every day around 6:30am; I have two cats and a dog as my alarm clock. I make coffee, feed them and make sure my 13 year-old is awake and ready for (now virtual) school. I watch the news, drink coffee and check emails. These days, I also check the COVID data pretty obsessively to see if leagues are reporting changes in conditions. I drive my partner to work so he doesn’t have to risk public transportation during a pandemic, then come home for an average of 5-6 hours of calls every day. I’m managing 7 staff members and a few contractors who live all over the world, and do work out of four companies: WFTDA, our subsidiary WFTDI, and WFTDI’s two subsidiaries WFTDI Canada and Quad Media. We Slack each other nonstop throughout the day, including the Board of Directors and our Officers, committee members, and volunteers. Staff meets once a week as a whole, and I have one on ones with each staff member during the week. 

Work-wise, my days are typically focused around staff management, projects, and policy. When we have events, I’m also focused on making sure they are successful. And if I can get a run in or a skating session in every day, it helps to manage stress, but not as well as roller derby does. In a non-pandemic week, I’d be practicing three times a week for a few hours at a time and also coaching juniors. Running sucks, but my fitness app seems to think it helps!

Evening hours and weekends include meetings with volunteers and other stakeholders. And trying to catch some free time where I can. I am bad at self-care, so my latest self-care project during the pandemic is park skating. Nothing makes you forget your problems like hurling yourself across a halfpipe.

What is your favorite part about playing roller derby? 

It requires your whole brain to play roller derby, and I love that. This is so rewarding for me because it takes me out of the stress of the day and requires my full attention. So if I come into practice or scrimmage feeling stressed, I can’t bring that stress onto the track and be able to play well. I have to put it down in order to focus on the action, so it’s like being able to shelve your thoughts for a while and that’s huge for me.

You once said that the WFTDA was founded on democratic principles, can you explain what that means exactly? How does the derby association practice egalitarianism? 

The WFTDA was started as a group of roller derby clubs, the United Leagues Coalition, who got together in 2004 and decided they needed to standardize rules, competition structure, and schedules. So, out of this collaborative conversation came the idea that each club should have an equal say. When we founded the WFTDA in 2005, we wrote that democratic structure into the bylaws. We have over 460 member clubs and all of them have a say in our voting process, which governs things like rules changes, safety requirements, Board of Directors representation and more. Clubs are encouraged to bring forth proposals or ideas for voting, and much of this includes policy development. This kind of structure allows athletes, officials, and support staff to advocate for policy that directly impacts them. 

What are the pros and cons of having a governing body work simultaneously as a player’s association?

The pros are pretty remarkable, and we’ve demonstrated our strengths during the 2020 pandemic. Our COVID-19 Guidelines have been downloaded by over a thousand organizations outside of roller derby, and even covered by international media. These Guidelines started with the key value, putting lives before the game. That’s something not many sports are doing or have done. We knew right away after the COVID-19 pandemic caught fire in the beginning of the year that each government and municipality had vastly different takes on how to manage the spread of infection. So we got to work creating something scalable, and our guiding principle was that we didn’t want anyone to get COVID. I think a lot of sports have tried to create a target percentage of infections that they thought were tolerable; we came out right away and said we didn’t think anyone getting COVID as a result of playing roller derby was tolerable. 

Watching the spread of infections across the MLB, NCAA, and NFL has been really difficult to see because all of these cases were preventable. Some of these athletes now have permanent damage to their bodies, regardless of the fact that they’ve survived. Athlete-driven values puts lives ahead of the game, and in 2020 that’s felt pretty radical at times. 

I don’t know that we have many cons, but I think that where a Players Association might push back against a league, we often find ourselves pushing against each other on issues. I actually see this as a very healthy expression of democracy and community, though. Change never happens when everyone agrees with each other all the time. But it definitely encourages constant re-evaluation, which means you need to be committed to growth, learning, and development at every step of the way. There’s no coasting in roller derby leadership, so folks need to walk in prepared to do the work–and that often means examining your own perspectives and biases. 

Do you see roller derby being a youth sport? What attempts have been made to develop infrastructure to popularize the sport amongst young people and create a pipeline to the WFTDA? 

We work pretty closely with the Junior Roller Derby Association (JRDA) and will frequently talk to them about policy ideas or large changes we’re looking to make to the sport. As a mother and coach of a junior roller derby skater, it’s important to me, personally, to cultivate junior pathways–not only for the sport, but for the community we’re trying to nurture. My 13 year-old, Catman, plays alongside teammates who are not the same gender as he is and he’s learning valuable lessons about how mainstream sports discriminates and categorizes gender. He’s got teammates who are nonbinary, gender fluid, and girl-identifying and he doesn’t have preconceived notions about which of them he’s able to surpass based on gender. An opponent is an opponent, and to grow up without those gender biases in sport is pretty tremendous. 

It’s funny, but as his mom and also his coach, I wasn’t sure if he was actually enjoying the sport or not–or just playing because I made him! During the pandemic, a lot of the juniors I’ve coached over the years have also skated with me outdoors at skateparks and they are constantly lamenting that they are not able to play roller derby right now–including my son! This tells me there’s value, and I don’t even just see it as a funnel to get kids into the adult version of the sport, it has so much value for the juniors as it is, meeting them where they are right now in life. 

How can the sport of roller derby become more accessible to the average person? 

I think that’s a major question we’re trying to address over the next year and beyond. Part of it has to do with connecting to humans on a social level: Do we even know or connect with the average person? That’s kind of the first question.

The 2020 elections showed us, for example, that roughly half of Americans believe in a very white cis male agenda. Sometimes I listen to conservative radio just to see what some key issues are for those Americans, and they constantly dismiss progressives as “snowflakes” and “whiners.” 

On top of this, we have an already very cis male-focused sports industry–and one that is consistently eroding the rights of transgender athletes, for example. World Rugby just essentially banned transgender women from women’s competitive pathways which is outrageous. So, these types of social issues might make it hard for us to feel like we’re able to connect with mainstream media a lot of the time. 

But that’s where I think juniors programs make the difference. If we’re raising young athletes who have a completely different set of expectations about what sport can be, they’ll grow up to make different decisions in positions of leadership. 

Equity-wise, there’s a lot the WFTDA can do to cultivate roller derby, including helping to bring down costs for gear and participation, making sure basic skating education is widely available and accessible in different formats and languages, rebuilding out competitive pathways to also reduce costs and expenses. And that’s just on a logistics level. 

Has the WFTDA taken any action to address systemic racism?

Yes, it’s a big part of our work this year. Following the murder of George Floyd, I think the WFTDA struggled to figure out how we could begin to address systemic racism. Lots of organizations have gotten pretty overwhelmed in realizing they are part of white supremacy culture and that they were created with white folks and ideals in mind. But once WFTDA leadership really put its arms around the issues that impacted members of our roller derby community in specific ways, we were able to break the work into measurable steps that we’re continuing to take right now. 

Our Member Services Manager, Kimberly Eisen, and I did some deep thinking on how I and other leadership were failing the membership with our perspectives and we realized that we needed to take a back seat to some of the anti-racism visioning processes. As a cis white woman, for example, am I really the best person to cultivate a strategy for combating racism? We needed to center the lived experiences we were actively trying to improve in our community, so we put together a panel of thought leaders. 

The ART Project (Anti-Racism Team Project) compensates and centers BIPOC community members in re-envisioning our sport and dismantling barriers to participation. Focusing on community over competition, the 12 members of the ART Project aim to increase access and equity to roller derby in 2021 and beyond. The panel is looking at organizational structures, membership requirements and needs, access and equity–and more ground-level work like evaluating logos and names for racist ideas. This is also the first phase which lasts 6 months, and then the panel gets to decide how many more phases we need to continue. 

I think a final thought I’ve been having lately is around personal commitment to addressing racism. It’s important for white folks in leadership to think about where and how we’re getting in our own. I’ve been a part of several anti-racism training programs and it’s personal work, but it’s pretty necessary if you’re looking for meaningful change at an org level. And it’s also part of succession planning that any organization should be doing–who should the next leaders of your organization be and what lived experiences should they bring? Again, this isn’t work lots of sports orgs are engaged in, but it’s work we come face to face with every day in the WFTDA.

Are you optimistic we will see roller derby being played in 2021? 

100%. We’re not going to have a competitive pathway the way it existed in 2019, and that’s probably for the best. I think even with professional sports, it’s going to be hard for history to view 2020 or 2021 as “normal” years in sports participation. MLB, for example, played a truncated version of the season, whereas the NBA played in a bubble. I think we need to be realistic about how authentic that feels for athletes and audiences in a year where nearly 300,000 Americans lost their lives to a pandemic. Sure, sports happened this year, but I think the intent behind it might not hold up well over time. 

So roller derby will happen in 2021, but it’ll be at the pace of the community’s recovery, and for the purpose of getting folks back on skates as opposed to wanting anyone to win a trophy.

For more information about the chaotic sport of roller derby, check out our Roller Derby Crash Course.

For more thoughts and opinions from Zachary Diamond, check out his author page or Twitter.

photo credit: Ryan Quick

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