Roller Derby is slowly making a comeback as a league sport.  The once enigmatic names such as the Kansas City Bomber, Babe Ruthless, and the Iron Maven are making way for the names of today such as Michelle O'BamYa, Sandra Day O'Clobber, and O Hell No Kitty.  At first glance the sport looks quite chaotic with players bumping and hitting each other as they skate around the track.  However, as with any sport, there are specific positions and rules to the “chaos.”

History of Roller Derby

The roots of roller derby are found in the marathon events of the early 1900s and the original event was one of the first sports to allow women to compete alongside men under the same Leo Seltzer; Source: movies.infoCredit: Source: movies.inforules.  In the spring of 1935, sports promoter Leo Seltzer came up with the idea of a roller marathon in Chicago.

By August the event was set at the Chicago Coliseum.  Twenty-five two-person co-ed teams were entered in the Transcontinental Roller Derby event.  The race would cover 3,000 miles over the course of a month with the winner determined by the team with the shortest time.  Each team was required to have at least one of the two members skating at all times during the eleven and half hour daily skating sessions.  During each daily session, each team was required to travel a specific distance.  The skaters slept in cots at the Coliseum, ate meals provided by Seltzer, and received free medical care during the event.   Injuries and exhaustion took out many teams.  In the end, of the 25 teams at the start, only 9 teams finished the race.  Clarice Martin & Bernie McKay; Source: Retroplanet.comCredit: Source: Retroplanet.comThe winners were Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay.[5]

With the success of the derby in Chicago, Seltzer decided to take the race on the road.   For the following two years, derby teams skated in front of crowds averaging 10,000 daily.[5]  In 1937 sportswriter, Damon Runyon,  suggested several rule changes for the event; one of which increased the contact allowed between skaters.  The roller derby became an event of two teams of five players each who earned points by successfully lapping members of the opposing team.  With the new rules of allowable contact, players began pushing and shoving with abandon and the physical aspect and violence became hallmarks of the derby.

The derby was widely popular with fan clubs springing up and following their favorite players.  In the early 1940s, roller derby was played in over 50 major cities across the United States and boasted over five million spectators.[5]  World War II saw the decline of the sport as players enlisted in the military and spectators were more concerned with the war and less with attending a derby.  One derby team survived, but traveled primarily just to entertain the troops.

Roller Derby in 1950; Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Source: Wikimedia CommonsAfter the war, roller derby got new life when Seltzer promoted the sport once again by debuting the sport on television in 1948.[1]   Seltzer formed the National Roller Derby League which consisted of six teams.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the sport was aired on several television networks, but again the viewers’ interest began to decline, despite attempts to adapt the sport to television.  Over the next few decades, the sport continued to decline despite several attempts to gain spectator interest with variations geared towards television viewership.

Basic Rules of the Sport

Roller Derby today has a basic set of rules though variations reflect the various governing body’s member leagues.  The basic play requires two teams of five players to skate simultaneously counterclockwise around an oval track.  The track may be flat or banked. (Currently the majority are flat because they are more readily available).

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) developed a comprehensive set of rules to help standardize rules across leagues throughout the United States and internationally.  According to Derby News Network in March 2010, the majority of leagues use the WFTDA rules for their bouts.[1]  In most leagues jammers:

Roller Jammer; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Earn points by passing opponents only if they are in bounds
  • Do not earn points if they foul a player or pass a player who is going to the penalty box
  • Earn additional points for lapping the opposing team’s jammer
  • Earn a point for each opposing player in the penalty box if they pass all other opponents in bounds

Men’s Roller Derby; Photo courtesy of user: Sandsawks, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of user: Sandsawks, Source: Wikimedia CommonsBlocking by any player is legal, but players are penalized if they grab, pull or trip an opponent. Blocks from behind, “clothes-line” blocks, using a completely extended arm to block or preventing an out-of-bounds player from getting back on the track on are not allowed.  It is also illegal to use the elbow above the shoulders.[7]

Illegal blocks result in penalties and a trip to the penalty box for one minute when a player accumulates either four minor penalties or one major penalty.  Major penalties can also result in being thrown from the bout or sometimes unusual punishments such as skating-backwards contests.  Major penalties are given for such offenses as falling in front of opponent skaters, fouling downed players, fighting, and unsportsmanlike conduct such as insubordination to the officials.  In January, 2013 WFTDA rule changes included eliminating Fouls are Penalized; Photo by user Joe M500, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by user Joe M500, Source: Wikimedia Commonsminor penalties altogether with all penalties becoming a major. If a jam ends before the minute is up, the penalty time is continued into the next jam.[7]

If a jammer is in the penalty box and the second jammer receives a penalty, the first jammer is released from the box early. The second jammer’s penalty time is only as long as the first jammer spent in the penalty box.  When a player is called for a seventh penalty, she is “fouled out” (much like professional basketball players) and is required to go to the locker room.

Each bout is played in two 30 minute periods consisting of two-minute jams.  A jam can be stopped by the lead jammer at any time by putting her hands on her hips.  Though a jammer can pass the position to the pivot player, the pivot player is not allowed to end the jam.  If a jam has not been stopped by the lead jammer; the jam ends at two minutes of play.

Play is started with the blockers lined up on the pivot line (starting line) and the jammers on the jammer line 30 feet behind the pivot line. The jammers are started after the blockers have already started their skate.  As of January 2013, the WFTDA set the start with all players skating once a whistle is blown (the jammers continue to be started from the jammer line but start at the same time as the blockers).

The pack is the largest group of blockers comprised of both teams’ members skating within 10 feet of each other. Blockers must maintain the pack but are allowed to skate in the "engagement zone" which is the area from 20 feet ahead of the pack to 20 feet behind the pack.  The first jammer to legally pass all of the blockers at least once and exit the front of the pack is designated the “lead jammer.”  A penalty can cause the lead jammer to lose her status.

Positions and Roles of Derby Skaters & Officials

The Teams: Each team is comprised of 14 players on the roster with five of those players on the track.  The players are designated as such:

  • A jammer – the jammer is the scorer of the team and thus it is the jammer’s job to lap players of the opposing team. The jammer wears a star on her helmet to designate her Blocking in a Jam; photo courtesy of the U.S. Army photographer: Marny Malin, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Army photographer: Marny Malin, Source: Wikimedia Commonsposition.
  • A blocker – The blockers help the jammer by impeding the opposing team’s players and preventing their jammer to advance.  It is their job to maintain the pack.  They do not have any designation on their helmets.
  • A pivot - The pivot is a blocker who may be designated as a jammer through the course of a jam.  She sets the pace for her team and establishes team strategy.  She wears a stripe on her helmet.

Players may switch designation between jams, for example a pivot in one jam may be a jammer in the next.

 The officials:  Bouts conducted under WFTDA rules have three to seven skating officials and numerous non-skating officials (NSO). The skating officials move on the inside and outside of the track. Their job is to call penalties, award points and ensure safety of the players. They are comprised of the following:

  • Head Referee – There is one head referee per bout. This referee has the final say on all rulings and general supervision of the entire bout.  He or she issues expulsions and announces results of official reviews.  The head referee takes the position of inside pack referee.Referees watch as Jammer Scores; Source Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source Wikimedia Commons
  • Pack Referee - There are up to five pack referees.  These referees are positioned both inside and outside the track and their job is to watch the players in the pack, the pack definition and call penalties. 
  • Jammer Referees – There are two of these referees and they are positioned on the inside of the track.  Their job is to watch one jammer each designated by wearing a wristband of the team color of the jammer they are watching.  Their job is to award points and signal if their jammer is the lead jammer.

NSO include at least one penalty tracker and two penalty timers, two scorekeepers, a scoreboard operator, a jam timer, a line-up tracker and an inside track whiteboard maintainer.

Uniforms and Equipment

There are no official uniform requirements such as those in sporting leagues like baseball or basketball.  The uniform is often short-shorts and often some type of tank top, but like the names of the teams and players, the apparel can be just as colorful.  Some teams wear fish-net stockings, others thigh-high socks.  Often it is more of a costume than a uniform.

For safety reasons, all players are required to wear the following protective gear:Injuries Happen During Roller Derby Bout; Photo by Kenneth Freeman, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Kenneth Freeman, Source: Wikimedia Commons

  • wrist guards
  • elbow pads
  • knee pads
  • mouth guards
  •  helmets

In addition, other specific protective gear is allowed such as tail guards, non-form fitting full face shields, chin guards, ankle and knee support, padded shorts and turtle shell bras as long as the equipment does not interfere with or impair the play of other players and officials.[7]

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Current State of Roller Derby

In the early 2000s roller derby started its comeback on the sports scene.   Austin, Texas saw the first league and by mid-2006, over 135 similar leagues had cropped up.[1]  2006 also saw leagues forming outside the United States and it wasn’t long before international competition ensued.  Globally there are over 1200 amateur roller derby leagues in countries including, Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Scandinavian Countries, Dubai, Singapore and Egypt.[1]

Half-time Strategy during Roller Derby Bout; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commons

A good portion of the leagues are all-female, but there are some all-male and some co-ed leagues as well.  The teams consist of members from all walks of life with stay-at-home moms rubbing elbows with lawyers and other career women.  Most are local leagues with the more successful leagues forming travel teams to compete against travel teams from other regions.

Popularity of the sport has gained momentum such that at the February 2012 session of the International Olympic Committee session in South Africa, it was announced roller derby was one of eight sports being considered to be included in the Olympic Games of 2020.

The majority of players continue to skate under “derby names” rather than their legal names, though there is a slight increase in players choosing to use their legal name.  How players choose their skater names has become the topic of psychological and social studies.[1]  Not only do derby skaters choose colorful names, referees at times choose to go by a derby name. The teams are likewise apDerby Name Displayed; Photo by David Bedard, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by David Bedard, Source: Wikimedia Commonstly named with such monikers as Steel City Derby Demons.  In addition, the bouts themselves are usually named something relating to pop culture or play on words such as War of the Wheels or Night of the Rolling Dead.[1]

Roller Derby as a sport is growing and attracting youth as well with over 140 junior roller derby programs in the United States alone.  As the sport expands, the media coverage is growing and social media is promoting the sport more and more.  The WFTDA sponsors annual tournaments and in 2011 the Blood and Thunder Magazine organized the first Roller Derby World Cup.  Thirteen countries participated and the tournament was held in Toronto, Canada.  The USA team won, beating Team Canada in the final.  The next World Cup is scheduled for 2014.[6]

The next time there is little to do and adventure is desired, attend a Nightmare on Hull Street and watch Punky Bruiser and Princess Lay-Ya Flat duke it out on the roller track.  Just don't tell them it's choregraphed like the old-time wrestling, or you just may find yourself "laid out flat."


The copyright of the article is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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