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Published on November 24th, 2014 | by Andy Frye


“Dissing” Derby: In Defense of ESPN

Roller derby is a fun but busy enterprise. Anyone who is involved in roller derby as a skater, a coach, a volunteer, or even as a writer or photographer documenting the sport, knows that the fun is at times all-consuming.

It’s from this pacey experience that the words, “I can’t, I have derby” are summoned as an excuse for everything from postponing a dinner date out, to declining a wedding invitation, to ditching out on your pals.

For some of us, our efforts spent in roller derby, and our focus on it, can sometimes cloud our perception of reality as it exists outside the rink. Such was the case this week in an article entitled “ESPN Snubs Roller Derby In Spite Of Overwhelming Fan Vote” written by Carly Quick, and posted on Devaskation’s occasional blog.

Though I was a little late to the party, here’s the lowdown:

ESPN The Magazine polled its audience via social media, asking which among a list of sports like derby, rugby and wrestling, should get more coverage. The Mag chose rugby the winner in a methodology that suggested that responses weren’t weighted equally. Thus, the Mag made an editorial decision (perhaps premeditated) and passed on any definitive commitment to cover more roller derby. And so one writer then let the dogs out, accusing ESPN as a whole of dissing derby.

Posting on their blog and then on social media, Devaskation summoned the usual barbs against mainstream anything.  Commenters piped in about how ESPN must be “boneheads” and “chauvinistic.” Because, you see ESPN hates roller derby. And thus, the “snub.”

Unfortunately, in their rush to judgment the authors didn’t look closely at who they were actually talking about in the first place. So let me explain a few things.

ESPN The Magazine is a magazine. Yes, it’s published by ESPN, but is produced by a group of editors that do the magazine only. ESPN The Magazine isn’t ESPN in its entirety. If you’re following along, I’ll throw this out at you: ESPN, a media enterprise owned by Disney, is made up of a lot of different parts.

There’s ESPN The Magazine, there’s ESPN Films, and there’s also the television channels and production companies. There’s the X-Games, an experiential marketing and sports events enterprise that is wholly owned by ESPN. Also, there is ESPN Internet Ventures LLC, better known as ESPN.com, which is who I write for.

Sure, all of the parts are related like one big Reality TV show family. But editorial decisions within one venture largely have nothing to do with the other parts of the family.

Therefore impugning “ESPN” as a whole, as a mean group of people dissing derby, is patently false and irresponsible. It’s sort of like saying that because Michael Phelps is “a pothead” that all US Olympic swimmers are potheads.

Sure I understand that there is some discontent about that fact that (at least not yet) you can’t turn on SportsCenter or NBC News to find the latest scores of local derby or Divisionals. I can speak to the fact, as a writer who covers sports, that propagating derby is sometimes an uphill climb. But not one without earnest.

First off, getting an idea transformed into a published article, either for a freelance journalist or a staffer, isn’t as easy as writing a pitch. That goes for major sports as well as newer phenomena. The first three times I attempted to get roller derby into print at ESPN my best result was a “no thank you.” Later, an open-minded editor of mine helped. The article that I pitched on Bonnie Thunders –which I offered to submit gratis— was what made ESPN sit up and take notice.

The piece entitled “Meet … the LeBron James of roller derby” was something that I thought (if I was lucky) would post at 6 AM on a Sunday morning. Instead the editor, who also picked the title, ran it first thing on a Wednesday. The article went viral. From there, there was an interest in derby, even if those of us who write about the sport had to explain to our editors what a pack is.

Hardly ignoring the sport, ESPN has had me write six more features on roller derby, with each reaffirming that there is an audience, small in media terms perhaps, but a very enthusiastic one that is ready to read. Also, I am not the only one who has written about roller derby for ESPN.

Jane McManus, who plays on and off as Leslie E. Visserate with Suburbia Roller Derby just north of Manhattan, normally covers NFL topics for ESPN New York as a part of her full-time role with ESPN.

Between pressers with Coach Rex Ryan of New York Jets, or her coverage on SportsCenter about serious national topics like the Ray Rice domestic violence affair, or even her “office photos” from near the sideline at the Super Bowl, Jane regularly cites roller derby as a first love and always makes space for it.

McManus initially posted her series of derby articles on ESPN.com three years ago, first confessing to being “crazy in love with roller derby” in her post on ESPN’s Page 2, November 11, 2011. Within the series, she gave WFTDA and Champs its first mentions on ESPN and in major sports media.

But wait, there’s more! More from the network that (supposedly) ignores roller derby.

Last summer Devon Maloney covered a weekend of ECDX in “We Went There: East Coast Roller Derby Extravaganza 2013” for Grantland, ESPN’s classy online sports magazine. Maloney, A Los Angeles-based writer –whose ability with words I can merely be envious of– covered not only the bouts, the action and the stars of the competition but also delved deeper into derby’s culture, its people and its psyche.

“One of the defining qualities of any successful DIY, grassroots movement, especially in this era, is the blurred line between player and spectator” Maloney wrote. “In the event that derby isn’t able to break into mainstream athletics, it could still sustain itself as a community indefinitely.”

In addition to the works of Jane McManus and Devon Maloney, D’Arcy Maine, an ESPN staffer who writes on a variety of sports, profiled a 77-year old named Janette Morris, a derby player in the 1950s, who returned to the joy of skating.

Within the thousands of words the four of us (and many more) have written about roller derby, there have been profiles on World Cups, how to watch derby and basic tactics. We’ve also documented why players like Swede Hurt, Sarah Hipel and Juke Boxx have crossed borders and continents to play derby, how Atomatrix and Oly helped force the sport to evolve, and why Sandrine Rangeon ditched 10 years of playing hockey on the international stage to join derby as fresh meat. These stories and their depth hardly represent a snub of the sport.

There’s also no mention of kitsch, fancy clothes or fishnets, nor the (mis)perceived ideas that the non-derby world has harbored about the game we love. Instead ESPN’s coverage has been all about the growth of the game and its athleticism, as well as the influence that roller derby’s women have had on both women and men across the globe.

That said, it’s a free country. I know people have differing opinions. And one good thing about new media and social is that everyone can have a voice and spark discussion.

Yet, scorn of mainstream sports media by people within the derby community for its past omissions or allegedly “ignoring” roller derby doesn’t help the game in any way. If the goal of both players and fans is more recognition for derby, then yelling at ESPN and others for a supposed “snub” is counterproductive. As counterproductive as its stick-it-to-the-man hipsterism is laughably quaint and old.

One of roller derby’s most heralded rules is a simple one. “Don’t Be a Douchebag” embodies the idea that people respect each other and have general civility in the way they go about things. The rule also implies, to some of us at least, that roller derby is concerned to be fair-minded. Getting your facts straight before you start shouting from rooftops also falls under the same category.

While the author’s intent was probably nothing more than to call a foul on those who might dismiss derby’s greatness, their argument was half-baked. Facts matter.

So, I’m sorry, Devaskation. Sorry to call you out. But you got it wrong. Nobody at ESPN is ignoring roller derby. As someone who both plays roller derby and has written about derby, I can say… it’s quite the opposite. Next time, do your homework.

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Andy Frye writes about derby for Fiveonfive and has written for a variety of other sports publications. As LeBron Shames, he skates with the Chicago Bruise Brothers.

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About the Author

Andy Frye writes about derby for Fiveonfive and has written for a variety of other sports publications. As LeBron Shames, he skates with the Chicago Bruise Brothers.

  • Andy Frye

    Side note: sometimes the link to the Bonnie article does not work on mobile. I think this has to do with the way ESPN archives older posts.

  • http://michaelyichao.com Michael Yichao
  • Skwerl King

    Can’t read, have derby stuff I need to do.

  • ohkirsten

    Great article on ESPN not ignoring derby. Less great article on ESPN The Magazine not ignoring derby. Editorial choice I get, it was their handling of it that felt like a snub… because it was. They acknowledged the overwhelming response from fans through a half-hearted tweet that was shared with another sport. I would have respected them so much more had they just said they were surprised at the hardcore support but weren’t prepared for it and they will do an article on derby once they’ve dedicated more time to learning the sport so as to do it justice. But they didn’t, instead it was barely an acknowledgment.

  • Tip44

    imho where ESPN magazine dropped the ball was in asking social media for its
    input, then ignoring it. This is common with businesses who want the
    attention from sm but lack the understanding of how to truly engage with
    a genuinely social media. Someone (social media marketing group) comes
    up with the idea for the poll to get people ‘engaged’ but may not have
    understood their companies level of flexibility (i.e. we already have
    rugby material lined up) or willingness to actually tailor the coverage
    (the actual writers). As a result the company comes off as insincere and
    even duplicitous to the people interacting with them. They ‘could’
    have responded with a – “wow, roller derby is sure a hot topic” and
    pointed to other ESPN coverage of roller derby – possibly gotten input
    about a future target for derby – and been transparent about the
    selection process. Instead they flubbed the hand off. This kind of problem with social media interactions is VERY common among companies.

    • Guest

      True. But that was the fault of whoever does social for ESPN The Magazine. I know that for a lot of the smaller feature pages someone close to the editor or handles the social channels.

      I suspect the point of those tweets was really to gather attention (boost social traffic, reads of online articles, etc) more than truly assess peoples’ opinions in order to change the Mag’s story offerings going forward.

      Good point. But it seems they got people “enraged” instead of “engaged” via social media.

    • Andy Frye

      True. But that was the fault of whoever does social for ESPN The Magazine. I know that for a lot of the smaller feature pages use someone close to the editor to handle social channels.

      I suspect the point of those tweets was really to gather attention (boost social traffic, reads of online articles, etc) more than truly assess peoples’ opinions in order to change the Mag’s story offerings going forward.

  • Rachel Bowlin
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