Published on January 26th, 2015 | by Guest Contributor9
Sexual Harassment in Roller Derby Announcing
By Emilie C. Samuelsen, a.k.a. Slamlet
To be completely truthful, when I have a roller derby game I hardly listen to the announcers. Usually, I am so focused on actually playing the game that I forget announcers even exist. I’ve recently become far more aware of what’s being said over the mic at these beloved events, and I have a serious bone to pick with the Derby World.
One weekend, some leaguemates and I participated in a mixed scrimmage event hosted by a small league a couple hours away from our home base. The event consisted of a women’s bout and a co-ed bout, promising to be an evening of good ol’ derby fun. These kinds of events attract a hodgepodge of skaters hailing from all different leagues (some more nearby than others) and bringing to the table a wide array of skill and experience levels. At the time, I had been binging on mixed scrimmages hosted by other leagues for weeks in order to satisfy my derby addiction during the off-season, meet other skaters from different leagues, and have some fun with a few of my own leaguemates. Mixed scrimmages present a challenge because you don’t know what to expect from the skaters you are playing with or against. I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was to witness the disrespect and public sexual harassment of teammates, friends, and strangers alike.
After returning from a particularly taxing jam during the co-ed bout, I returned to my bench and sat down while taking a swig from my water bottle. One of my dearest leaguemates was playing for the opposite team that night and stepped up to the jam line with the stripe on her helmet and her game face on. That night, she had slipped her shimmery Canadian flag booty shorts on over her compression pants and wore them with pride. While the other skaters arranged themselves on the track in preparation for the whistle, my attention was suddenly driven to the announcer for what may have been the first time all night.
“[Skater X] steps onto the track, and her shorts have me singing ‘O Canada!’ My flagstaff is at full mast!”
I’m pretty sure my jaw literally dropped open. Did I hear what I thought I’d heard? Did anyone else hear? Is this real life?!
Unfortunately, it was. And this wasn’t the beginning nor end of the problem. Now that I was aware of what kind of announcing was happening during our bout, I couldn’t tune it out. Every jam was peppered with inappropriate remarks and sexual innuendos. Skaters were singled out over the venue’s PA for their booty shorts, skirts, fishnets—this guy seemed to latch onto anything that could be sexualized in any way. Not only that, but the announcer made little to no effort to actually talk about roller derby. You know, ROLLER DERBY, that game thing that everyone was there to watch and play. Apart from the occasional mention of which jammer was on the line, there was almost no commentary on gameplay. I suddenly realized that not only did this announcer have no respect for the skaters on the track, but he also didn’t know a thing about the game. I spent the rest of the evening gritting my teeth and resisting the urge to snatch the microphone out the announcer’s hand and announce the rest of the bout myself. Because I felt that I was at that event as a representative of my league, I chose to keep my rage to myself as much as I could and settled for a lengthy rant to my leaguemates as we carpooled home and an even lengthier email to the host league explaining the problematic behavior I had witnessed.
Let me be clear: the behavior I sat through was not only annoying, disgusting, and uncomfortable—it was harassment.
Sadly, this was not the first time I’d been disappointed and offended by the announcing at a bout. About two weeks before the aforementioned scrimmage, I had attended a different mixed scrimmage event hosted by a different league, and I ended up writing an email to the host league explaining that their announcers had been rattling off sexist comments and innuendos all evening and that such behavior was inappropriate. But my history of being made to feel uncomfortable by derby announcers goes back even further. A few years ago, at the very first tournament my league ever played in, one of the announcers spent the entire weekend discussing the various booty shorts being worn on the track instead of saying anything about the game going on. This is not a one-time thing. This is a real problem in our sport. With all that I’ve noticed, I cringe to think what’s been said when I haven’t been listening.
As alluded to before, this behavior can be considered harassment. Sexual harassment in its verbal form includes any kind of unwanted sexual remark. While on the more minor side of the harassment spectrum, it’s still a prevalent issue worth talking about. This particular situation has a lot in common with street harassment, in which a person is subjected to unwanted sexual attention in a public space. However you’d like to specifically define it, this harassment does one clear thing: reduces its target to a sexual object there to be ogled and called at instead of a person whose feelings and worth matter. It’s dehumanizing. It’s demeaning. And it’s hard to talk about because sexual remarks do not exist in a black and white space.
Put simply, comments that are sexual in nature can be inappropriate when dealing with someone who is basically a stranger to you. For me, if a teammate of mine whistles and tells me how good my butt looks in the shorts I’m wearing, THAT’S a compliment. Because my teammate is someone I know and trust—someone with whom I have already developed a relationship where that kind of comment has been deemed appropriate. And because I was open to receiving such a comment. If the same comment were to come at me from a stranger and that sexual attention were unwanted, THAT would be harassment. The line is fine but important to respect.
Even if you don’t agree that the sexualized banter of announcers counts as sexual harassment, consider a more basic breakdown of what is happening in these situations. Skaters work their assess off constantly for roller derby. They attend multiple practices a week; they cross-train; they do hours of committee work. They do this so that their league can put on events and so that they can perform their best. Are we really okay with the idea of putting in all of that hard work so that it can be completely ignored on game day? Do we really want announcers focusing their efforts on uncomfortable sexual comments instead of highlighting the badass things we’re doing on the track—the things that we’ve worked so hard to be able to do?
Also consider the simple fact that announcers who display this kind of behavior are entering a space that is meant to be empowering for hard-working athletes and are reducing those athletes to sexual objects there to be noticed for how they look and for little else. If you were walking down the street and those types of comments were hurled at you, it would be straight up street harassment. But take those same comments, announce them to a large crowd over a loudspeaker, and add roller derby and it somehow becomes acceptable.
Which brings me to my next point: we need to stop making harassment okay simply because “it’s roller derby.” The issues surrounding the first incident I described were brought to light within my local roller derby community via social media, and I read some comments and opinions that I found pretty surprising. While most commenting individuals responded with outrage and disappointment when reading about the harassment that occurred during what my friends and I now playfully call Scrimmagegate, there was one phrase I saw tossed around quite a bit by those who didn’t think this was a big deal: “It’s roller derby!” The implication was that roller derby WAS THE PLACE for this kind of behavior. After all, the roots of this newest incarnation of roller derby have always been rather sexual in a kind of rebellious way. But from my standpoint, the bottom line is that the donning of fishnets, booty shorts, or a sexual name is NOT an invite for sexual attention. If a skater chooses for those things to be part of her roller derby experience, that is her choice, but it is NOT an excuse for announcers to essentially catcall her to a roomful of hundreds of people.
Moreover, when I think of the idea of roller derby the members of our junior leagues must be getting when they come to see bouts where this kind of behavior from announcers goes unchecked, I feel sick. What message are we sending them? A big part of what we’re telling them is that what they have to look forward to is working harder than they ever have in their life and being rewarded by being reduced to the appearance of parts of their bodies. Does that sound horrifyingly unhealthy to anyone else?
What I learned through the brief public discussion on Scrimmagegate was that this type of harassment coming from roller derby announcers truly doesn’t bother some people. One person said that she would be running over the announcer’s table to give out a round of high-fives if such comments had been said about her. Some people have suggested that some leagues just want that to be the vibe of their games. Now, I have a hard time believing that an entire league is 100% on board with being sexually objectified in such a public manner. And even if that were the case, that league better think twice before hosting an inter-league event since outside skaters may feel very differently on that front. Especially when roller derby as a sport is moving closer and closer towards professionalism and athleticism, one should never assume that largely inappropriate sexual comments are going to fly. And they shouldn’t.
But if this is such a big problem, why doesn’t anyone seem to be talking about it? Because we’ve all been led to believe that this is an acceptable part of the roller derby culture. Oftentimes, witnesses of this kind of behavior don’t know how to feel about it, let alone what to do about it. Earlier I mentioned going to a tournament where the announcers seemed incapable of commenting on anything other than how skaters’ butts looked in their booty shorts. I was infuriated and uncomfortable and believed it was a problem. But you know what? I didn’t do a damn thing about it. I didn’t know who to reach out to. I didn’t know if anyone would even care. No one else seemed upset. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe it was just the way roller derby was. I still feel guilty for not stepping up to speak out against what I thought was a real problem. Which is why I push myself to not stay quiet anymore. And you know what I’ve learned? There are a lot of people feeling uncomfortable out there.
At the end of one mixed-scrimmage weekend event, as I was gathering up my belongings from the locker room, I simply asked my teammates (who were all pretty much strangers to me), “Hey, did anyone else feel weird about the announcing this weekend?” Suddenly complaints were flooding out of everyone’s mouths—many of these girls had been made to feel uncomfortable as a result of the comments said about them and their teammates. I’ve even been to events where the skaters who are the most upset about the sexual comments made about them were the ones smiling and waving in response in the moment the comments were made. Those of you who have experienced harassment in other parts of your life might recognize this response. Being put on the spot and objectified publically can catch you off guard and make you feel scared and confused. How many of us have had someone harass us on the street and respond by politely smiling or even saying “thank you?” Often, we try to simply ignore it or even play along because we feel like that’s what’s expected of us. I really believe that part of why this problem within the roller derby community hasn’t been properly brought to light is because people don’t know how to speak up or feel they shouldn’t.
It’s time to break that pattern. Roller derby is an ever-evolving sport in so many ways. We can challenge what is now considered acceptable and foster change in this unique community we have been building over the years. When I hear people respond to sexual harassment with “well, it’s roller derby,” I can’t help but feel resistance. No. I don’t know what roller derby that is, but it isn’t MY roller derby. Because my roller derby is a sport of empowerment. My roller derby helps me to accomplish things I never would have dreamed of four years ago before I started playing. My roller derby is a place where I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll be treated like a person instead of an object because it’s a given.
I would like to point out that this is not a problem with all leagues or all announcers. My own league has been lucky enough to have very respectful and talented announcers for quite some time now. I’ve also only had great experiences with WFTDA-affiliated leagues and events, which tend to hold themselves to a very high standard of professionalism. That being said, there are a lot of small leagues where this problem is glaring.
To be clear, the blame does not lie completely on the league hosting the event, although they should take responsibility for the situation. Announcers can be unpredictable and are usually volunteering their time and talents to the host league. Sometimes, getting people to volunteer at all can be very challenging, especially for smaller leagues. But there are ways to try navigating around this issue.
Talk to your announcers! Explain to them what is and is not appropriate—think about how you want this person to represent your league at your event. Ask your announcers to focus on gameplay—even inexperienced announcers can point out big hits and sweet jammer escapes. Those who are more experienced can comment on strategy and rules. You can even prepare a brief info packet that you can give to your announcers at every game that includes guidelines for them to follow.
Encourage the individuals who announce for you regularly to check out the Association of Flat Track Derby Announcers (AFTDA). This organization is dedicated to building a community of respectable announcers and even has a code of conduct for its members to follow. This is a great resource for announcers and leagues alike.
If you are short on announcers or have had issues with your usual announcers, consider asking skaters to announce who aren’t playing that day. They already have a head start with their advanced knowledge of the game and some of the players on the track. You might find some great hidden gem announcers right in your own league! Just make sure they’re aware of the professionalism and unbiased attitude expected of them as announcers.
I encourage all of you to start (or continue) speaking up when announcers (or others in the derby community) exhibit behavior that could be categorized as sexual harassment. Always speak up. That could mean sending an email expressing your concern to the host league after the event, but I also encourage making your discomfort known at the event immediately. Tell a member of the host league. It may sometimes even be appropriate to tell an official as they are individuals very invested in the well-being of the skaters.
Mostly, I just want you out there in the Derby World to be aware. This is a problem in our community, and not one that should go unaddressed. What does YOUR roller derby look like? And if the environment you find yourself in doesn’t fit that image, what can you do to help change it?