As a sideline to Roller Derby in Oakland, I had a small 3-person PR firm: Gerald Seltzer and Associates (fancy huh?). It was Herb Michelson (who wrote “A very Simple Game” an oral history of Roller Derby from the skaters’ point of view…..Try and find it if you can); and a copy writer.
We represented the Oakland Clipper Soccer team, the first professional League in the US that was major league (Pele played with the New York team), and several other clients, including the fight promoter in Oakland. He came to us to see if we could help him get permission to have Muhammad Ali fight an exhibition bout at the Alameda Naval Station as a benefit. This is when Ali couldn’t fight because of his refusal to go into the army.
Herb and I met with Ali at Pelosi’s, a restaurant in Oakland that featured a good steak and potato for $1.25 lunch, so you know that was a number of years ago. We laid out a plan on how we would try to utilize all of our contacts and efforts to make the fight happen. Ali said to us “you have the connections and the complexion”. I am sure that was not the first or last time he said that expression, but it keeps coming back to me. Unfortunately, we got close to make the fight happen, but it was stopped by pressure from the federal government.
I am of a different generation than most of my readers and therefore the racial division in America is probably a lot more apparent to me than those of you who have grown up in a more tolerant society. We all seem to be more comfortable being around people of our own ethnicity or culture or education, but think how difficult it is to be a different color. For those who watch the Larry David show, I am reminded of when he parked his car in a lot and a black man walked behind and he turned and set the alarm….Wanda Sykes came out screaming at him that he was a racist and wouldn’t have done that if a white man had walked by his car.
Will we ever have a color-blind society? I am not sure. When I first started promoting Roller Derby we were contacted by Jay Lee Friedman out of Atlanta to establish s team in the South that would play in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. Using the most popular stars that we had available, we presented the strongest possible team. It was coached by Ronnie Robinson, son of the great fighter Sugar Ray) and featured Bob Woodberry, a tremendous physical skater, as well as a great women’s team. The prejudice we encountered was overwhelming, and we had to cancel most of the dates.
Starting with my father, Roller Derby has been integrated since the 40’s. But often not without protest, not only from management but from the skaters themselves. They worried that if too many black skaters were on a team, the audience wouldn’t come. To be honest, that never was a consideration with us, as we were just happy to get the talent. And Frank Deford in his piece in Sports Illustrated made a point to mention (this was 1969) how both home and visiting teams were integrated and the fans even in Richmond, Virginia, cheered for all the skaters on the home team, and booed all of the visitors.
This brings me to something that disturbs me about the current women’s Roller Derby. Why are there so few women of color in the leagues? Is it because of the cost of continuing to support the league, that there are not the roller skating opportunities; I know the talent is there, about 40% of our skaters were African-Americans.
I have been taught not to generalize, but if anything the rollergirls are super tolerant. And I have seen great skaters of color in recent tournaments…….maybe you have the answer.