Will the real Roller Derby please stand up?


I have seen every version of Roller Derby except for the very first, as I was too young to have seen it before Leo and Damon clarified the rules as a five on five game (men and women competing).

Well, I haven’t seen MADE, but can I assume it is much like OSDA?

So what’s the point; the game has evolved in different ways (Leo was a generous god; his game was not written in stone never to be questioned by anyone or changed; otherwise there would be courses in nocreateaderby in schools today.)

In fact, he wasn’t thrilled with my version.  But that is another story.

Much of the original game during its marathon phase was based upon the rules of the six-day bike race:  bikers rode on a steeply banked track until one of them felt the time was right and sprinted out of the pack to gain a lap on the others.  The chases and the pack moving is what made it exciting.  When the rider caught the back rider on the original group, he gained the lap.

It was called a jam; there was not time limit.

And there was no time limit when the original marathon Roller Derby skaters jammed; they either caught the pack or fell back.

The game as put forth in the 1937 rules change lasted about 20 years.  5 skaters on a side, a jam would occur when any skater broke out ahead, and he (or she) had 2 minutes catch the pack and for each member passed, gained a point (some fluctuation in that rule).  Anyone could jam, anyone could block.

In our game, we added helmets to designate positions:  solid black pivot, who could jam or block; 2 team color helmeted blockers, who could help their jams break out, stop oncoming opposing jammers, could only perform within 20 feet of the pack (front or back); and the two striped-helmeted jammers, who could score, but also block when required.  and the jam time was eventually gut to 60 seconds because the speedy jammers could catch the pack too quickly  (go to youtube.com, check out Roller Derby Rules 1970, an excellent play by play call, about 2 minutes).

. And although there were frequent jams, scores were low because there was always the availability of jamming skaters from both teams.  And some of the most exciting jams were when there was no scores.

Today’s WFTDA version has led to different strategies:  jammer out, catches pack in 20 seconds or less, and if no other jammer, can lap the field continuously within the 2 minute time limit.

Defensive strategies are different with different leagues: engagement, passive offense, picket line, (stroller derby?), whatever.  BAD girls vs Montreal, both teams used engagement which I feel made for an exciting and fan-friendly (damn fans) game; as did Wasatch vs Sacred City, Victorian vs Terminal City, and others I watched.  So obviously I am not a huge fan of the passive game, although many of the games I have seen have great pack play!  (blockers, please never stop what you should be doing during the jam!).

USARS has developed a game closer to the original, but still with aspects of the modern game.  TXRD pretty much skates the original banked track game, but has added some fun and crazy things…..the fans love it and keep coming back.

Obviously I love what LA Derby Dolls and the banked track league are skating:  Elements of all, including the sixty-second jam, great pack play and understanding, controlled (I hope) official times out, immediate substitution at end of jams.  The game flows well, and even though the one I saw in LA was one-sided, all fans (and not just home town) stayed till the end, because the jams and pack play were so well executed, and really, that is what this game is all about.

Now I have seen some of the other cities playing this game and not doing so well.  But obviously this is a contest of skill and execution, and I know that other leagues can compete; look at Gotham Girls, a flat track league, success against LA.

Now don’t get your dander up (wow, that is an old one), my blog, my preferences.  The basic flat track game continues to spread like wildfire around the world, and the players, nso’s and fans like it, or it wouldn’t succeed.

Let’s see what the future brings, and I don’t care what it is, as long as it is Derby.

Below is photo by Roller Derby historian and photographer Andrew J. Epstein….check out his facebook page.  Joan Weston of the Pioneers and boy promoter, 1971.

6 comments on “Will the real Roller Derby please stand up?

  1. The odds are pretty good that one of the biggest reasons your father turned his skating marathon into a game is that he’d lost a lawsuit back in 1938 against someone who was calling a skating marathon a “roller derby.” The defendant in that suit’s lawyer(s) produced enough evidence in Chicago newspapers calling pre-1935 skating marathons “roller derbies” that the trademark wasn’t standing up against all the “existing artwork.”

    Someone found the case on Lexis Nexis…

    • you couldn’t be more wrong, Poobah. in a very strange way he won that lawsuit, but that is a secret that I won’t reveal to you. The name Roller Derby as a trademark for skates and other merchandise is still in effect, and the mark is held by the Roller Derby Skate Company, which is why if any skate manufacturer calls it “Roller Derby Skate” they get a very gentle letter from the skate company’s lawyer.

      The reason that the marathon evolved into a game was because my father and his managers gauged the crowd reactions as the skaters themselves started teaming up against the faster skaters (ala NASCAR today) and started blocking which was not in the original game. Sometimes you just have to listen to the fans.

      By the time the rules were changed in 1937 the game had pretty much evolved, and it was formalized by Leo and Damon over a 20 day period as they watched the games each nights and added or withdrew elements.

      The lawsuit story is a doozy.

    • If you’re talking about Seltzer v. Sunbrock, we’ve referenced that in the Wikipedia article for years. It was not a trademark case over the name Roller Derby, at least not on its face. Rather, it was a copyright and unfair competition case filed by Seltzer against Sunbrock, a competitor who was organizing roller derby events in Los Angeles.

      The copyright question was over whether Sunbrock infringed Seltzer’s copyright when publishing, in event programs, game rules that were substantially similar to those in Seltzer’s programs. Seltzer’s programs included not just rules, but also dramatic descriptions of gameplay, and he argued that this made the whole thing an original, dramatic work that Sunbrock couldn’t copy, even in part.

      The unfair competition question was over whether attendees of Sunbrock’s events were misled into thinking they were attending Seltzer’s events.

      Both questions ended up hinging on the degree to which the concept of a roller derby was uniquely Seltzer’s. His event programs had elements of originality, and his rules some novelty, but a court-appointed special master found that the core of the game was just too similar to past competitions in the public domain, so the rules couldn’t be copyrighted. For the same reason, the court found that the public couldn’t be said to have been duped into thinking Sunbrock’s version of roller derby was actually Seltzer’s.

      I’d be interested to hear how this ended up being a win for Seltzer…

      • Mike, this is certainly getting away from the point….no one is disputing that anyone can play Roller Derby as the game is really generic and the action not-patentable, and I don’t think the readers are really interested in that. Basically, Poobah’s supposition on why the game evolved based on that lawsuit is incorrect.

        As I stated, I probably am the only one around who really knows the story of the lawsuit, and it is not pertinent to Roller Derby thereafter and today.

        And my father was never a film publicist. He was a salesman for Fox in the Northwest when he was just 17, and later owned three theaters with his partner in Portland, prior to the walkathons and Roller Derby.

        Can we get back to the sport now?

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