The significance of Sports Illustrated

It may not have seemed like much.  There have been so many articles and features on women’s Roller Derby that it is hard to keep track:  in Antwerp this week, many in Australia and New Zealand, France, UK and certainly the US and Canada.

But in last week’s Sports Illustrated, under Faces in the Crowd, there was a matter-of-fact four-line paragraph next to the photo of Portia Hensley about her scoring the final points  for her RMRG team to beat the Oly Rollers in the WFTDA national championship game in Chicago.

No mention of bizarre behavior, tattoos, costumes, etc; just that an athlete scored the winning points for her team in a championship contest.

No Roller Derby (wink wink) or any denigrating descriptions.  No, these women are skating Roller Derby and we know what that means.

This may not be as important to you as it is to me.  The legitimacy of the game is not questioned, as it should not be.  No aspersions on the 681 leagues skating in 25 countries.

Photo by Sanja Gjenero from

Roller Derby had its most important impact in 1969 when Frank Deford wrote what was then the longest piece ever in Sports Illustrated on the game.  It became the basis for his book “Five Strides on the Banked Track”.  Frank portrayed the game and the skaters as they were, and it was a great article, but although it acknowledged the athleticism of the players, it was not an endorsement of the sport.

And when Robert Lipsyte, perhaps the best sports columnist ever on the New York Times wrote:  “Roller Derby defers no payments, it rings bells now.  It offers one-dimensional action and excitement without baseball’s fabricated mythology or that increasingly suspect insistence, in all major sports, on the integrity of the game.”

And this is how people accepted and enjoyed the game, and that was its eventual downfall.  Sponsors did not take it seriously and without continued television, it faded from sight.

The new Roller Derby may have started from a strange beginning in Texas early in this century, but it has grown full-blown into a team sport played and enjoyed by tens of thousands of players and hundreds of thousands of fans.

And it is very important to me that the game be acknowledged for what it is today: the incubator for what will become one of the world’s great sports.

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