Explaining roller derby to someone who speaks English is difficult enough. Explaining it to a native Swahili speaker is a whole new challenge.
After skating for about seven months, I’ve had the opportunity to live at a boarding school in rural Kenya for a few months this summer. Inevitably, a well-meaning student asked me if I played a sport. I said yes, and then I was faced with the difficulty of explaining derby to someone who had never seen skates, never heard of a skating rink, and who sure as hell wasn’t going to understand the intricacies of blocking, jammer start lines, or the composition of a pack.
“Pole pole, I am joking,” I backtracked, “I play basketball.”
Trying to explain roller derby through cultural and language barriers highlights the absurdity of it. But then again, when you get down to brass tacks, analyzing any sport results in the same conclusion. I once took a friend to an outdoor rock climbing area, which elicited the question, “So, the point is just to climb on the rocks?” Well, yes, but it’s something more than that. The same question can be asked of more traditional sports. “So, the point is just to put the ball in the net?” “So, the point is to carry the ball to the other side of the field?” “So, the point is just to hit the ball far enough away from the other team so that you can run around in a circle before you’re tagged?”
The term “sport” masks a fundamental truth about these hallowed pastimes, which is that all these activities that we pour our blood, sweat, and tears into are merely games. They’re games with bizarre obstacles that make the primary objective more challenging—rules like “you have to bounce the ball if you move” or “you can’t touch the ball with your hands.” Strictly speaking, sports are the athletic equivalent of backgammon, but instead of just using your brain muscle, you have to use your quadriceps, latissimus dorsi, triceps, etc.
You could argue that the only sport that is actually a pure test of athletic prowess is long-distance running. The competition boils down to a contest of whose muscles have been conditioned to enduring the highest level of pain for the longest amount of time. “The point” is to simply move your body the fastest, with the only limitations being your physical fitness level. The winner could probably be judged as the most evolutionarily fit. Congratulations, if a cheetah is chasing a pack of people, you probably won’t die first. While Darwin would approve of the competition, it’s not exactly my idea of a good time. Then again, who am I to judge another’s sadomasochist pleasure?
Why do we play this game? Why do we attend three two-hour practices each week and spend our free time working out? Why do we spend our weekends live-streaming games online, obsessing over equipment, and nursing bruised knees and egos? Is the point merely to pass as many players on the other team as possible? And for god’s sake, why do we strap wheels on our feet and helmets on our heads to do it?
Objectively speaking, gliding around is just plain fun. This holds true even when you’re bad at it. There’s a reason that kids populate skating rinks and flood skate parks; that bunny hills and half pipes exist. Kids know what adults forget—that it’s a thrill to escape the limits of our daily bipedal existence. Strap on wheels, skis, a skateboard, whatever, and as your forward velocity snowballs, you feel more and more like a superhero: you’re faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Imagine how fun it is when you’re actually good at skating. The instant fun factor isn’t true for every activity. If you can’t play violin or dodgeball well, it’s not fun. In fact, it’s painful.
A game, and this game in particular, is an excuse. Derby is an excuse to glide around, learn a new skill and keep physically fit. It’s an excuse to feel the wind on your face, the burn in your legs, and to wear hot pants. It’s an excuse to hang out with people dramatically different or similar to you and rename yourself with a pun. It’s an excuse to work toward a common objective with a team and to prove to yourself that you can commit and excel at something. It’s an excuse to hit people.
The Kenyan student didn’t need to know I played derby. The root of her question was an inquiry into whether I valued the universal notions that go along with playing any sport at all, such as teamwork, dedication, and strategy. Sure, I play basketball. Not well, mind you, but I understand the fundamental practice of committing to an athletic endeavor with a team. I choose to participate in this uniquely complex game that requires a 47-page handbook (including the four-page appendix) and a written test because it’s a kind of fun that defies description. Perhaps the quirks of the game attract quirky people, and that’s an added bonus.
The parameters of game play are irrelevant. Every game has ridiculous rules, and questioning them is like questioning the existence of gravity: in every case you’re going to get the same answer of “because that’s just the way it is.”* These rules create a controlled environment for the creation of something greater and more meaningful than the sum of its arbitrary parts.
Roller derby is an absurd spectacle—a universe unto itself with unique obstacles, rituals, and traditions—just like any other sport. “The point” of derby is beside the point.
*Please see your high school textbook for a more nuanced response to the question of gravity.