By G. Martinez Cabrera
I can see the Kezar Pavilion from my bedroom window. It isn’t a very attractive building. Its Spanish red tiles, chipped peach paint, and round arched entranceway make it look a little bit like those old stand-alone Taco Bells that were around in the ‘70s. As with a lot of buildings in big cities, you could pass by it a million times and never think about why it exists or why it matters or who it matters to. But like any old gym, long faded dreams of glory are everywhere in Kezar. You just have to know where to look.
This became clear to me after spending some time with members of the San Francisco Bay Bombers . If you’re of a certain age, you might remember the name. In the ‘70s, the Bombers playing at Kezar was an Event with a capital “E”. Roller derby was as big then as any other sport — some say bigger. Coaches and team managers who’ve been around the game for decades are quick to explain that in its heyday, the Bombers would get more television viewers for its games than the A’s, the Raiders, or the 49ers.
From the mouths of babes ... and Bombers. Video by Jamie Moore and G. Martinez Cabrera.
If you don’t already know, unlike some of the all-women leagues, traditional roller derby is a co-ed game played on a wooden, banked track. Each team has five skaters on the track at a time, with one skater from each team (the jammer) trying to lap opposing players. Points are given for every opposing player that the jammer is able to pass. There are variations, though for the most part, the rules have not changed since the 1930’s, when the term “Roller Derby” was coined.
But a lot has changed since then. Roller derby faded from public view in the late ‘70s, only to return recently as a primarily female, amateur sport with a DIY, third-wave-feminism sensibility. More traditional teams, like the Bombers, have struggled to keep going. Unlike many of the all-women teams, the Bombers pay their players -- and because they don’t play in roller rinks like the new teams, they have the added expense of having to build up and take down a track for every game. These added expenses had a lot to do with why the Bombers stopped playing in 1987 and did not have a regular season again until last year. And yet, for many die-hard Bomber fans, it’s almost as if no time had passed.
There are a couple reasons for this loyalty. Partly, it’s the Bomber’s women players. In roller derby, by and large, women are the stars, known for aggressive play. Aside from the legal body checks and blows, slapping and hair-pulling also abound. Some of the more raucous players have even been known to spit at fans of the opposing team as they roll by at high speed. As one of the coaches joked, “People come to Bomber games to see something unique: women fighting on skates.”
But there’s another reason why the Bomber fans are coming back to Kezar. Historically, roller derby has been open to people who didn’t feel they fit in. A common theme among older players and fans is that roller derby is a sport for the underdog and for the misfit: women in the ‘30s and ‘40s who wanted to be free of gender stereotypes, black and Latino athletes in the ‘50s and ‘60s who wanted to compete against whites, and openly gay men and women in the ‘70s who wanted to be who they were without jeopardizing their careers. All of them were welcomed into the ranks of roller derby. Because of this openness, people who’ve been around the sport for some time view the game in almost mythic terms. It was roller derby that allowed them and their heroes to be gods on the track, even if elsewhere they were anything but. So it’s not any big surprise that even over roller derby’s lean years in the ‘80s and ‘90s, certain fans and players stuck with the game. It’s also why they hope that some of roller derby’s past glory will return. “Derby is back,” so their hopeful chant goes.
But like most attempts to get back to the past, it would be difficult for traditional roller derby to make the type of comeback that these older fans, players, and coaches are hoping for. It isn’t for a lack of interest. Even without much publicity, games at Kezar have started attracting thousands, and there’s talk now that Bomber games will be televised on Channel 20 starting in January. But a sport known for being open to the underdog can’t stay the same in these ironic times. If you ask younger players why they came to roller derby, you get a completely different answer than you do from the older players. Younger players look at roller derby as a game. They’re passionate, but not as earnest as the older players are. And the new fans, though just as feisty as the older ones, seem more interested in the campiness of the sport than with identifying with its players.
Maybe these changes are necessary. Maybe roller derby is making a come back, after all, and in order to do so, it might have to stop looking at itself as the sport for underdogs and misfits. Maybe it should allow itself to be like any other entertainment. From my window, I can see that even old Kezar, the historic home of the Bombers, is getting a face lift -- new paint to cover old cracks. Buildings change; sports change. I guess dreams have to change as well.
See the Bay City Bombers yourself this weekend, when they play longtime rivals Brooklyn Red Devils at Kezar.