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Response to Cohen: separating sport from sexuality in women's roller derby.

A few years ago, Cohen (2008) published the article titled, "Sporting-self or Selling Sex: All-Girl Roller Derby in the 21st Century." She spent the winter and spring of 2006 practicing and participating as a member of the Boston Derby Dames (BDD). She performed covert participant observation, failing to inform the skaters in the league as to her intents and goals as an academic researcher. She also presented her experiences and personal feelings while making the transition from a "freshmeat" (new recruit) to an accepted member of the organization. She also analyzed particular aspects of the league, and derby in general, for the tension between athletics versus sexuality. She concluded that "sex sells and the sporting self is sacrificed" (33). In this critique, I challenge her choice of such a controversial research method. I also question the findings Cohen presents, pointing to temporal curiosities and methodological anomalies in the examples she provides. In the end, I agree with part of what is discussed throughout her original paper, that roller derby is a complex and oftentimes contradictory social world to study; however, I take issue with the findings that she does choose to emphasize.

First, a disclaimer. Like Dr. Cohen, I am involved in the sport of women's flat-track roller derby. I started as a referee in late 2005/early 2006. Currently, I work as a referee, having taken the "derby name" of Professor Murder; since 2006, I have attended hundreds of practices, scrimmages and social events. I have also officiated over 100 public games, from pickup games attended by dozens of spectators to WFTDA Championship tournaments (from 2008 on). In that time, I have witnessed the sport grow from an amateur into a semi-professional organized sport, and witnessed significant cultural and social changes in nearly seven years' time. Situations similar to those Cohen describes in her article rang true for myself, from deep discussions about the design of uniforms to initiation rituals involving "freshmeat" skaters. I believe that the experiences I have had over the years allow me to contextualize and understand the arguments that Cohen makes in a way that helps shed light on some of the shortcomings of her article.


Cohen's article discusses some of the unique lexicon used by people involved in the roller derby world, but it also neglects to clarify some terminology that might be confusing to outsiders. "Leagues" are geographically-based organizations that practice and promote roller derby; league members can include skaters, coaches, referees, and other volunteers (statisticians, medical staff, etc.). "Teams" are specific groups of skaters (and coaches) who belong to a single league. In Cohen's article, the Boston Derby Dames are the league, while the teams are the Nutcrackers, Cosmonaughties, and Wicked Pissahs. Lastly, Cohen uses the term "quad skates," which became a term used to differentiate their traditional style (two pairs of wheels underneath the ball and heel of the foot, respectively) from the "inline," or "rollerblade" skate style. Lastly, the term "freshmeat" is commonly, but not universally, a term reserved for those who are in the early stages of joining a league. They may be new recruits, people who have not passed tryouts or physical requirements (as in Cohen's case), or those who are not members of any teams yet. Irrespective of local variation, what all "freshmeat" have in common is that they are outsiders seeking to become insiders within a specific roller derby league.

Readers will also benefit from a brief explanation of additional terminology not included in Cohen's piece. Teams themselves can be differentiated into "Intraleague" and "interleague" teams. For the Boston Derby Dames, the Cosmonaughties, Wicked Pissahs and Nutcrackers are all intraleague teams: at public bouts when they compete, they largely play against each other, and rarely play teams from other leagues. That responsibility largely rests on the interleague team (aka "travel team") known as the Boston Massacre. With few exceptions, interleague roller derby teams consist of an "All-Star" cast of the top skaters from each of the intraleague teams. They play primarily against other interleague teams from rival leagues in other cities.

The Use of "All-Girl"

Cohen uses the term "All-Girl" multiple times in the article: once in the title and second to describe the "All-Girls Flat Track Roller Derby world," adding that it is the term by which the sport is "known in North America" (25). She neglects to support that claim in the article, and does not provide a citation where one might find this phrase used to describe the sport. Since the inception of the WFTDA in November 2005, if not earlier, the sport has widely been referred to as "women's roller derby."

It is also often simply called "roller derby;" the renaissance of roller derby leagues has been almost entirely grounded in women's organizations. As a result, and defying gender normative expectations in sports, women's leagues became the default category. Male leagues, by comparison, have to specify the gender of the participants. The website of the Harm City Homicide declares that they are "Baltimore's first and only male flat-track roller derby team" (Harm City Homicide).

Since 2005, the Boston Derby Dames have been members of the Women's Flat-Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the national governing body of flat-track roller derby leagues. The name and mission statement emphasize the use of language ("women") that avoids labeling the participating athletes as juvenile or amateurish ("girls"; for information on the WFTDA's mission statement, see The name of the organization and its own mission statement emphasize that it is an organization of "women," not an organization of "girls."

Covert Participant Observation

Cohen decided to use covert participant observation as her method of studying and examining the Boston Derby Dames. Covert methods have a long history of controversy due to the use of deception, denial of informed consent, and potential risks posed to both researchers and their subjects. Cohen claimed that, "although sometimes considered controversial, largely due to the lack of notice given to the observed members of the group ... [it] is nonetheless a valued method of inquiry ... allowing access to groups that might otherwise not choose to be studied" (25). The controversy surrounding the use of covert methods is not sometimes a consideration. The history of covert participant observation elaborates the special conditions where covert methods are appropriate and the care that must be taken when using them.

The debate of the ethics of using covert research methods extends over half a century (Blumer 1980, 1982; Herrera 1999; van Deventer 2009). Blumer (1982) summarizes much of the controversy throughout the history of this research method:
 On ethical grounds [covert observational methods] have been
 criticized for violating the principle of informed consent, invading
 subjects' privacy, using deception, and betraying trust, possibly
 harming the interests of the group studied, and having unmeasurable
 effects on the investigator him or herself and the data collected. If
 subjected to scrutiny by Institutional Review Boards, covert
 observational methods are particularly likely to be the object of
 criticism and disapproval for these reasons (252).

The greatest rationale for using this controversial method centers around the availability and reliability of data. In order to justify the use of covert methods, a researcher must demonstrate that the data would be compromised or otherwise made unavailable by the use of overt methods. Covert methods should be limited to milieu where the researcher would either (1) close the door to research opportunities or (2) endanger themselves or their research subjects by announcing their role and their goals.

Additionally, covert methods are often used for sensitive (e.g., psychiatric patients) or illegal (e.g., mafia families) activities (Caudill et al. 1952; Ianni and Reuss-Ianni 1972). Perhaps the most well known example of covert methods is Humphreys' (1970) research on the lives of men who sought consensual sex with other men via anonymous encounters in public restrooms ("tea-rooming"). Although he contended that "there are no `good' or 'bad' methods, only 'better' or worse' ones," even he recognized and addressed many of the ethical concerns regarding his research (169). He also summarized the critical nature of protecting the confidentiality of his research subjects:
 In writing this report, I have exercised great care to conceal all
 identifying tags. This is not always an easy task when one is also
 concerned with avoiding distortion of his data, but it is an
 essential one. The question I have always asked in connection is:
 Could the respondent still recognize himself without having
 any others recognize him? I may have failed in a few cases to
 meet the first part of this standard, but I am confident that
 I could not have failed to meet the second (171-172).

Contrary to the care required when using covert methods, Cohen did not take the care to explain how she protected her research subjects. She may have omitted individuals from this article by name, but has caused potential harm to the Boston Derby Dames (as a whole) in the process. By specifically naming the public organization she performed covert research within, she labeled them as the organization that sells sex at the expense of the sport itself.

Instead of using covert methods, it would have been more suitable to mimic the overt participant observer role used by Broad (2001). The entirety of Broad's multi-method approach (participant observation, interviews, and surveys) would be one way that Cohen could have approached her research topic. Focusing solely on the differences in approaches to participant observation, Cohen stated her research subjects publicly yet covertly hid herself as a researcher in the field. Broad, on the other hand, "was known to the players are both a researcher and a player" during her fieldwork period, and does not provide any indication who her research subjects are, as individuals or as a team (185-186). These small differences would have taken a controversial and unjustified research method and replaced it with a sensible, valid one.

Personal Experiences

Naturalistic researchers tend to stress concepts like truth value, applicability, consistency, and neutrality in performing their work (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Greendorfer and Hasbrook 1991). However, as a participant observer, Choen stresses the inclusion of her personal feelings into the article, claiming that if she did not, "there is not much point to having participated" (25). She immerses herself into the narrative as a participant who joined the league, and her process from "freshmeat" to a skater, and even taking on her own derby name.

A discussion on hazing, and Cohen's personal experience with that, would have been a better focus for this aspect of her research. There is a large field of research on hazing in established sports, both at the collegiate and professional levels (Crow and Rosner 2002), but focusing on a newly-emerging, all-female sport would have provided a new and unique perspective to the literature. Moreover, comparing how this operates in an amateur sport, where participation is voluntary and costs incurred by the skaters (equipment, uniforms, etc.), to in collegiate and professional sports, would be another possible route to take. This sort of comparative opportunity is not utilized, however. Following the section on being "freshmeat" and taking on a derby name, Cohen removes herself (as a participant observer) from narratives on sexual orientation in roller derby, equity versus competitive models of sports, and the sexual marketing of roller derby.

Temporal Relevance and Claimsmaking

Cohen presented evidence of the marketing of sexuality in roller derby via descriptions of BDD promotional posters. She stressed the sexual "reveal" in the poster for one public bout, "Red Scare on Swan Lake." Earlier, however, Cohen informed readers that she made contact with BDD in December 2005 and was "a member of the Cosmonaughties teams during the 2006 Winter and Spring seasons" (25).

The BDD website has an archive of posters for events it has promoted. Red Scare on Swan Lake was a promoted bout between the Nutcrackers and Cosmonaughties. It took place in late Fall of 2006 (on November 11), outside of the time frame that Cohen was an active member of BDD according to her article. In the time frame she provides, there is only one archived bout poster (based on publicly searchable records from the BDD web site, this is the only bout listed during the time frame when Cohen was active with the league ), for an event titled "Shamrock Showdown." The bout poster for this event features a single quad skate, with a shamrock icon on it, and a rainbow (composed of colored medical bandages) pouring into the skate. This omission seems more temporally pertinent to Cohen's participant observation than an event that happened several months after the research period had ended.

In presenting information about the marketing of the league and drawing attention to their events, Cohen argues about the image of "sexy tough girls, ready to brawl" (32). But the poster for the event that occurred during her research period, Shamrock Showdown," does not support the claim Cohen makes that it is "problematic" to promote roller derby "in venues such as a local ice cream shop ... is premised on the belief that roller derby is a family-friendly sport" (32).

Given one bout that happened during her time as a member of BDD, and several other examples between Shamrock Showdown and the end of 2006, a superior approach would involve content analysis of a selection of several posters, whether solely from BDD or from a variety of leagues. Such a method could be used to assess the messages contained in each poster, from the title of the event to the images in the poster, the outfits, and the body posture(s). Discussing a single event poster does not adequately support claims of marketing sexuality, particularly when there are relevant counterexamples from the time frame when Cohen was active in the league.

Overlooking Sport

Cohen concluded the article by stating that "ability is not what sells the sport and sexuality ... is what does," as well as stating more bluntly that "sex sells and the sporting-self is sacrificed" (33). The reader only need to return to Cohen's description of her immersion into the world of women's roller derby to find a deep description of activities and attitudes that promote and reinforce the idea that she truly is developing a sporting-self, and that it does not appear to have been sacrificed. This is evident in "freshmeat" rituals, discovering an emphasis on a competitive sport, and also the emergence of a national governing body for the sport.


The ritual Cohen describes upon joining the league is functional for the maintenance of team sports. The public mockery of the "freshmeat" stage is degrading to the new recruits and places power in the hands of the established team members. Creating barriers to entry helps maintain the cohesion of the in-group (the skaters), and assists in filtering out recruits who lack the physical or psychological acumen to participate fully. Although they promoted an equity-based model of sport, that doesn't have to, and clearly does not, include people who are not members of the Boston Derby Dames.

The freshmeat process is a ritual process by which participants are deemed "deserving/undeserving" or ready/not ready" to join the league, based on a combination of group-orientation and physical ability on skates (Ridgeway 1982). Insider/outsider status is established structurally and attitudinally. Cohen notes "the rules of BDD only allowed new skaters to join the rest of the league in regular practices and drills once they had attended eight Freshmeat practices (which were held twice a week), passed a skills test, and were allowed to take a derby name" (26). Finally, the rationale for the "freshmeat" ritual emphasizes sport over sexuality. She briefly acknowledges, "this process of segregation was about more than ensuring a safe learning environment for new skaters," but then moves on to emphasize that it is also about "targeting new skaters as a demeaned population" (26). Slack and Parent (2006) emphasized organizational goals in team sports, and pointed to individual (in derby, the skater) and subunit (in a derby league, a team) appraisals as a means of promoting the larger organizational goal (typically winning) (38-39). Cohen does not acknowledge that winning is regarded by members of BDD, nor does she consider the possibility that the freshmeat/veteran separation ensures a safe learning environment for the veteran skaters as well. There are many manifest and latent functions of this form of segregation, and demeaning new recruits is only one such possibility.

Competitive Versus Equality-Based Models of Sport

Although an amateur sport, women's roller derby more closely resembles traditional sport models by incorporating processes of hazing and/or initiation that help separate outsiders from insiders. Cohen frequently mentions the conflict between an "equality/non-competition model" and a "competition model" of sport for BDD, but does not elaborate on these models. The omission of the BDD travel team, the Boston Massacre, from her discussion may be the missing puzzle piece.

Competition and cooperation do struggle to co-exist in many roller derby teams. The contradictory goals of intraleague and interleague play contribute to this divide. Intraleague teams primarily compete against one another; to that end, the team loyalties and decline of an "all-for-one one-for-all" attitude described by Cohen is largely accurate (27). However, most interleague team rosters are also members of the rival interleague teams. Gorham Girls Roller Derby, based out New York City, consists of multiple intraleague teams. The 2008 WFTDA national champions, the Gotham Girls All-Stars, is comprised of select members from each of those 4 intraleague teams.

Cohen did discuss the desire, expressed by some skaters, to practice as a single unit, but the context is missing. All members of BDD are current or potential teammates on the Massacre, irrespective of membership with the Cosmonaughties, Wicked Pissahs, or Nutcrackers. This omission is peculiar, given that the Boston Massacre had two bouts during the Winter and Spring of 2006, while Cohen was performing her research: a loss to the Fabulous Sin City Rollergirls (Las Vegas, NV) on December 17, 2005, and a win over Providence (RI) Roller Derby on April 30, 2006 (Flat Track Stats, n.d.). The BDD website corroborates this information, dating the origins of the Boston Massacre to October 2005, prior to the start of this research.

Emergence of the WFTDA

The United Leagues Council (ULC) was officially rechristened the Women's Flat-Track Derby Association in November 2005. The Boston Derby Dames were accepted as members into the WFTDA in the same year. This information provides the background for an organization (BDD) focused on competing at both the local and national levels. Resources for volunteer-run roller derby leagues (e.g., equipment, practice space, venues for public bouts) are difficult to attain. The further burdens of time and finances for travel team events create additional strain on leagues. Emphasizing (i.e., by investing the bulk of their time and resources in) the athletic and competitive aspects of roller derby, at a local as well as national level, reinforces that BDD indeed stresses "traditional" sport.

Overstating the Selling of Sex

The main narrative of Cohen's article is of the tension that exists between women's sport and sexuality. Sport suffers when sexuality is emphasized, and sport is enhanced when the focus moves from women's bodies, outfits, and appearances to their performance, skill, or determination to compete. Cohen recognizes and details three domains where this contention exists in women's roller derby: the sexual diversity of skaters, the visible body of skaters, and the tension between skaters and males as volunteers or observers of the sport.

Queer Roller Derby

The sexual orientation of derby skaters is not a contested space according to Cohen. "[D]erby has become more associated with heteronormativity" (31). She does not reinforce this claim with her experiences as a participant observer, however, opting to quote a newspaper source from one member of a Pennsylvania-based league (and not BDD). She acknowledges that this is not the case, however, by pointing to leagues that participate in local gay pride parades and alluding to leagues looking CC to recruit lesbian and bisexual women" (31).

The sexuality of female athletes is a difficult territory to negotiate. But if roller derby is heteronormative, it is a consequence of general societal heteronormativity found in any women's sport; one that coincides with the fear of negative social sanctions for committing gender transgressions. Young (1995) quotes University of Massachusetts professor emeritus of physical education Pat Griffin as saying "women's athletics is, in fact, held hostage to fear of the word' (26).

Yet women's roller derby does not conform to heteronormativity the way other sports might. The resurgence of women's roller derby as a sport is rooted in a counter-cultural ethos that flaunts its nonconformity. Sexuality is one location where this takes place. At a weekend-long roller derby event in 2007, dozens of pickup games were played. One of the pickup teams consisted solely of out and proud lesbians: the Troglodykes. Following this event, derby skater Injure Rogers started The Vagine Regime (an informal pick-up team of queer roller derby skaters). In Rogers' words, they are "a collective of queer derby folks from around the world" that serve the purpose of, among other things, "a way for queer derby folks to stay connected, to support each other, and to feel like a community" (Siouxsie 2008). These examples closely resemble Broad's (2001) "gendered unapologetic."

Watson (2005) defines 'queer' in a way that encompasses these contested or inconsistent aspects of sexuality in roller derby. "Being 'queer', then, is perhaps to be like someone in therapy; that is, to be a person in flux, contesting boundaries, eliding definition and exhibiting the constructedness of categorization" (74). There is little doubt that roller derby welcomes and includes these skaters, making claims of 'heteronormativity' quite tenuous.

It is possible that in 2006 roller derby was associated with heteronormativity as Cohen claims. However, this claim is worthy of its own study for several reasons. First, it is not fully explored in Cohen's article--the evidence in support of the heteronormativity argument could be much stronger. Second, while the history of other women's sports supports claims of heteronormativity (Young 1995; Hall 1996; Lawler 2002), other research shows where heteronormativity is rejected or contested (Broad 2001; Kauer and Krane 2006; Ravel and Rail 2006, 2007, 2008; Edwards and Jones 2009). Such mixed findings mean that further, deeper scientific inquiry is necessary to shed light on how gender identity and sexual identities are managed by women in roller derby.

Body Shape and Size

Cohen recognized that body sizes and shapes that don't conform to sexually idealized female forms are lauded among derby skaters. "Curvaceous skaters were not chastised for being larger ... but commended on their strength" (32). Praise for larger body types diminishes the sexualized environment that Cohen argues pervades in roller derby, and instead reinforces how participants are athletes competing in a sport. As athletes, they embrace that which helps organizational goals in a sport (winning).

This is yet another area that can be further explored on its own. Cohen's arguments about ideal female body types are well made. Having confronted the "celebration of different shapes and sizes," however, it appears that she is not deterred from the conclusion that the roller derby experience is "one of essentialized femininity" (32).

Sexualized Clothing and Male Involvement

By focusing on the sexual aspect of roller derby, Cohen discusses the contradictions of derby that make it "both counter-cultural and concurrently mainstream" (31). Interpreting the clothing worn by derby skaters, she does not consider the possible functional interpretation of clothing choices that derby skaters make; it is all "sexualized or revealing clothing" (32). This perspective assumes that the outfits are chosen for their appearance and no other reason. On the other hand, many skaters wear tight-fitting leggings, whether fishnets, hose, or spandex, in order to reduce or prevent the bruising, rashes, and injuries that occur when a skater, having fallen or being knocked over, slides on the skating surface (a phenomenon known as "rink rash"). She does not explore the possibility that functional explanations exist, leaving only sexualized reasons are the only possibility.

Cohen makes an important point when she points out that practices are restricted from the presence of men, unless those men are coaches or referees. This environment creates both a safe space as well as one in which the presentation of a sexualized self should be limited; after all, there are few, if any, men around to appeal to. Despite the lack of men, Cohen remarks that she "noticed that many girls were wearing skirts, very short shorts, and fishnet stockings in various states of disrepair ... I was the only one in the room dressed in anything resembling 'traditional athletic apparel" (26). She later links the clothing worn by the skaters to "heteronormativity presented through the selling of sexuality to a predominantly male fan base" (33). This fails to acknowledge the potential problems with the sexuality presented at practice that few or no men attend. Cohen's argument becomes that it is self-evident that the clothing choices are sexual in nature, even in the absence of males to appeal to.


Roller derby is a fascinating sport to choose to study. As a contact sport it does indeed violate social norms for women's sport (Lawler 2002). As a sport with a large contingent of openly gay athletes, it violates social norms of sport in general (Young 1995; Broad 2001). Cohen is certainly the first sociologist to try to tackle the resurgence of roller derby that started in 2001, and thus the first to confront this complex and unique women's sport.

Nevertheless, her research as presented made use of a highly controversial research method with minimal justification, omitted events that occurred during the specified research period and includes events that happened afterward. Elements of sport within roller derby are minimized, and the "raunch sexuality" emphasized. Each of these areas is potentially worthy of much further research and exploration in the context of sport and roller derby, given a stronger theoretical foundation and more focused research methods.


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Michael M. Wehrman, Cabrini College


Michael M. Wehrman, Ph.D. Cabrini College Department of Sociology and Criminology 610 King of Prussia Rd. Radnor, PA 19087


Phone: (610) 902-8578
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Title Annotation:Original Research Article
Author:Wehrman, Michael M.
Publication:Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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