Three Local Ladies’ Sports Teams Are Tackling the Notion Women Shouldn’t Compete in Contact Sports Head-On
They’re called the suicide seats. Only the boldest members of the raucous, capacity crowd at Sterling, Va.’s Dulles Sportsplex dare occupy them. The others prefer to play it safer and sit further back from the track, the risk of a roller girl sent flying into their lap by an opponent's hit too much for them.
However, all in the mixed crowd of parents, friends, children, boyfriends and fans cheer wildly in anticipation of the roller derby bout between the Cherry Blossom Bombshells and the Secretaries of Hate. Some hold posters (“Go Braless … It’s the only way”) and wear t-shirts of the team to which they hold allegiance. Having begun assembling over an hour before, the pro-wrestling-style crowd reached a new decibel level as the brightly-wardrobed emcees for the evening introduced the audience to the nicknamed competitors. The handles cover all ends of the clever spectrum, referring to politics (Condoleeza Slice, Madeleine Allfight), to current events (Guantanamo Babe, Inconvenient Ruth) and, very loosely, to pop culture (Pam Backhand, Blondie Dangerslut). The simple yet effective pump-up chant of “Hate, Hate, Hate …” precedes the introductions for the Secretaries of Hate, donned in their Britney Spears-style gray skirts, tied-up white blouses and neck ties. Following them are the Cherry Blossom Bombshells, attired in hot pink tops and flower-printed skirts. As the action kicks off, it is not long before several suicide seat holders soon learn of their mistake.
These free-wheeling, hard-hitting women are the DC Rollergirls, the D.C. area-based, four-team flat track roller derby league, founded in January last year. Along with D.C.’s professional women’s football team, the D.C. Divas, and the Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby League, these women are part of a growing cultural phenomenon: women participating in contact sports.
It is a kind of athletic evolution 35 years in the making. In 1972, Title IX paved the way for many more female athletes to be given the same athletic opportunities as their male peers. It is only natural that, after sports like women’s soccer, softball and basketball have all achieved popularity and notoriety, women would next turn to contact sports.
“It’s the next step,” said Rich Daniel, the General Manager of the Divas.
The Divas themselves are a success story in the forum of female contact sports. They played their first full-contact game in 2001, and finished that season with an overall record of 3-5. Just five years later, in 2006, they won their first-ever championship, and soon after joined the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), a 28-team league founded in 2000. They capped off an undefeated regular season last Saturday with a 38-3 thrashing of the Cape Fear Thunder. This season, they have dominated their opponents, outscoring them 372-39.
Middle linebacker Ivy Tillman, a member of the team since 2001, says that those skeptical of the quality of play could end up being surprised. She said that many men have left games very impressed, likening the action to that of a men’s high school football game.
Playing a sport every bit as rough and physical as roller derby and football, but with zero padding, is the Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby Club (NOVA). Founded 25 years ago, it began more as a social club for women looking to try something new and stay in shape. More recently, however, the club has developed into one of the top women’s rugby teams in the entire country. They usually send six to seven players to the all-star team of their region, the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Football Union (MARFU), and two of their members, Dana Creager and Jennifer Starkey, have played for the United States “Sevens” team, a team that competes in international competitions.
“Sevens” is the seven-on-seven version of rugby that relies on quickness and spacing more so than regular rugby, which features 15 players to a side. “Sevens” is generally played by NOVA during the summer, while “15s” is played during the winter and spring seasons.
Unlike successful athletes of mainstream sports, however, these women do not receive salaries. The Divas refer to themselves as a professional football team, but only because they receive free hotel rooms and transportation on road trips. Women in all three sports carry on regular lives outside of the playing field.
Rachele Huelsman, better known on the Roller Derby circuit as Harley Quinn, is the Director of Development for the National Coalition of the Homeless when she’s not ducking elbows as a part of her squad Scare Force One. She credits having a “really supportive boyfriend” in helping her balance work with the two-to-three nights of practice per week for her roller derby team.
Tillman works as a Court Liaison for the Fairfax County Department of Family Services when she’s not tracking down ball carriers for the Divas. She compares working in addition to playing with the Divas to having two jobs.
“Because I love the game so much, I make it work,” Tillman said.
Creager finds time to teach high school math in Maryland when she’s not playing rugby. But between the NOVA club team, the Mid-Atlantic club, the U.S. club and agility and speed training, it’s a rare moment when she isn’t playing rugby. She said that all the sacrifices she has to make are worth it once she’s able to get out onto the field and play.
The women participating in these contact sports leagues come from varied athletic backgrounds. Tillman was a member of the track and field team during her freshman year at James Madison University, but was only playing on a local flag football team as a means of staying in shape when she heard there was a tackle football team being started in D.C. Creager had never played rugby until she and a friend decided to give it a try when she was in graduate school.
Huelsman has flipped from one end of the athletic spectrum to the other, as she was a competitive figure skater when she was younger, a sport requiring an elegance and soft touch not rewarded in roller derby.
“It was a big adjustment,” Huelsman said. “I was not very good with contact initially.”
Despite her own previous experience with sports, Huelsman believes that a “very small percentage” of the roller girls had a previous athletic background.
The smiles and looks of excitement on the faces of the roller derby fans are proof enough of the small-scale popularity of the sport. Its commercial appeal, as well as that of other contact sports, has yet to really be explored.
“Without question, [women’s football] is commercially viable,” Daniel said. He added that if mundane activities like Bingo and Rock, Paper, Scissors can make it onto TV, it’s only a matter of time before women’s football will be on as well.
However, in a sport like basketball for example, where men and women compete under the same rules and essentially offer a similar entertainment product, both at the college and professional level, women have achieved ratings and attendance figures far lower than men.
Last season, the Washington Wizards averaged 18, 372 fans per game, while the city’s WNBA franchise, the Washington Mystics, averaged about 3,920 fans over the course of their 34-game season, according to www.womensbasketball.com.
While the roller derby league is the newest and smallest of the three leagues, it may have the most potential. Its entertainment value is by far the greatest of the three, given the uniqueness of its nicknames and outfits. Its environment is not unlike that of professional wrestling, only with real action, and the nickname/character branding of each player lends itself to developing players into recognizable stars. For now, however, the league has no plans of expanding past its current four-team format.
To those participating in these three physical forums, the mere existence and success of their respective leagues has made it clear that the question asked of the women who comprise them should not be ‘Why play contact sports?’ but rather ‘Why not?’
“I think that women are tired of being told, ‘Women just don’t do that,’” Tillman said.
As for the traditionally-held view that women will get injured too easily in contact sports, Tillman says that it’s nonsense.
“Women’s bodies are much more limber than guys’,” Tillman said. She added that, in general, the Divas have not been hit too heavily by injuries.
In Saturday’s roller derby bout, the Cherry Blossom Bombshells ended up routing the Secretaries of Hate by a final score of 118-36. Throughout the night, the league’s youth was apparent during the game’s action, as many of the players are clearly new to their skates, as well as the sport itself. One element of the league that was on full display, however, was the positive, strong female image they want their league to promote. The most telling image of the entire bout was a young girl who had been in the adjoining arena at the Sportsplex for an indoor soccer game, peering in at the bout through the glass divider. Hers is a generation that will be aware of the opportunities in women’s contact sports from the very beginning, one of, if not the first, to be given such an opportunity.
Tillman says she is thankful for the chance to play football, a game that she had always felt she would excel at, but was never given the opportunity to play. And she isn’t about to let that chance pass her by.
“I don’t take it for granted for one second,” Tillman said.