Sunday, August 23, 2009

Surviving "Derby Drama" - part 1

A group of people, united by a common goal, puts aside all their personal foibles, agendas and differences and successfully works in harmony to accomplish the various tasks required to achieve their goal. Just another example of the kind of peaceful success story that committees, councils and governments around the world see every day, right?

Well, maybe not. But hey, at least only dudes pull this kind of B.S.

Well god dang.

It's sad but true, where two or more people are gathered and decisions must to be made, angry words and/or fists will fly faster than a jammer with rocket skates. As awesome as roller derby is and as much as its devoted practitioners love it, leagues have to deal with the stresses of differing opinions, conflicting personalities and PMS-fueled hissy fits pretty much from day 1. It is called Derby Drama and it threatens to destroy leagues and drive off promising skaters every day. It is a big enough and important enough subject that I am making this a two-part article. Next Monday I'll take on the subject of "On-track Drama" but in order to even get that far, you have to survive the effects of this week's subject which is...

Organizational drama

Derby News Network co-founder and roller derby guru Hurt Reynolds spent one whole year driving and flying around the continental United States visiting rollerderby leagues of varying ages, attending bouts and talking to skaters and support personnel with varying amounts of experience. (See the details of the epic journey here.) The subject matter discussed in all these different locations and situations was so homogeneous that he gave the phenomenon the name, "Same Conversation, Different City." Derby-loving folks of all genders, sizes and orientations were fed up with blah blah and couldn't believe that so-and-so is doing such and such and they were gonna quit if the *&@ing board of directors didn't change yadda yadda, on and on ad infinitum ad nauseum. I convey this not to dwell on the negatives but as a segue to the first of 3 important points:
  • Having Derby Drama is the norm, not the exception.
    As unique as your problems seem, as bad as things get and as much as you think no other league could possibly be as fuxx0red as yours, trust me, you are not alone. Blowups and throwdowns have formed over minimum attendance requirements, uniform selection, venue lease negotiations, MRSA outbreaks, poster artwork, bout eligibility, afterparty venue, t-shirt sizes, sign fonts and innumerable other issues both big and hilariously trifling.
  • Having Derby Drama does not mean your league is doomed.
    The founding leagues in the current rollerderby renaissance started in 2001 and the founding leagues in the flat-track explosion started in 2003. They exist and thrive to this day despite going through the same kind of in-fighting we see today and without the benefit of more experienced leagues to turn to for guidance.
  • If not acknowledged and addressed, Derby Drama can divide and conquer you.
    See the 2 different years in the previous point? Flat-track rollerderby exists because sometimes problems are not rectified before the breaking point is reached, in this case causing members of TXRD to break off and form the Texas Rollergirls. (See the documentary "Hell on Wheels" or read this if you don't know the story.) Now take a peek at this map, zoom in a bit and look for places where there is more than one league marker in a medium-sized or small market. In many places where the population isn't really big enough to support it, you'll find two different leagues are competing for players and fans because when the doodoo started to hit the fan inside the first local league, no one turned off the doodoo machine or moved the fan.
So what is the secret to thriving in the face of organizational derby drama? There isn't any one easy answer to that question but there is a fundamental concept that is definitely the starting place: You have to build your league to succeed. Getting the proper infrastructure in place may be the toughest part of building a new league or rebuilding a broken one but it's the most important thing you can do for yourselves. Think about it this way: If you had just started a 500 mile drive and got a flat tire, what would get you to your destination faster, continuing to drive at 40 mph on the flat tire or stopping to change the flat and driving 80?

Here's a hint.

Take the time to set up an architecture that can handle known problems and can adjust to handle new ones. It can be the difference between spending your time putting on roller derby bouts and spending it medicating your depression bouts. Elements of such an architecture tend to include but are not limited to the following.
  • Distributed Governance
    That's a fancy way of saying "Democracy, not monarchy." When one person tries to oversee every aspect of running a league, they either get overwhelmed and have a nuclear meltdown or else they become "the league tyrant" who everyone starts to resent for being a domineering beeeeyotch. Appointing one person to manage and have final say over each required element of operation (marketing, finance, sponsorship, etc.) allows each of those elements to get the full attention of someone with the juice to make on the fly decisions to meet deadlines and rectify last-minute problems rather than waiting for "Queen Bitchface" to get around to it.
  • Conflict management
    Sometimes a well-meaning group is doing something unintentionally stupid that is hurting the league and ignoring those who oppose it. Sometimes one nutbag is being a douche at practice and taking a dump on the floor at every afterparty. Whatever the situation, sometimes an issue is too heated to be handled rationally by those immersed in it. When this happens, a third party is required to help the two sides achieve perestroika or at least detente. Some leagues have a grievance officer, some have a conflict committee but whatever the name or makeup of it, the existence of a designated arbitrator can defuse volatile situations before they blow up and wind up costing you a team member or a friend.
  • A written statement of goals/values
    Known in the corporate world as a mission statement or core values, this can be one of the most helpful things you can have to help make decisions that are consistent and in the agreed-upon best interest of the league. Take nominations from league members as to what the most important aspects of rollerderby are, discuss them a bit, then hold an open vote on those aspects and assemble a statement or list that includes the top 5 or so vote-getters. Once you have that, you suddenly have a powerful guidance system for making decisions that no one can get pissy about because they voted on and agreed to the system. Let's pretend that a fake league named the Awesomeville Derbysquaws has voted on and approved the following list of league values: Competitive Excellence, Fun, Fitness, Safety and Friendship. The Derbysquaws now have a stated point of reference to use when ideas are presented. If someone makes a formal proposal that says, "Let all kick a beehive and eat lard sandwiches," a quick look at the league values shows that this would violate the values of Fun, Fitness and Safety (and probably blow the crap out of Competitive Excellence and Friendship for that matter) and would therefore be rejected. If someone else proposes, "Let's practice twice a week instead of once a year and actually start wearing helmets from now on," this would be accepted because it satisfies the values of Competitive Excellence, Fitness and Safety. This is a highly simplified and exaggerated example of course but the concept is accurate. Decision making becomes uncontroversial and impersonal (in a good way) because it is based on the agreed-upon league values and not the fact that SOMEONE ate too much fiber and blew non-stop fart rings around the practice track last night.
I feel I could go on for another eight paragraphs of further detail on just part 1 but that would be a mistake. Every city has unique people with unique needs and wants that need to be considered. Individual solutions many vary but the concepts here are a good starting point for building your league to succeed. See you here next week for part 2!

(edit: Here's a link to Surviving Derby Drama part 2)

Okay derby veterans, time for you to share your wealth of experience in the comments and save a teetering league from a premature grave!


  1. Great article, but the map on the NRG website is woefully outdated in my area, the Southeast. There are several of the infamous league splits not shown, and a few extinct leagues that should be removed. Do you rely on leagues to send you info, or do you search for it yourself?

  2. Hey Crotch (can I call You Crotch?), this is a great chance to give everyone a peek at what's in the Derby helper queue. Coming soon, Derby League Map 2.0! I'll be soliciting league info from everyone when that day comes.

  3. excellent article keep up the good work!!

  4. Great article! I can't wait to share this with my teammates. Very insightful :)

  5. Great article and great advice. The truth is that although you can come up with policies, procedures and mission statements, unless people follow it, especially those who are in management of the league, it's pointless. Whose going to judge the judge afterall? Our league ended up becoming a clique of people who if you weren't kissing their ass, you were demonised and scapegoated. They lost a lot of people that way, but they didn't seem to mind. Guess they will continue to lose. It's sad to see in-fighting and out-politics ruling and the fun being sucked out of a wonderful sport.

    I've pretty much given up on it playing, too much drama and petty bullshit politics and not enough skating.

  6. Nice article. Thanks.

    Also, what you have described (and its remedies) is by no means unique to roller derby.

    This is a particular problem where a league (or other community group) is run by volunteers. Some of resentment can start building because people are dividing their time between the thing they love (derby) and this other vital (non derby) stuff like administration, logistics, etc.
    Once the resentment starts to build, any small conflict can act as a lightning rod for the pent up emotion.

    I would also like to add that team building works to keep harmony. But you gotta take people out of their own skins first. For a team building exercise to be most effective, it should be off skates, away from regular haunts and also tap into different skills/habits - all these things help break patterned behaviour.

  7. This was really insightful - As someone relatively new to derby, I have not experienced a great deal of this yet, though I already know it exists, and as the "shiny" wears off for me I have no doubt I will see it and probably participate in it too - Hopefully I will always remember to try and keep the best interests of the team in mind, screw any personal agenda that I may have, and remember that we all got into doing this because of something that unites us all - Because we FREAKIN' LOVE DERBY!!!

  8. So i passed this on to my league and now the bastids are asking me to find part two has it been written yet where can I find it?

  9. I went back and added a link to Derby Drama part 2, hope that helps.

  10. I'm in the situation where we're (board) are trying to develop the governance structure and there's a bunch of noisy people that are totally willing to shit on everything we're trying to do without putting their hands up to help.