Lily Rae is a writer and musician. She currently skates for Croydon Roller Derby under the name of Agent Cooper.
Lily Rae is a writer and musician. She currently skates for Croydon Roller Derby under the name of Agent Cooper. Vicky Walters

Roller derby has been hailed in the Guardian as 'creating sport's first male feminists'.

Given the misogyny rife within the sporting world, this is a pretty hefty claim to make – but as roller derby is still a fairly niche sport (albeit one which is rapidly gaining popularity all over the world), perhaps there is a possibility that roller derby could change the status quo.

You can't blame anyone with an interest in sport for wanting to take part – but as a derby player myself, I have to admit that playing with the boys has its pros and cons.

Men who do derby don't magically transform into feminist-supporters; no more than the dungaree sale at Urban Outfitters turns us all into lesbian witches.

The Origins of Roller Derby

Derby began as a co-ed sport in the 1920s. After its revival in the mid-2000s, when derby was played almost exclusively by women in hotpants and fishnets, you'd be forgiven for thinking that roller derby was more about entertainment than athleticism.

What is Roller Derby?

Roller derby is a high impact contact sport that involves two teams of five members skating (on quad skates) around a track in the same direction.

Only one player, the jammer, can score points by lapping opposing members of the team while the remaining team members help assist the jammer by blocking or defending.

A bout (or an official game) consists of 60 minutes of play, divided into two periods of 30 minutes played between two teams.

A scrimmage, or scrim, is the same components as a bout but is a practice game.

There are approximately 1,250 amateur leagues worldwide.

You'd also be forgiven for thinking that men's inclusion in derby today, with the Men's Roller Derby Association (MRDA) starting in 2007, has made it more of a sport than a spectacle, giving it a testosterone injection and taking away the emphasis on boutfits and makeup. (Fun fact: back then, men's derby was called 'Dangle Derby.')

To be blunt, these are lazy generalisations harking back to 2005 made by people who watched Whip It without ever going to a real game.

Top-level derby players rarely, if ever, wear fishnets and miniskirts – they figure out pretty quickly that 1) legit sportswear is not only more comfortable, but it's safer and 2) with roller derby, what you do is more important than what you wear.

Believe me when I say that the Fresh Meat girl turning up in a tartan miniskirt and ripped fishnets is going to learn the hard way what rink rash is – but, at the same time, you're not a better player just because you don't wear hotpants.

'You Skate Like A Boy'

Back to the boys – a man who plays a sport organised, played and maintained by women does not automatically become a shining paragon of male feminism.

At a mixed co-ed scrimmage recently (that means a 'men and women from all teams and of all abilities'), one of the male skaters asked the organisers if there were enough men to women – he was concerned that the women were more likely to get emotional over a hit, and cost the team valuable points.

As it happened, the gentleman in question gained so many penalties that he nearly fouled out, squared up to a referee, and his team lost the game. I have also found, playing with boys, that their game style is very different. They have a tendency to go solo on track, to hit hard rather than get in a wall to stop a jammer, and certainly all the men I know have a weakness for showboating! With co-ed, the games are completely different in all but name.

'Roller derby needs help from all sides, male and female, to evolve and improve' - Lily Rae
'Roller derby needs help from all sides, male and female, to evolve and improve' - Lily Rae Vicky Walters

A recent article by a female skater bemoaning the fact that it was getting more and more difficult to find women-exclusive was attacked from all sides by men and women alike. She was called a Feminazi (of course we now know there's no such thing), a sexist, a misandrist, and all manner of other things, despite the fact that she raised some excellent points – one being, in her words:

"We are creating a scenario where women who want to learn at an advanced level are given the option of play co-ed or don't play at all, or almost worse, the patronising 'play at a lower level you precious fragile thing'. Most of the feedback I've heard surrounding this is of the 'if you're not tough enough to play with the boys, then derby's not for you' nature – not only is this enormously disheartening (remember when derby catered for all women? Are you seriously suggesting that the boys are tougher than the women?), this misses the point entirely – I know I could take a hit from a man, and I could give it back with equal gusto, that isn't the point here. The point is that we are taking away from women that sacred place where they felt complete freedom and support which we worked so hard to build."

Here is a sportswoman who prefers to play a 'women's sport' with other sportswomen. In any other sport, she would be outnumbered by men.

Is that unfair?

Attitude Towards Women Across All Sports Need to Change - Not Just in Derby

Generally, I don't mind playing roller derby with boys. Although the ruleset is the same for men and women, the games become very different: physiologically, men and women hit and take hits differently.

Women's strength comes from our hips and thighs, and so a well-timed hip-check in the right place can send a big guy flying.

Men, conversely, play with their upper bodies; getting seal-clubbed by a guy is no picnic. Men might be bigger and stronger in general, but women are lower, nippier, debatably faster.

Co-ed games take you out of your comfort zone, but you get an all-over workout, and even now there is something strangely satisfying about knocking a man over.

Lily Rae currently skates for Croydon Roller Derby under the name of Agent Cooper
Lily Rae currently skates for Croydon Roller Derby under the name of Agent Cooper Vicky Walters/Lily Rae

I understand and sympathise with the argument against co-ed.

Why is it that roller derby, the apparently adopted national sport of the feminist movement, is accused of sexual bias when the sporting world is a breeding ground for misogyny?

Have we forgotten Fifa president Sep Blatter's suggestion on how to make women's football more appealing being that they "wear tighter shorts"? Have we let John Inverdale get away with his comment that tennis player Marion Bartoli was "never going to be much of a looker"?

Coverage of female sport is improving - last year, for the first time, the BBC showed the Uefa Women's Euros – but not enough, not yet. Should roller derby go mainstream, I fear that we'll be battling for our place in the sun yet again.

That isn't the fault of the men who play it. It's the fault of a sporting world which is neither impartial nor fair, and which has always valued men over women.

Roller derby needs help from all sides, male and female, to evolve and improve.

Currently UK women's teams vastly outnumber the men's teams, but I predict, and hope, that the men's derby movement will continue to grow. I also predict that it will become more appealing to the world of popular sport.

And, sadly, I fear that the mainstream will give male derby the kind of welcome it would never have given us.

And we'll be written off by lazy journalists, yet again, as fishnet-wearing punk chicks who pretend to be athletes, as light entertainment, playing a boys' game.

Lily Rae is a writer and musician. She currently skates for Croydon Roller Derby under the name of Agent Cooper.