Of course roller derby is a sport. Ask any of the rough, devil-may-care bruisers of the Hard Knox Roller Girls, the city's premier all-female flat-track league. There's Napalm Blownapart, who may have the best moniker in all of extreme sports, and then there's the inimitable Madame Mayhem, who makes opponents eat floorboard with all the art and grit she can muster, hitting with the force of someone twice her size. She'll take over as league president for the upcoming 2008 season, which should be a good fit, because Madame Mayhem has been smashing dainty heads since day one.
At the inaugural bout against Birmingham's Tragic City Rollers in 2006, before any of the Hard Knox women had real derby experience, Madame Mayhem elbowed one of Birmingham's elite jammers to the floor. The crowd at the Funtime Skate Center in Fultondale, Ala. screamed for blood. A few hastily dolled-up Drag Queens ran across the rink shaking their pom-pons, working the Alabama fans into a frenzy.
So, with one derby league already firmly established, is there room for another? A few ex-Hard Knoxers think so. They've launched the Smoky Mountain Derby Rogues, a league that's slightly less formal by design, which they hope will allow more women to play the sport, especially those who don't have the time to commit to a competitive travel team.
"I really enjoyed my time with Hard Knox," says Jay Harris, former league president. He left the league in November of 2006. "It was really super cool to be a part of something that was so progressive and cutting edge at the time. I liked the passion. They're not getting paid to do this. For a girl to come out and skate, she has to want to do it."
Earlier this month, on the rink of the Smoky Mountain Skate Center in Maryville, the new Derby Rogues had their first practice. It was an impromptu event, an excuse for a few friends to get together to play the sport that they've come to love. There were seven women ready to skate, the bare minimum needed to make up a team should they ever decide to challenge another derby league to a bout.
"I'm hoping to have enough girls for two teams," say Spookie Sprainer, the Derby Rogues' co-founder and Harris' wife. When she was with Hard Knox, she skated as lucky #13. "We want two teams with 14 or 15 girls. Mostly we're going to be a home league. We're a bunch of moms, actually. We have kids and responsibilities. We just want to have fun together."
"It's a very accessible sport," Harris adds. For the Smoky Mountain Derby Rogues, practices are kept as informal as possible. They skate every Sunday and Wednesday, from 6:30-ish to 8:30-ish. Anyone is welcome to show up at any time.
The Hard Knox women, who ended their season with a win against Huntsville's Dixie Derby Girls All-Stars, welcome the idea of a new derby league.
"We're pretty happy about it," says Val Yumm, who is a relatively new Hard Knox skater. "Part of our mission is to promote roller derby in all its forms."
She adds: "Personally, what I like best is being part of something that women are doing all over the country."
Next year, the Hard Knox Roller Girls plan on having an A and a B team to take on the road, and most of their games will be against out-of-league teams. In past seasons, they've been able to fill three teams—The Black Bettys, Machine Gun Kellys, and Lolitas Locas—and they've played intra-league bouts on a regular basis. Hard Knox plans to play as often as possible, on the road or in Knoxville, and they hope to come out ahead of their in-state rivals, the Music City Rhythm and Bruisers.
The rules of the game are deceptively simple. At every bout there are three 20-minute periods. The periods are divided into jams. No jam can exceed two minutes. Five players from each team come onto the rink: three blockers, one pivot, and one jammer. When the first whistle blows, the blockers and pivots begin to skate. When the second whistle blows, the jammers take off. After passing the blocking pack without crashing or going out of bounds, the jammers will pick up a point for each of the opposing team's blockers that they pass.
That's the gist of it, but in real life these rules only seem like guidelines to keep chaos in check. This is Roller Derby as it was meant to be, a brutal, beautiful mix of debutant-ism and sheer barbarism. For these women who shed their workaday lives for a few hours each week, there's nothing quite like it. For those few hours, these women take on new personæ, such as Battle Ready Betty, and they find brief catharsis on the rink.
Alecha 4 Breakfast, one of Hard Knox's superstars, quit her job at a Holiday Inn Select back in 2006 to focus all of her attention on roller derby. During one of the final bouts of the first season, she suffered a complete break of her ankle and fibula, and had to be carried off the rink in a stretcher. Although the theatricality and other outlandish customs of roller derby's storied past remain, this is, above all else, a real sport.
"I love being involved in something where people are so passionate about what they do," Harris says. For the future of the Smoky Mountain Derby Rogues, he's optimistic that there will be bouts between East Tennessee's two leagues, but for now it isn't really a major concern.
"There's no telling how long it will take us to feel like we can skate against anybody," he continues. "We would like to see that happen eventually."