Knoxville's Own Demolition Derby

Behind the scenes and on the track with the Hard Knox Roller Girls

The perennial darling of alt-weekly non-sports sports coverage, women's roller derby has, in the past few years, touched every major and semi-major city in this country.

Yes, Maryville, too.

We say novelty sport, of course, because it remains a relatively subcultural niche-market-type deal. Nearly a decade into its 21st-century revival and despite two-plus years of waterskiing-squirrel caliber local news coverage ("These ladies really pack a punch!" etc.) the sport has surprisingly maintained most of its outré edge.

Of course, it has to be that way or it doesn't really work. Roller derby players put on war paint and wax poetic about bloodying up the other women. Then they go out on the skating rink and do it. Or have it done to them.

Derby's a combination of parody, athleticism, post-modernism, third-wave feminism, sex, violence, and a maybe put-on attitude pithily summed up in the following statement overheard before a recent match between Knoxville's Hard Knox Roller Girls and rivals the Soul City Sirens:

"I want to make a bitch cry tonight."

This all goes on, oddly, in the bowels of the bland, institutional Knoxville Convention Center, that place where they do weddings near World's Fair Park. It's also Hard Knox Headquarters. Several times a year, these young women don their skates and (very little) padding and try to claw, push, and trip their way to the front of the ever-moving pack. They call their matches "bouts."

The Hard Knox derby girls, women, whatever-they-want-to-be calleds have been attempting to make bitches from across the southeast cry since 2006. That's about four or five years after derby clubs began popping up in Southern California and the East Coast, signalling the renewal of a sport that's been around since the '20s, then was briefly popular in the '70s before fading into obscurity as pro wrestling was making a comeback. These things are cyclical.

Hard Knox were the first ones here and they remain the most popular and well-known, despite recent competition from a less-formal group in Maryville called the Smoky Mountain Derby Rogues.

Roller derby can be filled with vicious, sometimes brutal, violence. A derby bout is, in essence, about pushing people out of the way to make room for yourself and your teammates. This often leads to punching, kicking, tripping, and falling onto the hard floor of the rink. Protection is kneepads, elbow pads, and a helmet. That's all.

Do a Web image search on "roller derby injuries" to see. It's kind of gross. We'll spare you here, but it goes way beyond the innocuous annoyance of rink rash. Sometimes surgery is required. Insurance is likely expensive since this falls into the full-contact, high-risk category. Luckily, though, the sample policy for USA Roller Sports—the organizing association that provides the Hard Knox Roller Girls' insurance—covers severed hands, gouged-out eyes, and knocked-out teeth. Deductible per tooth: $250.

Playing By The Rules

Positions: There are two teams on the rink for each bout. Each team consists of five players: One jammer, three blockers, and one pivot.

  • Jammer: The "scoring" position. The jammer starts out each period in a bout at the very back of the pack. It is her job to move up to the front. She gets one point for each opposing player she passes.
  • Blockers: These players assist their own team's jammer by blocking the opposing team's.
  • Pivot: This player starts out at the front. She is the ultimate blocker, the last line of defense between an opposing team's jammer and the front of the pack.

Gameplay: Each roller derby bout is made up of three 20-minute periods. Each period can consist of many "jams." Jams can end when a jammer makes it all the way through the pack to the front. She can call it off, signalling the beginning of the next jam. Once a jam is called, players have 20 seconds to return to line up. If a player is missing, the team must compete in the next jam without her.

Object: Whichever team has the most points by the end of the bout wins.