Research on roller derby leads to the classroom

By Pam Windsor

When Michella Nigh Marino ’04 decided she would compare two women’s sports for her dissertation topic, “Sweating Femininity: Women Athletes, Masculine Culture, and American Inequality from 1930 to the Present,” basketball was a natural choice, having played on the Panther’s roster for two years.

But when an advisor suggested roller derby, Marino was intrigued and ended up playing with a local league in the Amherst, Mass., area for the next two-and-a-half years.

Surprisingly, the sport worked well as a comparison to basketball because despite the differences, there were a number of strong  similarities.

“Basketball is obviously a more traditional sport: it’s rooted in the school systems, it has a long history, but the thing that a lot of people don’t know about roller derby is that it’s a really old sport, too,” she said. “It started in 1935 out of the Great Depression and was actually way more popular than basketball in certain time periods, particularly in the ’50’s.”

Largely played on the professional level, Marino looked at how the media covered roller derby, how its female athletes identified themselves and how motherhood affected them. She found that women still lag behind men with regard to gender equality in sports overall, but that roller derby paved the way for improvement.

“I think when people talk about gender equality, particularly in sports, it has drastically gotten better since the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s for sure, but things are not where they should be,” she said. “And that’s just going to take more time and activism on the part of women athletes in different sports.”

One of the interesting aspects of roller derby as it has evolved over the years, is that it offers a great example of how women can be athletes and embrace motherhood.

“The original roller derby knew they needed to rely on women as skaters and as a fan base, so children were often around. They were embraced within the roller derby community, and to me, that was sort of an interesting piece,” said Marino, noting how children of roller derby players often travel on team buses and take part in their own diaper-derby competitions at halftime.

She’ll be able to share some of what she’s learned and perhaps help legitimize roller derby, both past and present, in her new role as assistant professor of history at Hastings College (Neb.). In January, Marino will teach one of the first-ever college courses dedicated to the sport.

“The great thing about roller derby is, the sport itself challenged the paradigm of sports overall,” she said. “Roller derby, (as have) other sports at different times, has shown that women are capable athletes and that they’re important, that they can draw big crowds (and) big fans, and they can be popular.”