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Mark Hayward's City Matters: It's a show, it's a sport, and it's tough

I  generally dislike dichotomies. A mainstay of AM talk radio, they are cheap rhetorical devices that boil complexities down to false choices.

For example: either you oppose Obamacare or you are a socialist who wants your doctor on the government payroll delivering Third World health care to your family.

Little room for argument there.

So it’s odd that I was at the New Hampshire Roller Derby doubleheader last Saturday asking: sport or entertainment?

“Probably sport,” said Manchester resident Emily Sheldon, who sat in the stands as 10 women competed in what could best be called football in the round.

A slow-rolling mob pushed and jostled — in unison, it resembled a gigantic, throbbing amoeba moving through some sort of goo — until a scorer broke loose and skated around and back into the gooey mess.

As for the rules, everyone I spoke to (except the players) said they were trying to figure it all out.

“These girls, they work really hard,” Sheldon said. What does she like about it? “It’s all girls, showing they’re tough too.”

This season, the seventh for New Hampshire Roller Derby, started this month and lasts through October.

The home games are played at JFK Memorial Coliseum. Last Saturday night’s game drew a paying crowd of about 200, a crowd the organizers said was small because of the carnival going on in the parking lot.

Most of the crowd sat in the bleachers, while boyfriends and family members ventured into the “crash zone,” the area on the floor where one can bring a folding chair and watch eye-level at their own risk.

The fluorescent lights are turned up on high, so it’s easy to see the action and even read the names of the skaters on the uniforms: Nuclear Beatdown, Emily Decker’son, N Raging Grace.

The air is filled with the low-volume chatter of the game callers and the clacking of multiple skate wheels on the track.

Definitely a sport, said Manchester resident Jason Kimball. “It reminds me of Nascar,” he said.

Talk to players or hard-core fans, and they’ll apologize for the roller derby of the 1970s.

The decade did to roller derby what disco did to rhythm and blues, it seems.

Back then, it was all show and fake, the players will say.

Today, no one gets a fake elbow or takes part in a folding-chair smackdown, they say.

No one flies off the track. In fact, there is no railing or banked track; the track is a flat, hard-plastic mat with a painted oval to designate the field of play.

“There is no show, when we hit, it’s a real hit,” said Bekah Kistler, a mom of three who lives in Chester and plays for the Granite Skate Troopers.

Yet, the doubts live on.

Sport, insists Jenna Sheehan, a 26-year-old from North Reading, Mass. She manned a booth that explains the game and said everyone asks her if roller derby is a sport.

“I love everything about it,” said Sheehan, who has been practicing with the New Hampshire league and hopes to land a spot on the travel team next month. “It’s so much fun. You get to skate around and hit people. What’s better than that?”

I say entertainment. Consider the stage names. How many hockey or basketball players use double-entendre aliases on the court? And there’s the marketing.

The league logo shows the silhouette of a shapely, skirted, long-haired woman; arms akimbo; head cocked and hips jutted forward in a sexy amazonian pose.

In reality, the players come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They were friendly, but none gave come-hither stares or spat out venom like the WWE.

All wore uniforms and tights, and only one — Kistler — was skirted. None of the uniforms were particularly revealing, although a player who had the night off and worked the door — Chicana Bruzya — apparently knows that pushups are more than calisthenics.

So, sport or entertainment?

“It’s a little of both,” said Raymond resident Cail Desrochers, who came to the game at the behest of Kistler. “I thought it would be a little more violent. I just see everyone having a good time.”

Kistler said things are changing. Some women don’t use aliases. And many are drawn to roller derby for the workout aspects. In fact, about two dozen women take part in a rec team that limits its skating to the practice digs in Salem.

The women come from all walks of life. Kistler is the director of a child care center.

Sheehan is a construction site project manager and is applying for a college Ph.D. program. Teresa Giblin graduated from MIT and works for an information technology company.

Others are teachers, nurses. Erin Place is the editor of four weekly newspapers in the Nashua area.

She skated in both matches on Saturday, and was ready for the apres-game celebration.

“You can beat each other on the track,” Place said, “then have a beer with them.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on He can be reached at

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