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In the debate over gender identity and sports, roller derby seems to have it figured out

Roller derby is a fast-paced contact sport played on four-wheeled skates. To outsiders, it can seem to be a mostly women’s game, but derby itself is not so binary. While the country is in political turmoil over gender and sports, roller derby has had it figured out for a while. 

Inside the Mesa Broadway Recreation Center, roller skates pound and screech across the hardwood floor. The athletes wearing them are blocking, pushing and doing whatever they can to get the point. This is roller derby. 

More specifically, this is the Arizona All-Stars travel team versus the SoCal Derby Kraken. (Spoiler alert — the locals win.)

Arizona Roller Derby, which oversees league teams, including the All-Stars, is celebrating 20 years. This league is one of the oldest around, and with it, a practice that is increasingly under a political microscope.

"Roller derby is a safe space for everybody. Roller derby has no borders and it doesn’t matter what your gender is. You can come and you can play here," said Chelsea Winkel, the executive director of Arizona Roller Derby. On the track, she goes by Goldy Knocks. 

Across the country, gender identity and its intersection with athletics, especially in schools, is a hot-button issue. According to the  Movement Advancement Project, known as MAP, 20 states including Arizona, have banned “transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.” MAP is a nonprofit think tank that promotes equal rights. Earlier this month, the Biden administration proposed a change to  Title 9that would make it possible to stop categorical bans on trans student athletes. But it would allow certain limitations. 

At Arizona Roller Derby, which has junior and adult teams and programs, Goldy Knocks  says everyone is welcome. The Arizona All-Stars, a competitive adult women’s team, accepts all women, including transgender and non-binary people, with no limits.

“One of our core values and the things that we’re really striving for is radical inclusivity. So that is sort of a niche place in roller derby is that you can be anything that you are and you can just come as you are," Goldy Knocks  said. 

And this inclusion is not unique to the Arizona Roller Derby. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, known as WFTDA, which runs competitive games and tournaments with  over 400 international member leagues, has the  same policy. They are “inclusive of transgender, intersex, and gender expansive participants.” The  Men’s Roller Derby Association, a much smaller community, has a similar nondiscrimination policy, too.

The popularity of roller derby has surged and waned in the decades since its invention nearly 100 years ago. You might not know about it, so here’s a brief overview. 

Every derby participant for instance usually has a punny nickname. That’s why Chelsea Winkel goes by Goldy Knocks. Rachel Sherman is Arizona Roller Derby’s WFTDA program manager. Their All-Stars teammates know them as 4 Sure, Man.

“I think roller derby is still really underrated, because it is a sport that was created by and for especially women and queer people. So people don’t take it very seriously. But these are diehard athletes," 4 Sure, Man said. 

If you ever see a match, look out for the two players with big stars stuck on the side of thei  helmets. Those are the jammers. Kevin Carlson, whose derby persona is Undie Sighted, helps officiate the SoCal team. 

“The basics is it’s a race. A jammer from each of the teams tries to get through a pack of four players of the two teams and obviously the jammer is trying to get through, the pack is trying to make sure the opposing jammer does not," Undie Sighted said. 

The bleachers at this game are packed. 

Tyler Neese came with his wife and two young children. He used to watch roller derby as a kid with his dad and now is passing down the tradition. 

“Some people may be opposed to just coming out and even trying it or even watching it. But I think it’s something that the whole family can come out and experience. And it’s a lot of fun and watching everyone kind of get your anger out on the court and stuff, it’s great," Neese said.

Jennifer Burton came with her child NJ. NJ is just starting out with skating lessons but wanted to see what the adult team had to offer. 

“Derby’s not dead,” Jennifer said.

“Derby’s not dead” NJ said.

And the sport’s still evolving. A new type of team is rolling out, Goldy Knocks says, at least in the WFTDA member community. And that is open-gender teams, cisgender men — or men born male — included.

“Open teams are like the wild west; there's no governing division or rankings for open gender. So everyone’s playing under this WFTDA rule set, but WFTDA right now doesn’t have a sort of specified open-gender division," Goldy Knocks said.

This is not the same as coed teams.

“No one’s counting anything. No one’s checking anything. It’s just a space to compete in roller derby," Goldy Knocks said.

Goldy Knocks  says this might have been an evolution out of the pandemic. Like many organizations, roller derby in Arizona is trying to rebuild and adapt post COVID-19. 

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Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.