First Came Roller Derby's Own #MeToo Moment, Then Came the Backlash

First Came Roller Derby's Own #MeToo Moment, Then Came the Backlash

Modern roller derby is a women-dominated sport that was created by and for, and still is run by women—one of few (if not only) sports that can claim this. It’s synonymous with women’s empowerment in the minds of many, and it promotes itself as an inclusive, safe space where women find and take pride in their inner badasses. I’ve played in three leagues over the last decade, and in my experience, this perception is largely accurate.

So it’s probably one of the last places you’d expect to see a textbook example of #MeToo: A man with considerable popularity and power within a community is accused of sexual harassment and assault. And the response from this majority-women, very empowered community? Not a universal condemnation of the accused. Plenty of men and women stood behind him, including four people who showed their support on the biggest platform they had available.

Although the sport is dominated by women, from its inception, men have served as roller derby coaches, referees, and volunteers—valuable contributions that most leagues can’t function without. Then some men decided that they wanted to play, too, and went about starting their own leagues. There is now a governing body, the Men’s Roller Derby Association, or MRDA, sponsorships for male athletes, and a Men’s Roller Derby World Cup. Basically, it’s the same as women’s derby, but less popular and done at a smaller scale. (Think of it as the women’s version of basically every other sport.)

On January 31 an article appeared on a niche derby news site that accused Mo “Quadzilla” Sanders, a major figure in the roller derby world, of sexual misconduct. (The author of that piece declined to comment to Jezebel.) Emboldened by the #MeToo movement, the author wrote that she had decided it was time for the roller derby community to address what she saw as its sexual harassment and assault problem, using her own experience as an example. Several years ago, she attended a skills camp, and on the final night, some of its participants hung out in a hot tub. She wrote that Quadzilla, the camp’s coach, sat down next to her, put his hand on her thigh, and moved it upwards. She also wrote that she removed his hand three times before he stopped. An editor’s note that accompanies the article also accuses Quadzilla of grabbing a skater’s breasts and sending the editor an unsolicited and inappropriate message.

The post was a very big deal in the roller derby community because Quadzilla himself is a very big deal in the roller derby community. His involvement with the sport predates its early 2000s revival: He was on RollerJam, a short-lived attempt to bring roller derby back to television in the late ’90s. He’s been involved with modern roller derby for almost as long as there’s been a modern roller derby: coaching women’s teams, leading skills camps around the world, developing his own line of skates for Riedell, skating on men’s teams, and playing for the U.S. team in the first two men’s World Cups. At the time the allegations emerged, he was preparing to play in the third World Cup and had just announced a collaboration with the skate line Chaya.

Roller derby is probably one of the last places you’d expect to see a textbook example of #MeToo.

Quadzilla would not comment to Jezebel, but he did make a statement almost a week after the original article containing the accusations was published, posted to both his personal and public figure Facebook pages. (There were also two other statements posted as the allegations first surfaced on social media but before the article went up). He wrote that he had apologized to his accuser, but that he didn’t remember the incident—nor did he believe it happened as she described. From his statement on Facebook:

It’s possible that I touched her leg, and it’s possible I did it twice. What I won’t say is that I continually groped her or forced myself on her. I would not do that nor have I, period. I know what verbal and nonverbal cues/signals are, and I know what consent is and I would never knowingly touch someone in a sexual way without consent.

He also wrote, in his statement, that there were more accusations against him, including groping someone in a cab, more breast-grabbing, and unsolicited Snapchats. He admitted that he had “made mistakes,” including “inappropriate comments and jokes.” He wrote that he felt attacked, piled on, and judged before he had the chance to defend himself. He claimed to have considered leaving the sport, but he had also received public and private messages of “love and support,” including from “key figures in derby.” (You can get a representative sampling of them in the comments under his posts, which are replete with #IStandWithQuadzilla hashtags.) These were apparently enough to convince him to stay: “I’m not going anywhere,” Quadzilla wrote. “There’s no way I’m leaving the sport I love.”

Instead, it left him; Chaya dropped Quadzilla’s line, skills camps were canceled, and he was banned from his league. Three days after saying he would never leave derby, Quadzilla resigned from the World Cup team, writing: “It’s not fair for me to drag others down for my actions.”

In the wake of all of this, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which is generally recognized as the governing body of the sport, announced that it was uniting with the MRDA and the Junior Roller Derby Association (JRDA) to create new anti-abuse policies, saying that its existing policies “no longer serve the needs of our community, nor do they keep all members feeling safe and welcome .… We have heard the call to do better and are working to find ways to collaborate together so we can make roller derby safer for everyone.”

The MRDA told Jezebel that “partnering with the WFTDA and rewriting our Code of Conduct is our priority right now. We want to have the language and connections in place to be more proactive and swift when these problems arise,” adding that it recently revamped its grievance policies to make it easier for members to bring issues to them.

With Quadzilla effectively banished from the sport, the initial outrage dying down, and WFTDA/MRDA/JRDA promising to institute measures that would help prevent and punish future offenders, the community seemed to move on. That was until two months later, when the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup began.

The U.S. men’s team is good; they had made it to the 2018 championship game, and Quadzilla was cheering his former teammates on from home via his various social media accounts, saying he was with them in spirit (three former teammates commented under this that they missed him), changing his Facebook profile photo to his official team picture from a previous World Cup, and posting photos on Facebook and Instagram wearing team shirts.

Quadzilla’s jersey number is 23, and when his former team took to the track for the championship bout—the name for roller derby competitions—against Team England, three skaters (Tony “Peter Pan” Muse, Stephen “Rollomite” Carter, and Jeremy “Streak” Strecker) and coach Stephanie Gentz (no roller derby nickname) had that number written on their legs in black Sharpie. This was apparently done without the knowledge of anyone else on the team, but was noticed by at least some of them. They played the bout like this and they won. Their moment of glory didn’t last long.

There were tweets:

There were responses to the team’s Facebook post announcing its win:

Also wins in grand demonstration of support for a dude that left amid sexual assault and harassment allegations. GREAT WORK. WELL DONE.
Would be happy for you guys if members of the team weren’t sporting the number of someone accused by multiple people of sexual assault.
Shame on you.

Followed a day later by the team’s Facebook apology, which read, in part:

This organization owes the derby community an apology. We have not been the examples you deserve. During the World Cup championship game, certain members of our team and leadership showed public support of a former teammate accused of sexual harassment. This was a huge mistake … The derby community deserves better than that.

The team’s sponsors, which ranged from small skater-owned apparel businesses to market-leading skate manufacturers, decided that supporting a team whose members appear to support someone accused of sexual assault is not a good look in the #MeToo era; all but one of the team’s sponsors dropped them. The outlier, Roller Derby Elite, is, per the company’s catalog, “led by” Peter Pan, and sponsors him and Rollomite. (Neither Roller Derby Elite nor its parent company, Roller Derby, responded to requests for comment. Neither did Peter Pan nor Gentz. Rollomite and Streak declined to comment). Gentz also lost her individual sponsorship with Bont. When the team Streak skates on, the Magic City Misfits, refused to bench him for a tournament held a week after the World Cup, every team scheduled to play against them simply forfeited so he couldn’t play.

On April 19, the U.S. team announced that Peter Pan had resigned from the team, and that it was suspending Rollomite, Streak, and Gentz for one year (the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup is biennial).

“These sanctions are not due to intended malice on their part, but due a fundamental lack of understanding of how this action would impact the community at large,” the statement said.

On April 20, MRDA announced that any of its members who wrote the number on their legs would be suspended for one bout. Asked if the actions of its members—Quadzilla and the people who wrote his number on their legs—were a reflection of a culture present in its leagues, they said:

We feel they were isolated incidents. As with the rest of society, there is a groundswell of accountability happening and the same is happening in roller derby. The outcry against these incidents reflect the changes happening within our community and the accountability that our members demand is more reflective of MRDA culture than the incidents themselves.

On April 21, the World Cup announced that the four were suspended for the next two bouts at the next World Cup, set to take place in 2020.

The four who wrote 23 on their legs issued statements apologizing for their actions and saying, essentially, that they didn’t realize the message those actions would send; that they would be seen as supporting sexual assault (which they all said they did not). They were trying to honor an absent teammate without, apparently, ever considering why he was absent—which, by the way, none of them brought up in their apologies, aside from a few vague mentions of “the victims.” Rollomite’s was the only one that even mentioned Quadzilla, to explain that he was “simply grieving” that Quadzilla, a decades-long friend who introduced him to the sport, was not skating with him. His apology seemed genuine and heartfelt. But if you go back to Quadzilla’s February 6 statement, you’ll see Rollomite in the comments: “#IstandwithQuadzilla.”

The attention the original post got—and the fallout—was unprecedented in the roller derby community, but the writer of the post was far from the first person to accuse someone of sexual assault in the roller derby community. Becca “Fury Duty” Bodner, a referee, is all too aware of this. In 2017, she and Kelsey “Jeff” Sampson, a fellow official as well as a skater, decided to start a blog that would give victims of sexual harassment and assault in roller derby a place to speak out about what happened to them—or at least someone to tell their stories to who promised to listen.

She called the blog It Happens in Derby, and it began in May 2017. So far, 14 stories alleging harassment and/or assault have been posted. The first story was Fury Duty’s own; she alleges that she was raped by another referee in 2013, and has been trying to tell her story since 2015, but says she was met with disbelief and ostracism from some corners of the derby world. Her alleged rapist continued to officiate bouts, reducing her choice of bouts to the ones where she wouldn’t have to work with him or his supporters. So Jeff and Fury Duty don’t seem too optimistic that much will come of WFTDA and MRDA’s efforts to step up their anti-abuse policies. They also point out that their power here is limited anyway; it’s really up to the individual leagues to ensure that their culture and policies are such that victims feel empowered to speak up, and violators are removed. If they don’t, they now know there might be negative consequences: enormous social media backlash, losing sponsorships, or spending a weekend tournament sitting on a bench because every other team refused to play you. And for leagues that want to improve but don’t know where to start (nearly all of them are self-governing and volunteer-run, so they may not even have anyone with the necessary knowledge and training), Fury Duty and Jeff say they are happy to provide resources that may help.

Her alleged rapist continued to officiate bouts, reducing her choice of bouts to the ones where she wouldn’t have to work with him.

“I’m glad people are taking notice,” Fury Duty said. “I wish they had been five years ago, or even one year ago.”

“Any time prior to now,” Jeff added.

Fury Duty claims that in the last six months, she’s been sent about 70 stories of sexual misconduct in roller derby—everything from inappropriate touching to rape. Maybe all the discussion about sexual assault and harassment in the roller derby community that post generated will lead to real change. One indicator will be if Quadzilla is able to return to derby. He seems to think he will.

“Watching all the tourneys happening got me needing some derby in my life,” he wrote on Facebook on May 7. “Can’t wait to play again.”

A woman who plays for a Knoxville, Tennessee, league responded: “You’re always welcome here.”

Sara Morrison is a freelance writer and editor. She tweets @saramorrison.

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