Before September 16, 2011, here is what I knew about them. They wore orange and black. Their announcer Paige Layout was cool to hang out with at ECDX 2010. Their league logo is a pissed Amish woman with a black eye or football style eye black. They had put together a successful 2011 and established themselves as a hot, up and coming team in the East.
Then on the afternoon of September 16, 2011 what I knew about them changed to one simple phrase: They were the team that forfeited. They didn’t forfeit because their roster was so plagued with injuries that it was dangerous to play; they forfeited because they were walking into a fight that they self admittedly felt they could not win. After beating Maine, they were slated to face Gotham, a team stocked with multiple players that will be playing for Team USA (the greatest roller derby all star team ever assembled). Gotham has been chewing teams up and spitting them out like a wood chipper this season and Dutchland decided they wanted no part of that. And thus the first can of worms of the WFTDA playoffs has been opened and there are many angles that will and have wiggled forth from it.
Like any other form of breaking news, the first place I heard about the forfeit was on Twitter and then Facebook. And like anything else in the world of social media, the opinions came in fast and snarky. On Twitter, it seemed that everyone was using their 140 characters to reprimand and bully Dutchland for their ill-advised decision. People on Facebook were literally going to Dutchland’s Facebook page to “like” them purely so they could blast them. On the flip side this being the world of roller derby, there were a few people who felt that Dutchland had exhibited a smart strategy that had never been used before and was perfectly legal according to the WFTDA rules.
The detractors felt that it was an insult to the sport and the concept of sportswomanship as a whole. The idea of facing a challenge and backing down from it was deemed dishonorable and embarrassing by the majority of the derby universe online. Gotham, Maine, and Carolina pulled together to give the live crowd something to fill the void of a real game, playing purely for the love of the sport. Maine was walloped in their half but didn’t seem to care. When else would they have a chance to play some of the best roller derby players on the planet bar none? Carolina was losing as well before the game had to be stopped for a track repair. Just like Dutchland both Carolina and Maine had played that day and had games scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
The arguments in support for Dutchland from their fans, their coach, and themselves have been that this was a form of strategy. Dutchland felt that they were slated to be in a game that they could not win and opted to forfeit instead of risking injury to be fresh to play in a game Saturday night. Their plan was to play for fifth place instead of first to leave with a better ranking. That plan failed as they were beaten by Montreal by 101 points and then defeated on Sunday by Boston by triple digits as well. They left Baltimore in the spot they had come in, 8th.
Dutchland decided to go with a plan that could best be summed up as “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t”. I don’t have access to the East Regional Playoffs brackets that were available on WFTDA.com but I am guessing that only the most blinded by faith Dutchland fans had them beating Gotham. No one likes a blow out and that is exactly what this game was shaping up to be. How many people were going to watch this game? Was anyone really pining for this match up of regional rivals? Or were you like me and were planning on using this game as your time to stock up on beer and Thai food for the night?
The point of these regional tournaments is for 10 teams to play for the chance to go to the WFTDA Championships, the most prestigious roller derby tournament on the planet. For Dutchland to not even attempt to make that a reality by playing Gotham makes me question their decision and the structure of the regionals. Dutchland knew weeks ahead of time going into their game with Maine that if they won, they would have to play Gotham. Was this a premeditated plan? And if it was premeditated at what point did the WFTDA became aware of it? Or was this a plan that was concocted between the end of the Maine game and the pregame skate against Gotham? Does it matter either way?
Another theory that stems from this is, has Dutchland shown what many have said at after parties across the nation, that in reality there are only 3 or 4 teams per region that have a legit shot to make the WFTDA Championships and the rest are just playing for consolation rankings? Remember how excited people were for the Westerns last year because 6 of the 10 teams had a legit shot for the top 3? Shouldn’t it be that all 10 teams have a shot? Gotham and Philly in the East, Kansas City and Texas in the South Central, and Windy City in the North Central seemly have cemented their spots at the WFTDA Championships year in and year out. Is roller derby like Major League Baseball where there is a list of usual suspects that we will see every year in the playoffs while there are others that will presumably never reach that level? Although it has been proven in the past that you can come up from low spot and make the Championships, it is more the exception than the rule.
Dutchland’s Coach Merv the Perv (by the way, go read Ginger Snap’s article on derby names if you haven’t yet) did what anyone would do in this situation: He responded via a comment thread on the Derby News Network, which broke the forfeit story. After saying that roller derby didn’t operate like other sports, he added, “A professional sport team would not forfeit because it would cost the owners’ money.” But didn’t this cost the owners money, too? The owners in this case being the skaters themselves in the WFTDA structure of “for the skaters by the skaters”. Gotham Girls Roller Derby had to have rooms and travel planned/paid for a minimum of 14 rostered skaters, 2 alternates, and 2 coaches. Also since this is not a professional sport, presumably all of these people were using their own vacation time or taking unpaid time off to be there for a game they were scheduled for that Friday afternoon in Baltimore. All of this for a game that was suppose to be happen but didn’t happen.
Another angle that has emerged from this is people bringing up the subject of the mainstream media. During the course of dog-piling on Dutchland, some commenters hysterically feared what would happen if the mainstream press picked up on this story. To those people, I think we need to have a little talk. Do you know what is happening in Pro Bowling right now? Professional Bull Riding? How about Minor League Hockey? The mainstream doesn’t pay much attention to these sports and pay even less attention to roller derby. ESPN carries none of these sports in their features bar at the top of the page, even under the “More Sports” tab. With the rise of blogs and the shrinking of traditional newspapers, the mainstream media doesn’t have the time, interest, or reporters to cover an amateur sporting event and especially not a boring story like a small market team forfeiting. “Roller Derby Team from Pennsylvania That You Have Never Heard of Decides Not to Play Team From New York City” doesn’t sell papers or get web traffic. Now had there been a bench clearing roller derby riot, that would have caught the public’s attention like rubber necking at a car wreck. For better or worse, it’s human nature to want to see something that has gone horribly wrong.
While this isn’t going to garner much mainstream coverage, this is definitely a PR nightmare for Dutchland and the WFTDA in the Roller Derby mircoverse. While the mainstream media has begun to shrink, independent websites and blogs have flourished and cover a number of subcultures across the web. Already roller derby websites are running this story and opinions are coming in. How will this affect who wants to play Dutchland next year? How do their fans react to this? How will this factor into the WFTDA quarterly rankings next year with the voters? Have they guaranteed that they won’t be appearing at the Eastern Regional Playoffs 2012 due to a new “unwritten code” amongst the voters like something we would see in Major League Baseball and it’s never ending book of unwritten rules? These are just a few of the questions that we don’t have an answer to at this time as the tremors of this decision could continue to be felt over the next year.
So what happens next? We learn from this experience. WFTDA learns that they need to change how they handle forfeits or consider reworking the tournament structure to avoid uneven match ups such as this one. Dutchland learns that there will be consequences to their actions (which can be viewed as either just or unjust) and that they will exist under a microscope for the unforeseen future. Other teams learn that you never forfeit unless you don’t have enough players to safely compete or you are ready to be tried in the court of public opinion. What did the internet learn? Probably nothing, as long as people have keyboards and nothing to stop them from posting immediate, emotional reactions, the internet will be the internet. What did I learn? I relearned an old lesson that I already knew: Always expect the unexpected both on and off the track in roller derby.