As It Happens

Roller derby laps major sports leagues with pandemic play plan

The Women's Flat Track Derby Association has put together such a concise, and safe, plan to get back on the rink, that other leagues are taking notice, says executive director Erica Vanstone.

Women's Flat Track Derby Association's plan to get back on the rink has other leagues taking notice

Erica Vanstone, left, executive director of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, is seen skating for The Philly Block Party. The organization's plans for returning to the play during the pandemic are being held up as an example for other sports. (Tyler Shaw)

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Lives before laces.

That's what the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) is calling its plan for returning to play during the pandemic, and it has bigger sports leagues taking notice. 

The WFTDA, which governs the sport around the world, has put together a plan to get back on the rink that's so detailed and safety-oriented, it's being held up as a model for all sorts of sports.

In fact, an epidemiologist quoted in Wired magazine said the plan's policy on spectators is so good, it almost made him cry.

The tiered system uses a mathematical "ladder of reintegration" based on how much active COVID-19 there is proportion to the population of a given area. It also takes into account numerous other factors, including local public health guidelines and whether community spread is on the rise.

That has organizations ranging from Basketball Canada to a medieval combat league in Belfast asking the roller derby bosses for advice.

Erica Vanstone, executive director the WFTDA, spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal from Philadelphia. Here is part of their conversation.

I hear you're getting a lot of response to these guidelines. Who are you hearing from? 

We have 800 folks who have requested the plan, and it really is varied. A lot of them are roller derby groups. But New York University has asked for them, Newark Ice Hockey Association, Houston Grand Opera. So we really have a wide variety of different organizations who are kind of looking to draw some inspiration from what we did. 

When did you realize that your organization needed to come out with a guide to playing sports during this pandemic? 

We have member organizations, or clubs, around the world … more than 450 of them in 23 countries.

Early on during the pandemic, we recognized that the most important thing we could do was just collect information. So we collected information from around the world.

And we realized pretty quickly that the United States was really falling behind in sort of the quickness of the information they were able to get out, the consistency of the information from state to state. We started to realize that, in many ways, we would probably be on our own in terms of having to make guidelines that we felt represented our values as a sport. 

The WFTDA's guidelines for returning to the rink include seven tiers based on COVID-19 conditions in the local area. (Tyler Shaw)

There are seven tiers in the guide, as I understand it. So if we want to give an example, Edmonton right now is in baseline condition. What does that look like? 

We really wanted to try to describe what we felt like was a reasonable amount of COVID in your area to even contemplate beginning to to recover your league's operation.

So we batted around initially the idea of zero COVID. I live in Philadelphia; one of my other team members live outside New York City. And it's quite possible that New York City will never have zero COVID.

So the metric of the baseline condition was the most important. And it is five in 10,000 positive cases over 14 days, or 50 and 100,000, because we realized that we needed, essentially, a math formula that was expandable or collapsible as your area required.

It's not just about playing safely or getting back to playing safely. It's also knowing when to pump the brakes, right?

At the end of every tier, there's a little guide that says "Knowing when to step back down." If you need to return to baseline conditions, that happens if you have one positive case in your league or your members' close contacts. You could stay at the tier that you're at if there's a seven-day increased trend in your leagues' locality. So if either of those things happen, you know what to do. And then if none of those things happen, you can progressed to the next tier. 

Vanstone is seen coaching junior team Philly Brawlstars. She said the sport has an inclusive culture that has helped drive the organization's COVID-19 plans. (Kristin Reber)

And you don't greenlight fans until tier five. Why is that? 

So a lot of our fans are folks who have been involved in the roller derby community for a while. And the idea of putting their lives at risk so that we could play didn't seem ethical.

Sports in America in particular, but certainly on a global level, are so focused on returns and not whether they should return. To bring audience members into that conversation seemed irresponsible to us from the outset. 

An epidemiologist quoted in Wired pointed out that it was a women's sports organization that has put together a reasonable return plan. What do you make of that?

We are the governing body for the sport of roller derby overall, and that includes trans women. It includes non-binary folks in our community. So we are really tremendously inclusive…. It's something we're intentional about. We have existed in a space that is very marginalized. I think we feel compelled to make decisions from a very different place than a lot of other sports do.

And it's not that we haven't experienced the financial impacts [that] other sports have. WFTDA roller derby globally has had roughly a third of our revenue completely decimated over the last three months. But our commitment to the community, I think, is probably what's very, very different here than it is in a lot of other sports. 

We're a democratic sport. Folks are voting on the rule set. We're very much like a players' association and a league rolled into one entity. And not a lot of sports are built in that way. They create adversarial relationships between owners and players. And so I think you're seeing a lot of those relationships kind of play out in those ways with COVID-19 discussions as well. 


Written by Brandie Weikle. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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