What a long strange trip it’s been for the inline skate.

It all started nearly 250 years ago, with a prodigious inventor, musician, and mechanic named John Joseph Merlin. Merlin relocated from Belgium to London in 1760, where he opened a museum and rubbed elbows with Samuel Johnson and Johann Sebastian Bach. Merlin invented the first pair of inline skates, and used them as a publicity tool, attracting curious Londoners to his museum of musical and mechanical wonders.

A news story of the time illustrates one unfortunate incident involving Merlin and his inline skates:

One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skates contrived to run on small metallic wheels. Supplied with a pair of skates and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs. Corneily’s masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity or commanding his direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than 500 Pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself severely.

Jump forward to 1979, the year two brothers, Brennan and Scott Olson, gave the inline skate a facelift. They called it the Rollerblade. This updated version of the inline skate included a rubber heel brake, and was designed primarily for off-ice hockey and ski training. But the Olsons saw the market potential and sold the Rollerblade company in 1984. The rest is history. Rollerblades became so popular they became a brandnomer for any in-line skate—you didn’t inline skate, you went rollerblading.

But popularity of inline skating has declined steeply since the late-1990’s. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA) inline skate usage has dropped nearly 50% from 2000 to 2008.

So what exactly killed the Rollerblade?

The answer to this question seems patently obvious. Rollerblading was a heavily-marketed fad, iconic of the 1980’s. Images of neon-colored Spandex, clunky safety pads, and “extreme” Sunny Delight commercials come to mind. Of more recent vintage: Napoleon Dynamite pulling his Rollerblade-clad brother Kip into town with his ten-speed bicycle. Rollerblading has fallen so out of vogue it hurts.

Hockey may have something to do with inline skating’s common neurosis. Homophobia and racism has plagued hockey for most of its professional existence. NHL great Gordie Howe once famously remarked that hockey was “a man’s game.”

Inline skating is essentially the hybrid of ice skating and roller skating—two sports that have been ridiculed for their overt femininity.

In a recently published USA Today column, former minor-league hockey player Justin Bourne writes about the need for hockey culture to address its insecurities. Bourne, who played briefly in the New York Islanders system, regrets his silence in the presence of homophobia in the locker room.

“The lack of a homosexual presence in hockey must mean one of two things,” Bourne writes, “either homosexual men don’t play the game or they don’t feel comfortable admitting it.”

But homophobia thrives in inline skating too. Particularly, in the extreme sport of aggressive inline skating. (Notice the use of the adjective aggressive to further distance the sport from any homoerotic connotations.) Pro in-line skater and openly gay athlete Ryan Carillo experienced verbal and physical threats that eventually drove him out of professional competition. “I intimidate some them because I am not shy about my sexuality,” Carillo said in a 2003 interview with Genre magazine.

Did homophobia the kill the Rollerblade?

When I think about the death of inline skating the Hanson brothers come to mind. Not the three bespectacled bruisers from Slap Shot—but the pop band from Tulsa.

In the video for their massive hit “MMMBop” the three golden-haired Hansons are shown hamming it up in Los Angeles. Included, are several clips of Hanson rollerblading around an L.A. strip mall. Lest we forget: 1997 is the same year Limp Bizkit released their testosterone-soaked rap-metal debut Three Dollar Bill, Yall$. The late-90’s were no time for any self-respecting male teenager to be caught rollerblading or listening to Hanson.

The arrival of Hanson momentarily ruined my teenage life. I had long blond hair and played in a band. “MMMBop” appeared, and—as a matter of survival—I begrudgingly cut my hair. Three years after Pavement warned me not to. You can’t win them all.

Nevertheless, Hanson never bothered me too much, and neither did inline skating. In my younger teens, inline skating was an incredibly efficient travel option. The skates themselves required little maintenance. I played a lot of roller hockey, and preferred inline skating to bicycling because I didn’t have to worry about chains and gears and flat tires. I retired my inline skates sometime before I acquired a driver’s license. Little did I know how stressful dealing with car repair would someday be.

So it’s 2009. Homophobia is as revered as Fred Durst. Are Americans ready for the return on the inline skate?

Probably not. According to the SGMA the core group of inline skaters remains a low figure, at 1.9 million. Compare that to the 76.8 million Americans walking and the 29 million using treadmills. It would take some miracle of marketing for the inline skate to be considered anything but completely embarrassing.

Still, there seems to be no more opportune time for inline skating to rise from the ashes. In the next fifty years or so, America will not be able to sustain its automobile-centric communities. We’ll have to be on our feet more often. Why not strap on wheels and speed up the process?

Imagine that: Instead of apocalyptic images of smoldering rubble and leather-clad brutes battling each other for gasoline, picture millions of Americans strapping wheels to their feet and zipping around like it’s 1989. Either way you look at it, it’s kinda gay.

Sound silly? A little embarrassing? Maybe. But we’ve all got face our fears some time.

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JUSTIN BENTON has written for the Nervous Breakdown since 2009. He co-authored Board with Brad Listi, a literary collage released by TNB Books in 2012. He is now a father and is currently writing an ongoing pantoum poem you can find here.

27 responses to “Who Killed the Rollerblade?”

  1. I’ve never actually rollerbladed or skated. Because I’ve been intimidated to. Not at the thought that the act may suddenly turn me homosexual, but rather because – hmm, how do I put this – do you guys have the term ‘faceplant’ in America?

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Justin,
    In my childhood, we had roller skates that you attached to your sneakers with a key. Two on each side of each, like a car. They would fall off all the time and you’d be thrown down in the street, because that’s the only place you could roller skate. I broke my arm when an angry driver ran me off the road when I was ten.
    I really, really loved roller skating. I was damn good at it. Fast as a demon. There were no brakes, so you either turned in a quick circle or grabbed onto the handle of a parked car. (Cars used to have handles that stuck out.)
    Never used the in-line skates.
    Bad ankles.

    (Simon…No clue what ‘faceplant’ means.)

  3. Kimberly says:

    Rollerblades are still alive and well here in NYC. It’s easy and cheap transport and still a pretty fair way to get exercise on a nice day. There’s even a lovely flat path all the way down the West side of Manhattan, from way above Harlem all the way down to the Staten Island Ferry that’s got a special rollerblading lane, and if you’re not careful, you can get mowed down by the seriously sporty bladers who careen the loops of Central and Prospect Park.

    I’ve got ’em, but I stick to the flat paths. I’m a total chicken when it comes to hills; for the very real potential threat of the faceplant.

    In fact, now that I think about it, I’m like the Rainman of rollerblading: slow on the driveway. But not on Monday. Definitely not on Monday.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Nothing beats rollerskating… bring back the rinks, I say.

  5. D.R. Haney says:

    I never could master rollerskating, on ice or pavement.

    I like the history that’s been showing up more in your posts, Justin. I didn’t realize that rollerskating went all the way back to the eighteenth century, but it makes sense, what with it being the Enlightenment and all.

  6. F Gump says:

    Still blade, still not gay.

  7. John says:

    It is kind of amazing that I hadn’t really noticed that I never see rollerbladers anymore. I remember growing up and seeing literally hundreds of people on the bike paths in Albuquerque, ‘bladin’ to wherever the hell they were going. And the constant bickering between the skateboarders and the rollerbladers as to what sport was more eXtreeeeme.
    And now, nothing. Why didn’t I notice that? Huh.

    Great article, good sir. Great article indeed.

    • JB says:

      Look even closer and you’ll see that the Heelys phase has passed too. Sale are dropping fast.

      I remember the quarreling between extreeeeeme rollerbladers and skateboarders.

      Maybe Tony Hawk killed the Rollerblade…

  8. Greg Olear says:

    Justin,

    George Orwell says that writers write because they tend to notice things other people miss. You have a great knack for this. Rollerblades have hit the opposite of a tipping point, it seems.

    And the final image is like something from a sci-fi film. One directed by Busy Berkeley, perhaps…

    Great piece, as usual.

    G

    • JB says:

      I just got my copy of Totally Killer in the mail. If there’s no Rollerblade presence within, I’ll be deeply disappointed.

  9. Erika Rae says:

    Wait now – rollerblades were totally in vogue in the late 90s here in Colorado – and definitely not the 80s. Then again, we are a bit slow. We still proudly wear Tevas for crying out loud. I loved mine. The rollerblades – not the Tevas. Well, I *liked* the Tevas…. Nevermind. People still rollerblade like fanatics here, though. I actually saw a guy rollerblading DOWN the canyon not too long ago. (Yes – a full on mountain pass) He had earphones on and was dancing as he flew down the 9% grade. He also looked suspiciously like CarrotTop. The whole thing – the whole thing was unnerving. They also do those ridiculous ski-roller skates here. I have no idea what those are called, but they should be banned from the roads for the amount of space they take up.

    Also, a true gay man on rollerblades usually ends up looking, well, kinda hot.

    • Justin Benton says:

      I wonder what music Rollerbladers listen to whilst rollerblading. I guess I would probably listen to C + C Music factory. Or The Archies.

  10. Erika Rae says:

    Hangin’ Tough. New Kids on the Block.

    whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh!

  11. Adam says:

    It’s always interesting to find people who write about rolling and have no true Idea of what it’s about and try to give their shallow naive perspective on it, although I have never heard of the “gay angle” for why the sport went on the decline. I’ve been in the “aggressive” scene for over half my life and while I have taken plenty of criticism from skateboarders etc. I’ve stayed dedicated to it because I truly love the freedom and creativity it brings. Skating has always been there for me, even in some really tough times. I think that skating was one of the only things that kept me sane after my brother’s death and it’s always sad when people just glance at the surface of it, and brush it off or make fun of it.

    In my opinion and the opinion of a lot of other rollers who skated during the late 90’s when it was at its peek, the true killer of rollerblading, at least aggressive inline, was greed. Skateboarding was on the rise again and they wanted to cut out the competition for xtreme sports so they started bashing on rollers saying that rollerblading is so much easier because they are attached to your feet and rolling sucks etc. and the skateboarding companies fueled this to a degree. I don’t know much about the fitness aspect or rec rolling but if you are interested in what happened, check out the Barely Dead documentary and it may just enlighten you on this subject.

    Sorry if I went on a rant about this and no offense to Justin but I just wanted to post my opinion about this article because it seems a little short sided to me and I think rolling deserves a little more respect. I will say that rolling is still very much alive and for those of us who have stayed true to the sport, we hope that one day it will flourish again because, and this is from the “aggressive” inliner’s point of view, it’s really amazing if you just learn about the culture of it and actually understand what it’s really about.

    • JB says:

      No offense taken, Adam. I am thrilled that you found the article. I agree completely with your theory on the belittling of blading. I remember hearing skateboarders lament about that when I was a kid.

      Cheers,
      JB

  12. Jon says:

    I would have to agree with Adam for the most part. I have heard the “Gay” angle though.. ie. Fruit-booters, mainly coming from young and immature skateboarders.

    I agree with the skateboard industry ploy to down turn blading and it worked for a while but as you will see int he coming months and such “blading” is on the rise. The key here is that many of the guys and girls that aggressive skated from the late 90’s to now have gotten careers int he industry either videography, photography and such. We have started our own wheel companies which helped keep the money int he circle. As before the wheels and parts were mainly cast at skateboard shops, industry. We have opened our own indoor parks and helped establish many outdoor arenas. We have worked to get the appeal back up with in or brethren and opened the doors to more followers. For a time we as a group were forming an exclusive underground appeal that cut industry rep or and public support.

    As I read this I see that you are in Lexington Ky and your should drive a few miles to Woodland and see the works in progress of a rise from the ashes. Or Frankfort, Georgetown, Nicholasville, Ollie’s skatepark, and the great mass of parks in the Columbus Ohio area. Just to name a few nearby.

    Check out this video… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNaPNqsZXUg

    He is in the process of using $5000 and an Olympus camera he won to spread the work of “blading” to the world. He was one of six people selected to move to the final contest. TO be broadcast @ the US Open.

    Once again another random rant from the other side.

    Stay positive and keep the wheels a turnin’.

  13. wasim says:

    I am going to get back into skating because I need to go to work which isn’t too far for me and I don’t want to buy an expensive bike so I want to grt rollerblades. Site I don’t think there’s anything to be embarrassed about because now adays people like lil wayne are getting into skateboarding I see a lot of people skateboard and more more people riding bikes to work friend my mate who has a skateboard whoy skateboards to work bout 15 miles to work.so i dont see why i shouldnt rollerblade

  14. david says:

    Everything’s popularity comes and goes its kind of a natural cycle. There’s still a core niche of in liners out there all it’ll take is something to catch on weather it be a movie or tv show (archery became more popular due to brave and hunger games) and in lines popularity will rise again. Why it feel out of favor I’m not sure but I guess the decreased interest in x games wouldn’t have help and the rise of video games too. Skateboarding has maintained its popularity though shows like jackass and the various games which inline hasn’t really done

  15. Dody says:

    I just hate that cities aren’t wilnilg to invest in truly working mass transit systems like that. When you leave half of the city out or don’t run buses more than every half-hour, there’s no way someone’s going to give up his car to help the environment a little.It also sucks, though, that NYC is run by people who live in Albany and not actually in the city, because when they tried to pass a law tolling cars that passed below a certain point in Manhattan, Albany voted against it, because of course those are the people driving into the city. I can’t think about it, because it makes me too mad/sad.

  16. Chris Miner says:

    Nobody killed the “rollerblade” or the inline skate. Inline skating isn’t any more dead than “soccer” or as the say in the rest of the world football. You just have to look beyond the square mile around where you personally live or work. Maybe there aren’t many skaters in your “neck of the woods”, but the sport is certainly alive and well elsewhere.

  17. Your mom says:

    Rollerblading’s alive and well in the Upper Midwest. A lot of people here play hockey. Or should I say that hockey’s a religion in the Upper Midwest, rather. Rollerblading’s a lot cheaper than ice time, so you see a lot of people rollerblading to work on the bike paths etc.

    Maybe out on the coasts where they don’t have much of an ice skating culture, blading’s dead. But not here.

  18. David says:

    So here it is, August, 2015. Yesterday, I skated 13.6 miles. Today, only 7.8. I will skate tomorrow and everyday I can. I’ve been inline skating since 1988 and I don’t care what anybody thinks. It remains a great workout. Rollerblade was founded to allow skiers to train in the summer. For fitness and training, skating deserves more respect. I’m in great shape. My legs and core are strong. I hate running and get bored on elliptical trainers. Unlike a lot of runners my age, my knees, hips, ankles and back are all still working great. I cycle too, but I prefer skating to cycling because it doesn’t hurt my neck or butt and it doesn’t make my hands go numb. In the past 16 years of skating here in Northern Colorado, I have only seen two other rollers. Sure, I skate at weird times, but I’ve actually seen more elk while skating. People are always surprised when I tell them that I skate. “I didn’t know anybody still did that!” If I skate through a park or popular sections of the path, I will get strange looks and comments. Mostly people are just surprised to see an inline skater, but I’ve had pinheads yell “froot booter” or “skate fag”. I’ve had kids throw rocks, sticks or roll skateboards in my path. I’ve been chased by unleashed dogs. That’s why I have to wear the safety gear. The only time I carry pepper spray is when I skate. For dogs.. mostly. I’m ok with being viewed as some retro alien. Who cares. It isn’t about what other people think, it’s about burning calories without tearing up my knees or hips. It’s about being able to still ski all day. The path section I now skate is really great. It’s miles of remote, smooth concrete with few kids, bikes or dogs. Nothing gets in my way. I’ll keep skating for fitness as long as I can because it remains one of the best low impact, cardio summer exercises available. Follow your bliss and be who you are. If you like inline skating, then do it.

  19. N8 says:

    LONG LIVE SHIMA!

  20. Booter says:

    Or maybe its the articles written like this one…that show an obvious interest in the activity, but still refer to it with disparity. This is because the writer is too weak minded to proclaim their affinity, in fear that they will be disagreed or judged. First celeb to be seen on them will set off the next wave…simple as that. Sell it and they will buy it…period. In the mean time, the smaller yet still dedicated number of riders in existence, will continue hucking themselves off stairsets and buildings for the love of blade.

  21. Norman Bates says:

    Funny that old 1930s books describing “The World of the Future” often show drawings of crowded cities with people rollerskating as a form of mass transit.

    Being a cyclist, I used to hate rollerbladers who suddenly invaded our exclusive bike paths–particularly the way they always lunged their left foot into our section of the path, thus nearly hitting us! Sorry, but I don’t miss them.

    Our city got wise, too–perhaps inadvertently–by creating more gravel bike paths where “bladers” dared not trespass for fear of jamming up their wheels. Smart move!

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