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Patrick Hruby

Red Menace?

Inside the war on ... dodgeball

Neil Williams has a dodge ball story - and like most, it's a sad-sack tale of playground pathos, forged in pain and tempered with humiliation.

Ending, of course, in a bloody nose.

While teaching a fifth-grade physical education class in the late 1960s, Williams decided to stage a good ol' fashioned game of dodge ball. Aka bombardment. Aka prison ball.

Aka slaughter ball.

As the red rubber balls began to fly, Williams saw that one of his students - a pudgy, bespectacled girl - seemed reluctant to join in the fun.

"Go in there and play the game," Williams recalled, his voice tinged with regret. "Get up there in the front, that's the way the game's played. That's what I told this little girl. And wham, she got hit."

Busted glasses. A broken nose. Salty tears. Gleeful jeering. Williams took one look at his messy handiwork, his good intentions gone horribly wrong, and made a simple vow: Not again.

Never again.

"It was clearly my fault," said Williams, now the chair of the health and physical education department at Eastern Connecticut State University. "I should have seen it coming. I stopped playing dodge ball."

More than three decades later, others have followed suit. From Austin, Texas, to Fairfax County, a number of school districts in recent years have discouraged and even banneddodgeball, vilifying the popular children's game as too violent, too exclusionary, too, well, nasty.

Like the nerdiest, tubbiest, most-ostracized kid in class, dodge ball is under fire - and taking hard-slung head shots from all sides.

"It's not an activity we should be doing in a school setting," Williams said. "It's like giving each of the kids a hammer in shop class, having them put their hands on the table, then seeing if you can slam a kid's hand with the hammer before he can get it out of the way."

Death to dodge ball

It wasn't always this way. For decades, dodge ball was a staple of P.E. classes and lazy P.E. teachers alike, a wholesome contest of skill and treachery in which the object remained simple: Pelt your classmates with a ball, thus eliminating them from play.

Oh, and avoid getting pelted in the process. Especially in the face (hence, the dodging part).

"Everybody has a dodge ball experience," said Judith Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. "My own children liked playing. And they were pretty good."

Times have changed. Young's group, a Reston-based organization that advises schools on P.E. curricula, frowns on dodge ball, calling it "a fun game to play at birthday parties, picnics and at recess" but not a part of a "quality school physical education program."

Likewise, the Cecil County, Md., school board last year added dodge ball to a list of gym class no-nos that includes tackle football and boxing. Educators in Olso, Fla.; Long Island, N.Y.; and Montgomery County also have limited or prohibited the game.

In Dade County, Fla., instructors reportedly still stage dodge ball contests, albeit in slightly modified form: Children stand in a circle around a deflated ball, bombarding it with thrown balls in order to move it. The side that pushes the deflated ball beyond a certain point first wins.

In other words, it's just like dodge ball. Minus the, er, dodging.

"We consider it inappropriate to use children as human targets," said Mary Marks, physical education supervisor for Fairfax County. "I don't think kids should have to go to class worrying that they're going to get hit in the head."

While outright bans are relatively new, the anti-dodge ball movement dates back to the mid-1990s, when Williams included the game in what he calls the "Physical Education Hall of Shame."

In a series of influential academic articles, Williams lambasted dodge ball - along with fellow schoolyard scourges Red Rover and Duck Duck Goose - as dangerous and outdated, a creaky ghost of P.E. past.

Last year, the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance took note, devoting its April symposium - and no, we're not making this up - to a single question: Does dodge ball have a place in physical education?

The answer? Sure. Just like dunce caps. And air raid drills.

"Ask schools what kind of values they're trying to teach, and they'll say community, tolerance, diversity, the growth of new knowledge and ideas," Williams said. "I don't know how that squares with turning the kids loose on each other, unleashing the worst instincts they have."

For David Kahan, an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State, violence isn't the issue; rather, it's that dodge ball simply doesn't make for a good workout.

And in an era when as many as one-quarter of the nation's children and teen-agers reportedly are obese, that's no small thing (unlike, say, our pudgy, PlayStation-and-junk food-addled youngsters).

"Physical education is about moving and activity, trying to get you to work toward being active," Kahan said. "It doesn't make sense to play a game when after you're hit, you're out and sitting."

Emotional sting

In addition to being short, dodge ball's critics carp that the game is essentially nasty. Not to mention brutish.

Darwinian to the core, dodge ball rewards the strong and punishes the slow. It sets up a series of - gasp - human targets, then selects one winner from a class-size pool of losers. Capital "L."

As a result, hurt feelings - like smashed glasses - are inevitable. Especially if you're chubby. Or geeky. Or just plain unpopular.

"There's the physical aspect of being stung, and then there's the emotional aspect of being stung," Kahan said. "Of kids picking on or making fun of certain children."

In 1995, New York City-based filmmaker Art Jones released "Dodge Ball," a mock-documentary that blamed Generation X's emotional ills on the game that, in the words of the film, "leveled millions of innocents with a red rubber ball."

Intended as a jokey diversion - and a way for Jones to pay a few bills - the 21-minute short took on a life of its own, garnering awards, national media attention and even a dodge ball-related shoe deal with Airwalk.

"It tapped a cultural nerve bigger than I ever dreamed of," Jones said. "We got hate mail. We got calls from the BBC, taking it very seriously, like connecting Columbine with dodge ball. It's whack, man."

In fact, Jones added, his production company has sent out roughly 600 copies of the film over the last five years - most to parents looking to ban the game.

"Bring up dodge ball, and you see 35-year-old people reduced to 7 years old," Jones said. "If you were a winner and you had a gun, there was nothing like the thrill of taking somebody down. It's like an elephant shoot. And if you were a spazz or a kid with a few too many pounds, you will always remember being a walking bull's-eye."

Tell that to Steve Hammer, a columnist for NUVO, an Indianapolis-based alternative newsweekly. In a piece that reads like the 95 Theses of the anti-dodge ball movement, Hammer contends that:

*He would rather have his child "lighting up a Kool than getting smashed in the face by a dodgeball hurled at 50 mph."

*Giving a dodge ball to a "fat, hyperactive kid" is like "handing a .44 to the Son of Sam."

*The dodge ball games of his childhood were a "sickening sight, children running around a gymnasium floor the same yellow hue as a rabid dog's teeth, trying to slaughter one another with the ball."

"It's really kind of a Lord of the Flies situation," Hammer said.
Over the last six months, Hammer estimates he has received 100 e-mails on the article. The catch? He wrote it almost seven years ago.

"I was a fat kid growing up, had braces on my legs," he said. "I was like the FDR of my school. I really would have appreciated it if the gym teachers had done more to help me not be a fat kid instead of doing their best to offer humiliation."

Dodge ball's defenders

Others disagree. Like "Star Wars" hype, the anti-dodge ball movement has provoked a backlash, a motley chorus of political conservatives - instinctively knee-jerking over perceived government overreach - and smarmy op-ed writers.

If dodge ball happens to be brutally competitive, they argue, so be it. After all, adult life is the same way.

"I know what all these NPR-listening, Starbucks-guzzling parents want," Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote last spring. "They want their Ambers and their Alexanders to grow up in a cozy womb of noncompetition, where everybody shares tofu and Little Red Riding Hood and the big, bad wolf set up a commune.

"Then their kids will stumble out into the bright light of the real world and find out that, yes, there's weak and there's strong and teams and sides and winning and losing. You'll recognize those kids. They'll be the ones filling up chalupas."

Dodge ball's defenders have numbers on their side. According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report cited in the Weekly Standard, the game was responsible for 2,926 injuries in 1999, far fewer than volleyball (64,239 injuries in 2000) or inline skating (95,729).

And while Kahan and others contend that dodge ball flunks out as exercise, a North Dakota State University study of a middle school gym class found that the game provides the same cardiovascular benefits as, say, soccer.

"It's a very good workout," said Bill DePue, tournament director for the National Amateur Dodgeball Association. "You're always moving. People come off the court for the first time, and they're winded."

DePue speaks from experience. While debate rages - well, simmers - over dodge ball in the schools, the game is enjoying unprecedented popularity among adults.

Founded in July 2000, the Illinois-based NADA boasts more than 700 members in 20 states and last year held the first dodge ball world championships. On campus, dodge ball clubs have popped up at Ohio State, Indiana and DePaul.

Even Hollywood is getting into the act: A Jerry Stiller dodge ball film reportedly is in the works, as is a 13-episode television series called "Ultimate Dodgeball" that will include professional athletes.

"It's a sport that everyone can play, as long as you have arms," said Eric Himes, a college student and president of the DePaul University Dodgeball Society. "It's just fun. We're probably the most welcoming group on campus."

Founded by Himes last year, DePaul's dodge ball club has grown from seven members to 70 and plays twice a week.

"I've read some of the literature by the people who are trying to get dodge ball banned," Himes said. "They have alternative games. One of them involves a crumpled up piece of newspaper and how far you can throw it away from someone. That's not a game.

"I don't know what happened to the people who are leading this crusade. I guess some of them must have really bad memories."

Not necessarily. Williams, for one, adored dodge ball as a child. In fact, he even admits to being an "incredibly sneaky and nasty" player.

"I really enjoyed it," he said. "Somebody asked me the other day: If I saw a dodge ball game, would I jump out of my car and ask people to stop?

"I said no - I'd probably jump out and ask if I could play."

+++++

GAMES PEOPLE SHOULDN'T PLAY

Why stop at dodge ball? TWT presents five other games that should be banned from the playground - and a more "appropriate" substitute for each:

TAG

Sins: Favors fast children over slower ones; creates potential for inappropriate touching and/or sexual harassment; designation of one child as "it" ostracizes said child from the overall group and may result in long-term feelings of shame and embarrassment.

Substitute: "Shake" - Children chase each other in order to shake hands and exchange pleasantries. No one is "it."

HIDE-N-SEEK

Sins: Forces children to "hide" from others, undercutting self-esteem; discriminates against obese children, who are less likely to find adequate hiding places; like tag, ostracizes the "it" child.

Substitute: "Wave-N-Smile" - One child closes his or her eyes and counts to 10; the others scatter around the field of play. When the child opens his or her eyes, the other children wave and smile from their positions.

RED ROVER

Sins: Encourages violence, aggression and the application of one-arm clotheslines; may foster feelings of inadequacy in clumsy children; use of the term "red" is insensitive toward American Indian children.

Substitute: "Teal Rover" - Children line up on one side of a field. When the instructor yells "Teal" - a neutral, inoffensive color - the children are encouraged to move to the other side of the field. At their own pace, of course.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

Sins: Inappropriate for deaf children; musical accompaniment potentially ethnocentric; children who are eliminated may feel "left out" or consider themselves "losers."

Substitute: "Special Chairs" - Children sit on chairs that are arranged in a circle; instructor tells each child one-by-one that they are a "special, special person."

CATCH

Sins: Invites injury; puts undue premium on arm strength; excludes children who don't have the ball.

Substitute: "Hold" - Each child is given a ball to grasp and examine. Throwing is not allowed.

Originally published in the Washington Times, 2002