In many ways, adolescence is simply a series of fiery hoops that one needs to get through with as few burns as possible: braces, pimples, dodgeball.
Dodgeball? Apparently so. Recently, a nationwide effort has sprung up to eradicate this playground staple from P.E. classes. Opponents argue that the game’s aggressive and Darwinistic nature lets boys beat up on girls and jocks beat up on nerds, and, in the process, inflict physical and mental bruises on thousands of children. Laugh if you will, but dodgeball playa-haters have been largely successful in their efforts.
The question of dodgeball’s merit will again be raised this summer when Ben Stiller’s new movie, Dodgeball: An Underdog Story, hits theaters. In Dodgeball, a group of Las Vegas oddballs (you guessed it: Stiller’s one of them) try to stop the corporate buy-out of their local gym by entering a dodgeball tournament. To the victor, goes the spoils in Dodgeball, and in real life it is that very concept that boils the blood of dodgeball opponents.
To many of the New Age sensitivity supervisors, dodgeball is a threat to their children’s carefully guarded self-esteem and it is their role to make those adolescent hoops as easy to navigate as possible.
Bruce Williams, a University of Connecticut professor and the movement’s patron saint, has been at this for a while. A few years back, he placed dodgeball in the “Physical Education Hall of Shame,” alongside such childhood classics as Simon Says, musical chairs, and tag.
Such hyper-sensitive complaints about dodgeball, however, miss their mark. A closer examination of the game’s structure, format, and rules suggest it’s an instructive teacher of the very same progressive values critics think it shuns.
During my recent stint as a middle school teacher, I supervised the Friday afternoon dodgeball club (okay, okay, so I founded it, too), and the kid in me couldn’t resist lobbing a few beads at the kiddies from time to time.
What I witnessed on these Friday afternoons flew in the face-literally-of anecdotal evidence suggesting it was a cruel laboratory for teenage trauma.
The format of dodgeball is unique in several ways. First, teams are usually chosen by the teacher or the physical education instructor, providing a built-in resistance to lop-sided teams. Second, teams are almost always co-ed, as P.E. instructors must accommodate all of their students for that period. Therefore, the game is already more “fair” than most other sports before the first ball is even thrown.
The two teams are placed on separate sides of a line and try to hit their opponents with the balls, and catch those lobbed at them. Once hit (or caught) the crestfallen must walk around to a small jail area located behind enemy lines. They remain there indefinitely unless their faraway teammates can toss dodgeballs over the opposing team and into jail,
where it has to be successfully caught-a tricky collaborative effort that rewards brains over braun and finesse over physique. The first team to send all of the opposing team’s members to jail wins.
To see how this process promotes fair competition and levels the playing field between traditionally dominant athletes and their lesser counterparts-for simplicity, let’s call them jocks and nerds-we have to dissect the game’s pieces.
First, the “dodge.” What critics tend to overlook when it comes to dodgeball is that these intimidating fastballs can be (and frequently are) dodged. It’s here that the nerds get a leg up on the jocks, as they-surprisingly-prove to be remarkably adept at getting out of the way.
Dodging doesn’t require bulging muscles or a blistering pitching arm. And even those not quick enough to get out of the way can find decent shelter (or at least buy themselves more time to react) by laying low in the back or in corners. In this sense, the “dodge” cancels out the “ball.”
Now, to the “ball.” As fun and satisfying as it may be to gun a line-drive at your opponents, such fastballs are the slam dunks of dodgeball: fun, flashy, emotionally rewarding, sure, but hardly the stuff of champions. At this age, greater speed generally means worse accuracy; adolescents obsessed with victory quickly heed the lesson, and the reckless gunning of balls occurs less frequently that one might assume.
Players also catch on to the fact that a hit’s a hit, no matter how fast you throw it. Nerds can take out playground bully (finally!) and send them to the glory-less (and painstakingly boring) jail with a well-placed slow hit-something any nerd can do. This, oddly enough, happens more often than not, since the show-off jocks tend to hover close to the dividing line, and thus the enemy. The nerd gets a bit of revenge, and the bully a much-needed lesson in humility.
Reckless throwing is also poor tactical move. Every attempt at hitting an opponent is one lost opportunity to help free one of your teammates from jail. Forget about them for too long and you’ve lost the game. Ain’t nothing cool about that.
Who wins, once in jail? Almost never the jocks. Many of them forget to make nice with their teammates while playing and have few friends willing to throw them a lifeline once in jail. Jocks either work on their manners and diplomatic skills by befriending the nerds or face life imprisonment. It’s the nice nerds who get hooked up. Call it diplomatic dodgeball.
Dodgeball also encourages persistence and participation. Unlike most other sports, when you’re “out” (meaning you’ve been hit or had your ball caught and you must now go to jail), the game isn’t over for you. Simply catch a ball in jail and you’re right back in, ready to give it another shot. No one is ever permanently “out” until the game is over, so nerds don’t get discouraged by setbacks. Instead, they have a strong incentive to improve and come back stronger each time.
Contrary to popular belief, the game isn’t the insensitive, crass beast it’s presumed to be. Dodgeball creates perhaps the only environment in which bullies are forced to cooperate, compromise, and befriend their nerdy counterparts. In an adolescence where glory seems only to go to the best and the biggest, brings the Goliaths down to size and gives the David’s a sudden boost.
Suddenly, the meek (and geeks) inherits the earth, and even more, makes it shine.
Now, play ball.
PATRICK W. GAVIN is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org