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Did Dodgeball Teach Us Anything, or Did It Just Give Bullies Flying Weapons?

People are always making the case that the game is terrible, but are there any hidden life messages in it as well?

In a summer lost to the coronavirus, one of the few bright spots was my frequent trips to the drive-in, and of all the classic movies I watched there, my Adam Sandler double feature was probably the best. Well, Happy Gilmore wasn’t quite as funny as I remembered it, but I was crying at Billy Madison, particularly the scene where Sandler is wailing on kids with a dodgeball. Frankly, the entire drive-in experience could have just been three hours of this and I would have been perfectly satisfied, and if you don’t find this funny, well, I just fundamentally fail to understand you as a person. 

But, like so many other inane things from popular culture, the scene got me thinking: Was dodgeball ever teaching kids useful life lessons, or was it just a sadistic way for gym teachers to kill 40 minutes before their next cigarette break? 

Finding out what’s wrong with dodgeball is a lot easier than finding out what’s good about it, as many professionals have offered up detailed explanations as to why it’s not a good game for any sort of physical education. Among those professionals is Jeff Mushkin, who’s been in physical education for more than 20 years and is the director of curriculum development for the SPARK physical education program. In a nutshell, there are two big things wrong with dodgeball. The first is that it’s an elimination game, so if a kid is out, they go sit down and stop participating. The problem is that the kids who tend to be the first out are often the kids that are most in need of that 40 minutes of physical activity, yet they spend the majority of dodgeball time on the sidelines. 

As for the human targeting aspect of the game, Mushkin explains that since the game’s sole objective is to strike another human being, there is a particularly negative and humiliating emotional component to it, even more humiliating than a kid’s missed basket in basketball or when they strike out in baseball. Also, in many cases, getting whacked with a dodgeball can just plain hurt a kid, and while injury is a danger in any physical activity, dodgeball is the only commonly played school sport where hitting someone is the whole point of the game.

So how the hell did this game ever pass muster?

I spoke to former school board member Dennis Senibaldi, who was on the pro-dodgeball side of the argument when his school district in Windham, New Hampshire tried banning the game back in 2013. He explains, “I don’t think there’s any great life lesson in dodgeball or anything like that, but I just look at it as harmless fun, that’s all. I even took a look at the ball they were using, because people were saying that it could displace a retina and things like that. But the ball was 100 percent Nerf. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’ when I saw it.” 

For Mushkin, he says he completely understands that side of things: “There are teachers who say they will always play the game, and the reason they give is that ‘the kids love it.’ And that’s true for the kids who are good at it and can dodge and throw really well, but that’s less true for the kid who is immediately eliminated and sitting on the sidelines.” 

In fairness, Mushkin does add that dodgeball helps with agility and throwing skills and it has a sense of competition. “Still, that’s not enough to outweigh the negatives,” he says, especially since there are other games that can be played that use those same skills (like, for example, throwing balls at bowling pins and just tallying up the scores, rather than eliminating people).

This is also why Mushkin presses that his program, and others on his side of the argument, aren’t about banning the game of dodgeball altogether, they’re just trying to make a case that it’s not suited for physical education. “The goal of physical education is to have all the children participate and get that needed exercise, and if the kids that are in the most need of that time don’t get to play, why does it exist?” Outside of gym glass, where people have a choice to play the game, Mushkin says dodgeball is fine, as is watching clips of Adam Sandler wailing on kids.

Well, to be honest, I didn’t actually ask him about that, but I’m still going to watch that Billy Madison scene over and over again — even if dodgeball is a lousy sport to teach in school.