With age, we come to realize that what we accepted as “normal” in the past was not necessarily “good.” On the list of childhood games, dodgeball seems to come in for this revisionism quite a bit, as schools and states have spent decades wrestling with the question of whether to restrict the activity or ban it outright. Parents warn that it’s outdated and cruel, while educators find it a vector for bullying and an inferior use of gym time. This week, academics in Vancouver for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences are going further still, presenting the case that dodgeball has a “hidden curriculum” that reinforces multiple aspects of “oppression,” including “marginalization, powerlessness and helplessness of those perceived as weaker individuals through the exercise of violence and dominance by those who are considered more powerful.”
Predictably, the far right believes this trend is eroding western values (or whatever they pretend to care about) and write on it as one of countless battles in a broader culture war. It plays neatly into their narrative of the other side as “politically correct wusses” afraid to expose children to the tough realities of competition known to shape adult life.
I’m inclined to dismiss this take as the typically reductive zero-sum Darwinism of a political faction allergic to empathy in any form, and yet I cannot convince myself that dodgeball is quite so toxic as the detractors claim. At the very least, I doubt you can fully condemn it without questioning the whole of schoolyard sport, which will never exist entirely separate from a hierarchy of strength and athleticism. It all boils down to what kind of bruises — to body and ego alike — we imagine kids ought to be able to weather.
My own nostalgia colors the question, as I’m sure it does for many. During elementary school recess, we played an everyone-for-themselves variant of dodgeball on an outdoor asphalt court. We called it “Elimination”: if you got hit, you were out, but if the person who hit you got nailed in kind (or someone caught their throw), you and everyone they’d eliminated were back in the game. Participation was mercifully voluntary, and though I was a frail nerd, I joined in anyway, taking my licks and the occasional skinned palm in stride. My proudest moment came on an afternoon when a bigger kid was mowing us down with Terminator-like efficiency, soon looking like he’d do the impossible and actually win. Such a thing was unprecedented, but he was clearly unstoppable. At last he turned and cornered me, one of the last kids standing. I braced myself for obliteration. He fired low, aiming strategically for my legs… and by some miraculous instinct, I caught the ball between my knees. The entire class rushed the blacktop from the sidelines, cheering me wildly as the game began all over again.
The memory stands out, I think, because I have essentially no equal athletic triumphs to relive. The stress of fielding or batting in Little League I found way more traumatic; I got reasonably good at tennis but never joined a team; my track career ended before it began, summer training interrupted by a diagnosis of Lyme disease. But it also demonstrates that dodgeball is not an unrelenting parade of dominance: The strong do lose, and the weak do prevail. I noticed this, too, in dodgeball games at YMCA day camp, where we played at the mercy of teen counselors who picked us off with sadistic glee, but they were not impervious to counterattack or the agility of their younger wards.
John Danek, who is due to start his fourth season of adult dodgeball on the team “Yinz Throw, Youze Dodge” with the CLUBWAKA Hollywood League on Sunday, mentions this unpredictable playing field as key to the sport’s enduring appeal: “It feels incredible any time you eliminate a player who is clearly better than you,” he says. “Sometimes it just happens. The most exciting/terrifying thing is being the last player remaining against the firing line of the other team. You usually never turn it around but it’s so intense and fun.”
He and a second adult dodgeballer I messaged with on Twitter cite this “adrenaline rush” as a reason to keep dodgeballin’ as a grownup, and both men explain that they got into the recreational leagues as a way to make new friends — two positives that appear largely absent from the ongoing debate on dodgeball in schools.
That said, the adult dodgeball organizations select for community-minded folks in a way that gym class dodgeball cannot. My neighborhood league, WeHo Dodgeball, for example, welcomes “LGBTQ+ players and allies,” particularly “newcomers looking to find their place in the city,” and puts a premium on players getting to know one another after matches. “You join knowing what the game is and that there is a huge social element built-in,” Danek agrees. “Also, you are able to choose foam vs. rubber leagues. I would never play in a rubber league because who wants to take a heavy rubber ball to the face? I remember elementary school using rubber balls and they hurt.” Still, he’s “not as hardline saying that kids should never be exposed to it,” wondering if “there’s something to be said for tapping into our inherent survival and combat instincts in a simulated way.” This is closer to my own feeling that dodgeball is not inherently evil but often imposed in harmful ways that emphasize brutality over the madcap fun.
A handful of grownups, however, want to spoil that joy for everyone. “I am a very non-competitive person, though I do try very hard to do well on the court for my team,” Danek says. “But some people start yelling at refs, or screaming and swearing in rage, and I loathe that shit. It can ruin a game for me.” He even sees the kind of viciousness that anti-dodgeball advocates worry about: “[T]here are the people (usually men but occasionally women) who go over the top… by throwing harder than necessary at someone who is less fit or quick.” Your final verdict on dodgeball will depend on whether you see this behavior as defining the game or a problematic outgrowth of it, one by no means absent from the usual alternate school activities — even a chess match in study hall can lead to gloating or psychological torment. Like everything from pickup basketball to capture the flag, it must be possible to play dodgeball with honor and a sense of fairness, in the spirit of holding oneself steady and focused amid the fray.
Does that make me a dodgeball apologist? Maybe. And I can’t say it’s a hill I’m ready to die on as institutions phase out the sport. But it’s nice to envision a world where this is the worst pain we inflict on fellow humans — in a war not of enemies, but friends.