The Dodgeball Dilemma


photo (c) 2004, 20th Century Fox

NOTE: I wrote this article about 4 years ago, and thought in light of the great newDodgeball movie, it was worth digging out again.

You can’t grow up in America without basketball, football, or baseball playing a part of your life (or if you live in Australia, rugby, dingo tag and kangaroo wrestling).  In the earliest years of elementary school, you can learn to strike out, drop a ball, and do other humiliating things that define your athleticism for the rest of your life.  Clearly getting immature uncoordinated tots to play games of this nature was such a challenge, so different games were invented to give them an even break.

As I was panting and wheezing my way through a game of driveway basketball (I’m a great 3 point shooter, mainly cause I can’t dribble worth a shit), I began to fondly remember those games.  Dodge ball, kickball, Tag, 4-square, or tetherball . . . they were always some of my favorites.  But why did we stop playing them?

When I was a kid in Reston, VA about 25 children would play a game while they were waiting at the bus stop called “Crack the Whip”.  You’d simply all hold hands and run in a crazy snake circling patterns at a high speed and try to make the poor kids at the end fly through the air and go crashing into a tree.

Tag taught us a lot of basic survival skills, basically how to run away from someone trying to get you.  In this day and age of increased kidnappings, school shootings, and angry parents mad that you broke their favorite vase, learning to run away from someone is a must.  You had your classic tag where someone was “IT” and ran around trying to pass the “IT” virus to someone else.  Some variants of the game featured a safety base area equivalent of the immunity idol.  

My favorite version was Freeze Tag where being touched by the “IT” kid would make you stop in your tracks, and you couldn’t move again unless one of the unfrozen kids came to your rescue and tagged you.  It was always sad to see the less popular kids stranded in the field, frozen, waiting for someone to thaw them out to no avail.

Survival of the fittest was introduced at an early age to kids who played King of Mountain.  This was always the showcase for the big fat kid who otherwise got picked on a lot, to send kids tumbling down a hill to their doom. 

I remember playing this when I was only about 6 with some much bigger kids in a construction yard.  We saw this 25 year old woman walking towards us from far away.  One of the crafty kids told me, “Hey, when that lady walks by us, ask her if you can lick her vagina”.  I asked what a “vagina” was, and he replied, “Oh, it’s a piece of candy, like a lollipop.”  I  waited for her to get right by the hill, and eager to get a taste of her sweet candy (and unaware it was a different sort of sweet candy altogether), I screamed, “Hey…CAN I LICK YOUR VAGINA?”  She looked up, shook her head, and walked on.  The other guys were doubled over in laughter, when I told them, “I guess she didn’t have one.”

One of the more beautifully Darwinesque games ever designed however was dodgeball.  A few kids would stand around a huddled mass of scared kids in the middle, and throw a ball at them.  Each time someone is hit, they have to join the others on the perimeter, until there’s one left, jumping and ducking about like some biblical stoning victim.

Dodgeball was fun on the surface, but deep down it was a secret way to smack your fellow students really hard with no retribution.  Usually we’d use one of those red soft playground balls, but every now then we’d get to use a volleyball or something harder.  Though there were strict “no headhunting” rules, it was awful hard to get in trouble for having bad aim.  I mean, we were only 8 years old.

I remember one poor girl named Krista who got pegged in the crotch so hard, she curled up on the ground in a fetal position for a few minutes.  Instead of receiving sympathy, someone just shouted out, “POW!  Right in the catcher’s mitt!”  If you hit someone in the face, you’d get high fives from everyone around.  Matt told me a about a guy who hit a girl in the face so hard that it broke her glasses AND knocked her out cold.  Instead of being ostracized, he was “Hero of The School.”  (Of course, the girl likely came back and shot 15 kids the next day).

Perhaps the most brutal game we played was “Smear The Queer”.  With a name like that, it’s just a notch above “Kill The Fag”, but the homophobic undertones went unnoticed by us.  The rules were suicidal.  Someone would throw the ball in the air, and whoever caught it would have to run around until they were caught, gang-tackled, and usually punched a few times.  Why anyone chose to catch the ball is still a mystery to me, but it certainly whetted our appetite for masochism for years to come.  Understandably, this game, at least in name, has all but disappeared from most schoolyards. 

So why did we stop playing these things?  No teacher ever sat us down and said, “You’re growing up, let’s put a stop to this and focus on varsity sports.”  It’s as if there’s some mystical rule in high school that forbids you from even speaking of them again.  Sometimes I think a good game of tag or dodge ball would be incredibly fun.  Perhaps the ever strengthening bodies of teenagers growing up are too powerful to unleash with sports like that.

For the most part, these games taught kids how to play together.  There weren’t clearly defined jocks and geeks yet cause most anyone can run or evade a ball with equal proficiency.  But come time for high school, it’s off to the Chess Club for the kids that can’t cut it.  And if it gets too bad, you can start studying those Columbine kids more carefully.

We’re too afraid to just let our kids be savage beasts anymore.  No dangerous toys or games are allowed.  Some dumb kid chucks lawn darts into the air and impale their sister in the head, so they’re banned.  All the toy guns are bright orange so they don’t look too real (might get accidentally shot by those cops that are always sneaking into our backyard).   Even playing Cowboys and Indians is looked upon as politically incorrect.  

Without an adequate outlet to express the animal side, it gets bottled up and expressed in other ways.  Left untapped, often tragic consequences (and some suggest an increase in boy band CD sales) occur.

We do too much to prevent kids from playing dangerous games, while doing little or nothing to eliminate the real life dangers they emulate.  Toy guns are bad and real guns are good, in this twisted society we live in.  Violent videogames where you shoot up electronic zombies are bad, while nothing is done about the actual zombie problem in the world.

So go ahead and gather up your pals for a game of drunken dodge ball.  You’ll have the time of your life, and the world will be a better place for it.

-Robert