Student Well-Being

Dodge Ball Takes a Drubbing In Several School Districts

By John Gehring — February 21, 2001 6 min read
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It’s a time-honored part of physical education classes, a game where students home in on their classmates across the gym and hurl a rubber ball at them as hard as they can, hoping to drill their opponents and eliminate them from play.

But these days, dodge ball, the frenetic game played for years with reckless abandon by school-age children everywhere is itself taking a drubbing—from some educators and recreation experts who say the game has no place in schools.

Schools and districts across the country have been dropping dodge ball from the roster of games played in physical education classes. In some cases, school officials have cited liability concerns. But others have done away with the game because they say that the message it sends children is inappropriate and incompatible with what schools should be teaching.

“This is a topic that no matter where you bring it up, never fails to ignite heated passions,” said Neil Williams, the chairman of the health and physical education department at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Conn.

Far from a fan of the game he calls a “lawsuit waiting to happen,” Mr. Williams has even branded dodge ball as a prime “exhibit” in what he calls the “Physical Education Hall of Shame.”

The list originated in a series of articles he wrote in the 1990s for The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. In the articles, Mr. Williams dubs dodge ball as the worst remnant of games that a new breed of physical education teachers and health educators say provide little in the way of fitness conditioning and inappropriately use people as targets.

Other offenders that share the not-so- flattering spotlight include Duck, Duck Goose and Red Rover.

“Dodge ball is one of those games that encourages aggression and the strong picking on the weak,” said Mr. Williams, who despite his advocacy against dodge ball begrudgingly admits having taken a liking to the game as a child.

“I have to say I enjoyed it,” he said. “I was a skinny little runt of a guy, but I was incredibly sneaky and nasty in the game.”

Fond Memories

School board members in Cecil County, Md., grabbed headlines from coast to coast last month when they added dodge ball to a list of activities—including tackle football and boxing—that should be discouraged in gym classes in the 15,500-student district.

Forget talk of test scores and curriculum frameworks; the local newspaper in this rural county northeast of Baltimore near the Delaware border cast the decision as “The Dodge Ball Vote.”

Suddenly, adults with full-time jobs and other trappings of maturity were arguing like children on a playground over a game some remembered with fond memories and others recalled with painful flashbacks.

“This issue kind of snowballed and became emotional,” said Lisa Koch, the president of the Cecil County school board. She said district officials periodically update the list of games and activities that shouldn’t be used in physical education classes.

An ‘Eliminating’ Game

All the dodge ball bashing is enough to drive Robert Petersen crazy. Mr. Petersen—a California television producer of “Playground Games,” a TV series scheduled for next year that features adults playing kickball, dodge ball, marbles, and other childhood games—contends that the anti-dodge-ball forces need to lighten up.

Children enjoy dodge ball, he said, because it is informal, fun, and free of the structure many sports demand. And at a time when youngsters are overweight, thanks in part to a combination of junk food and sedentary addictions to games like Sega, going after dodge ball is counterproductive and a waste of energy, Mr. Petersen argues.

“The bottom line is, if we are going to waste our time worrying, we should worry about Game Boy,” Mr. Petersen said about the popular Nintendo game. “Be glad your kid is out there interacting and playing in darn near anything.”

Judith C. Young, the executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a Reston, Va.-based group that advises school districts on health and physical education curricula, is not an absolutist in the dodge-ball debate.

But she does argue that other activities are more appropriate for the motion skills that students are intended to learn in a game like dodge ball. “We really don’t think it is a good instructional activity,” Ms. Young said. “But that doesn’t mean we think it should never be played.”

Not having players sit down after they have been hit, along with other variations on the rules, can make the game less exclusive, Ms. Young added. “Usually,” she said, “it is the kids who need the most practice who get eliminated first.”

The association promotes the idea that other games in which only a few students at a time are active, such as relay races, also should be replaced with activities that ensure all students are exercising.

With all the sound and fury over dodge ball, some physical education teachers seem to have put the matter to rest on their own simply by not playing the game in classes. “It’s not a part of our program, and it is not recommended,” said Terri McCauley, the coordinator of physical education for the Montgomery County, Md., schools.

Ms. McCauley said the game, with its emphasis on using other players as targets to be knocked off one by one, doesn’t fit with the 134,300-student district’s physical education curriculum, which is designed to promote the social, emotional, and physical growth of students.

But in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second- largest district, the game is still played in schools, said Cricket Bauer, a spokeswoman for the 723,000-student system. “It is up to the individual school,” she said. “It is monitored by the principal and the athletic director.”

A New Following

Ironically, at the same time that some school districts are eliminating dodge ball from their physical education programs, the game has gained a substantial following among youths, and even adults, in community recreation leagues.

Richard Hanetho, the director of the National Amateur Dodge Ball Association, a group in Schaumburg, Ill., that formed last year and hosts the country’s only national dodge-ball tournaments for youth and adults, regularly receives calls and e-mails from students angry that they no longer play the game in gym class.

But while he is an outspoken booster of a game that is flourishing in the Schaumburg Park District, the parks and recreation agency he works for, Mr. Hanetho focuses on promoting interest in the game through the association’s tournaments and prefers to the avoid debate over dodge ball in schools.

He believes that individual gym teachers should decide whether dodge ball is appropriate for youngsters in their classes. He said, though, that he finds it hard to believe that dodge ball poses a serious threat, considering the many other problems children must contend with these days.

Indoor and outdoor national tournaments held in Schaumburg have attracted youth and adult teams from around the country. In early January, 26 teams competed in the adult men’s division. To critics who say the game is too dangerous for youths, Mr. Hanetho emphasizes that tournament games are played with a Nerf ball, and that no injuries have been reported after hundreds of matches.

As an indicator of the growing interest in dodge ball, Mr. Hanetho noted that he has given numerous media interviews about the game and just recently a local radio and television station ran a live broadcast of a dodge-ball game.

And then there was the man who called from India to ask about starting a dodge-ball association there.

“The attention has caught us a bit off guard,” Mr. Hanetho said. “The game is universal. No matter who you talk to, they can share a dodge-ball story. It’s a fun game to play.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Dodge Ball Takes a Drubbing In Several School Districts

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