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The Dodgeball Crisis

June 25, 2001

Q: Mr. Answer Man, as an expert, can you explain why some schools are banning the game of dodgeball?

Answer Man: Dodgeball is a game of violence, exclusion and degradation. You have to hit your classmates with a ball! Anybody who includes it in a gym class “should be fired immediately,” said Paul Zientarski of Naperville Central High School in Illinois. Kids may think they are having fun, but end up feeling bad about themselves. Next thing you know, they torture small animals or just go postal and shoot up the school.

Q: That sounds awful. Why not use a very soft ball and tell the children to aim below the waist, just to cut down on the violence and future criminality?

A: No good. As Neil Williams says — he’s the phys ed teacher who’s been all over the TV talk shows attacking dodgeball — the problem is that the game still turns children into human targets for other children. And the aim is to expel children from the game by hitting them. Like any form of public humiliation, this causes a loss of self-esteem. Besides, the more coordinated children stay in the game 90 percent of the time, while the average kid stays only 50 percent. So the better athletes are privileged — the game is stacked in their favor.

Q: A game that good players can win does sound unfair. What’s the answer?

A: One suggestion is a version of the game that uses 15 balls, and nobody ever has to leave. No exclusion.

Q: Wow! What’s the point of the game?

A: They’re still working on it. One gym teacher says: “Students don’t mind that there is no winner. They are just having fun and working together.”

Q: Like a good day at a socialist work camp! I heard about a new version of basketball with no dribbling allowed — because some players can dribble better than others and shouldn’t be able to use that advantage. Mr. Answer Man, doesn’t it seem like these games were dreamed up by wusses left over from the 1960s, the kind of people who put words like “winner” and “loser” in quotes, just to show how much they hate competition?

A: That’s harsh. But yes, there is strong emphasis on inclusionary activities in which there is no embarrassment and no way to lose. Undue emphasis on fun is discouraged. Neil Williams has suggested that 13 traditional schoolyard games be banished to “The Physical Education Hall of Shame,” including tag, musical chairs and Simon Says.

Q: Good grief. What’s wrong with Simon Says — too violent?

A: No, the teacher has to “deceive and entrap” players by tricking them into moving before he or she says “Simon says.” This is demeaning, and it teaches children not to trust. Besides, like musical chairs and tag, it’s an elimination game that singles children out for ridicule. Tag can be violent. Some kids actually fall down. And besides, the least skilled and fit children are usually the first to be “caught, banished, punished and embarrassed,” as Williams points out.

Q: I had no idea that schoolyard games are such a living hell. What can we do?

A: We can adapt. For instance, why not make sure each child has a guaranteed seat for musical chairs? With proper seating, the source of tension is removed. Children can just relax, enjoy the music, and talk about the positive feelings that come from being included.

Q: What about tag? How do we modernize that?

A: Some schools already have no-touch tag. A child may be tagged with a soft ball of yarn. Or each player can wear a Velcro strip the tagger removes, so there’s no legal problem about unwanted touching of another child’s body. Of course, the person tagged is still singled out for humiliation. But if teachers could arrange for all players to be tagged simultaneously, that would work.

Q: With no loss of fun! How about dodgeball?

A: In Florida’s Miami-Dade schools, children now throw small balls at a large deflated ball in the middle of a circle, trying to push it along.

Q: That’s not bad. A little short on empathy for the deflated ball, perhaps, but surely high on excitement. I have another idea.

A. Yes?

Q: Each class puts a deflated gym teacher from the ’60s in the middle of a circle and playfully throws croquet balls at him until he goes into another line of work. What do you think? It’s inclusionary, non-competitive and just plain fun. Hey, where are you going? Mr. Answer Man, come back!

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