Showdown in Dodge City

Dodgeball, that universal schoolyard staple, has become about as welcome in U.S. schools as the "it" kid in a game of tag.

The debate over the once-popular game boils down to two points of view. Critics are calling it a traumatic experience for less athletic kids that has no place in schools. Dodgeball lovers say it's good exercise and good fun and that overcautious school administrators shouldn't try to stamp out. 

"I believe it should be stopped," said film director Art Jones, who directed Dodgeball, a mock-documentary criticizing the game. "Anyone with an ailment or who wears glasses or anyone slightly different suddenly wears a bull's eye. I think that dodgeball derailed an entire generation of Americans. It's the true red menace."

In his "docudramedy" about dodgeball — also known as bombardment, Alamo ball, burning ball, killer ball, and ball chaser — Jones makes the argument that by teaching kids to pick on the weak and slow, the game makes bullies of the more athletic kids and makes the meek even meeker.

And several school districts agree, saying that dodgeball, a game in which children eliminate opponents by lobbing rubber balls at each other, is dangerous and promotes the wrong values. Districts from Maine to Texas have banned dodgeball from their gymnasiums.

Neil F. Williams, a physical education professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, made it the first game he lambasted in an article entitled "The Physical Education Hall of Shame," printed in The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance.

"Generally speaking, the game is a litigation action waiting to happen," Williams writes. "At most, about half of the students really play — the rest hide in the farthest reaches of the gym. There is no denying that the game involves throwing, catching, running, thinking, teamwork, and strategy. However, there has to be a better way to do it than to endanger the health and well-being of our students — not to mention the security of our jobs."

The good aspects of dodgeball could be taught in other ways, according Judith C. Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, part of the association that publishes the journal.

"When it's played with the traditional rules, the kids who need the most practice are eliminated," she said. "Physical education classes are supposed to make kids like physical activity. There aren't any other activities even in real sports where the idea is to throw things at people. We throw things to be caught, but not to hit people."

But even as the anti-dodgeball movement stumbles its way through U.S. schools like a kid playing Blind Man's Bluff, lovers of the red ball are rallying to the game's defense.

"I can understand the ideas they may get in their heads about what they may have experienced or heard about the sport," said Bill DePue, co-director of the National Amateur Dodgeball Association. "But we feel that the sport can be played in a way that is appropriate for schools. It's a good stress reliever. It's a good aerobic workout. It's just, well, it's just fun."

It's also more popular than ever, DePue said. Founded in July 2000, the Schaumburg, Ill., organization holds national dodgeball tournaments that have attracted as many as 300 people of all ages — that abide by strict rules of fair play and safety. And even when a team never notches up a single victory, as was the case last summer with a group of 6th graders, they still have fun.

"The argument is that the game can damage the self-esteem of the less successful players," DePue said. "But these girls didn't want to stop playing even though they never won."

And, he noted, there has never been even a minor injury from an association dodgeball game.

At Grapevine High School in Grapevine, Texas, kids who were fans of the game even founded a dodgeball group, the Bombardment Society, which, with 60 members, is the largest club at the school. Society spokesman and co-founder Brett Bowden, now a 19-year-old college student who is still active in the group, said people's fears about the game are exaggerated.

"I don't see that throwing a projectile is the same as shooting a gun at someone, or that there's any difference between dodgeball and tackling someone in football," Bowden said. "We played dodgeball in elementary school, and I don't remember anyone getting hurt. Maybe kids are growing bigger biceps than when we were little. It's just us having fun, a bunch of kids hanging out and playing a game."

Not so for Jones, who remembers the guilt he felt years ago when he first nailed a smaller kid with his blistering sidewinder.

"There was a sense of remorse," he said. "I thrilled in the victory, but there was the humanity of it … bodies flopping to the hardwood floor, little bodies getting pummeled."

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