Paul Batura: Dodgeball isn’t ‘legalized bullying’ – This game has valuable life lessons to teach our kids

Academics are meeting in Vancouver, Canada this week as part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, an annual gathering designed to both study and challenge longstanding cultural norms.

Believe it or not, included in the myriad of topics on the docket for discussion is the game of dodgeball, a sport that immediately conjures up memories (good and bad) of gym class for almost anyone who attended traditional school as a child.

According to the trio of presenters in Vancouver, dodgeball should be banished to the ash heap of history because it “reinforces the five faces of oppression” – specifically, exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. One researcher called the game “tantamount to legalized bullying.”


Growing up, I always appreciated my teachers and professors and I’m friends today with many people who make their living in the classroom. I have a great deal of respect for higher education.

But I’m immediately suspicious whenever I read academic treatises like this one that uses sophisticated and loaded terms to describe something as simple and straightforward as a game played with soft rubber balls.

Like dodgeball, we’re also called to protect other people in our care or on our team, blocking and shielding them from the “slings and arrows” of everyday life.

In short, many critics of dodgeball don’t like the sport because there are clear winners and losers – and to get there, sometimes the big kids pick on the small ones, albeit at times with unnecessarily cruel tactics.

The origin of dodgeball dates back over 200 years to Africa, where the game was reportedly played with rocks and putrefied matter. It was a fight of the fittest and sometimes turned deadly.

A Christian missionary from England named Dr. James Carlisle was appalled by the bloody and violent nature of the contests, but became intrigued by the agility of the competitors as well as the teamwork that each team employed.

Inspired by the potential he saw in the positive attributes of a game with admittedly negative aspects, he brought the concept back to St. Mary’s College, where soft balls replaced the hard rocks.

That same year visitors from Yale University in the United States, likewise impressed with the game, introduced a version of dodgeball to American students. Phillip Ferguson of Yale is credited with redesigning the game in 1884 and in 1905 he wrote the first official rules.

I loved dodgeball growing up – and still love the game today. I was never the best athlete or the most popular kid in my class, but I held my own and found the action-packed suspense of each contest to be exciting.

Who would be left standing? When Mr. Russ, our elementary school gym teacher, blew that whistle and those red rubber balls started flying, my adrenaline soared liked an eagle in high flight. It was simple fun.

Mr. Russ’ version of the game had a provision that allowed players to re-enter if someone on their team scored a basket on the opponent’s side of the court – a “Hail Mary” shot, to be sure. A highlight of my childhood was sinking one of those tosses – and being mobbed by my fellow teammates as they flooded back onto the floor. It felt good to be needed and come through for them in the end.

Granted, not everybody likes dodgeball – my wife included. But Julie doesn’t see the sport as part of an imperialistic plot to exploit and marginalize kids. Instead, she realizes that you sometimes do things in life that you don’t like and one person’s disdain is often another person’s delight. She likens it to making a kid take a music class, which she loved – but others don’t.

At the root of the visceral and over-the-top reaction to dodgeball is an unfortunate and evolving trend to overreact to anything that may or may not simply need correction. The proverbial phrase of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater” comes to mind.

Just because a few bad apples may have unfairly played the game from time to time, does that justify eliminating it? No.

I’m reminded of the push in the early part of the 20th century to ban college football, a movement started due to rising fatalities in the sport.

In response to the escalating furor, President Theodore Roosevelt, a fan of the game and a hearty sportsman himself, convened a meeting at the White House. He urged attendees to amend the rules of the game, which they did, ushering in a new era of the sport. As a result, college football survived – and has thrived ever since.

Like many sports, dodgeball is a metaphor for life. As Julie indicated, sometimes you’re called to play a game you don’t like – and you just have to do the best you can with what you’ve got at the time.

But the applications don’t end there.

Any successful life requires agility and the ability to set a goal and hit your target – and yes, deflect, endure and survive return fire.

Like dodgeball, we’re also called to protect other people in our care or on our team, blocking and shielding them from the “slings and arrows” of everyday life.


Finally, the reality is that like in every game of dodgeball, sometimes you get knocked down and out, even relegated to the sidelines to await the next round.

In the end, though, every setback has within it the seeds of a comeback, and – like the red rubber balls of my dodgeball youth – we’re made to bounce back from any challenge that comes our way.