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Critics Aim to Bounce Dodge Ball Off the Schoolyard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It sounds like a classic California story: Adults concerned about self-esteem and unchecked competition legislate all the rough-and-tumble out of childhood.

In this case, there is a movement afoot to ban dodge ball, a staple of the playground for generations. Dodge ball, it seems, is bad. There are liability concerns, critics say, and the game provides a poor cardiovascular workout. The real deal-breaker, though, is that the game can hurt children’s feelings, not to mention their teeth.

But there’s a twist. This isn’t a California story at all. California has been out-Californiaed by the East Coast. What began as an outcry from a Connecticut educator resulted in recent years in a handful of school districts in New York, Virginia, Maryland, Maine, Ohio and Texas prohibiting the game on their campuses.

School officials know of no California school district that has officially banned the game. Most local districts, like Los Angeles Unified School District, leave it up to individual schools whether they let kids make human targets out of their classmates.

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The man taking aim at dodge ball--a.k.a. murder ball, killer ball, bombardment--is Neil Williams, chairman of the physical education department at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. The professor, who has been called a “wuss” more than once over this debate, admits that as a youth he was an excellent dodge ball player. He loved the game, in which his arm strength and quickness often left their mark on his less agile classmates.

It wasn’t until he became a physical education teacher years later that he underwent a radical conversion. His moment of epiphany came when he coaxed an overweight girl with John Lennon-style glasses and a rosy complexion out of the back of the room to join in a dodge ball game. Within minutes, a young boy slammed her in the face with the red rubber ball.

“He hit her so hard, it broke her nose. There was blood streaming down her face,” remembers Williams. “Most of the kids stood around laughing. And I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing setting up an activity where this is not only possible, but predictable?’”

Flash forward to the present and Williams has assembled a formidable stockpile of arguments to eliminate schoolyard dodge ball. Physical education shouldn’t be about producing varsity athletes as it has been for decades, says Williams, but should be about encouraging students to find activities that promote fitness throughout their lifetime. With this emphasis, simply on a practical level, dodge ball fails the test.

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“As physical educators, we can do so much better for the students than dodge ball. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to teach that,” says Williams. “Dodge ball is really the last refuge of a lazy physical education teacher.”

On a human values level, the game drops the ball as well, Williams says. Say what you want about the “fun” of the game, but everyone who has ever played knows those who regard the game as an opportunity to hurt people. At its base, the game encourages the strong to victimize the weak, he says, not exactly a practice schools should be fostering.

“Schools preach the value of harmony, community and cooperation,” says Williams, who half-jokingly placed dodge ball, musical chairs and duck, duck, goose in something he calls the Physical Education Hall of Shame. “But then those same schools let the big kids loose to see if they can hit the skinny nerd in the head with a hard, red rubber ball.”

But defenders of the game say that’s precisely why the game shouldn’t be banned, but trumpeted. Getting picked on and eliminated from competition, that’s life. Dodge ball teaches lessons about how to deal with winning or losing. Let’s not overprotect our children, who are tougher and more resilient than educators think. Dodge ball is no more harmful to a child’s psyche than a snowball or water-balloon fight, contend defenders.

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Some parents “want their Ambers and their Alexanders to grow up in a cozy womb of noncompetition, where everybody shares tofu, and Little Red Riding Hood and the big, bad wolf set up a commune,” wrote Rick Reilly, a columnist for Sports Illustrated. “Then their kids will stumble out into the bright light of the real world and find out that, yes, there’s weak and there’s strong and teams and sides and winning and losing.”

But Williams counters he has no problem with competition.

“I can think of a million ways to instill the spirit of competition into students that doesn’t involve hurtling an object at someone’s head,” he says.

Dodge ball has many variations; while, to be considered genuine, it must feature a human target, rules can be changed to protect the innocent. At Ivanhoe Elementary School in Los Angeles, for example, students are forbidden from hitting other players in the head with the ball. Further, if play is deemed too aggressive by adult supervisors, either the individual student may be temporarily suspended from playing the game or the game may be halted altogether, says principal Mary Jane Collier.

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“On rare occasions we have to take an entire class out and say, ‘Sorry, you’re not getting it,’” said Collier.

One Ivanhoe second-grader said he was taken out of a dodge ball game a couple of months ago after pegging another student in the chest with the ball. The student who was hit cried. “I felt bad,” said the boy. When asked later what he liked about the game, the boy said: “I like hitting people with the ball.”

Added his second-grade friend: “I like what he likes, but I like dodging the ball too.”

Even as momentum grows to ban dodge ball for kids, adults are picking up the game. Vanity Fair recently dubbed it an “in” sport. The game has spawned a couple of short films--one a comedy, one a drama--that have made the rounds at small film festivals in recent years. And lately, a new reality-based television show called “Ultimate Dodgeball” is being shopped around Hollywood.

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The National Amateur Dodgeball Assn. was formed in 2000 in Schaumburg, Ill. The city’s parks and recreation department founded the organization when it was looking for an event suitable for the community and discovered dodge ball had no national sanctioning body.

The organization, which heralds dodge ball as a splendid cardiovascular workout and all-around good time, sponsors a number of tournaments for fourth-graders to adults.

The first year of the tournament, there were 33 teams; this year the group is expecting more than 100, according to Bill DePue, co-director of the association.

“With proper supervision, the right equipment and age-appropriate rules, dodge ball is a lot of fun,” said DePue. “We want to see the popularity of this game continue to increase.”

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Earlier this month, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation raised $90,000 with its first celebrity dodge ball tournament, held behind the back lot of Warner Bros. Studios. The cutthroat group from the television show “Survivor"--featuring, among others, host Jeff Probst and Ethan Zohn--took home the coveted first-place trophy.

Like any true California story, the last words belong to the celebrities. So here, a few takes on the controversy.

Matt Stone, co-creator of “South Park”: “Of course they want to ban it, it’s fun.... Kids, especially boys, need to be able to get out their aggression in a constructive, supervised atmosphere.”

David Spade, the fragile star of TV’s “Just Shoot Me,” decided not to play after arriving. “I support the ban. It’s rough when you’re young to get taken out of the game in front of the girls. When I was walking here I heard the balls hitting the fence and it sounded like the soundtrack to ‘Apocalypse Now.’”

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Kip Madsen, a production assistant on “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn”: “The ban is a product of too many moms with too much time on their hands. Even if you get hit in the face, it doesn’t hurt that much. It builds character.”

Zohn, the winner of the third “Survivor” crown: “I’ve heard of the bans. I’m surprised there weren’t protesters here when we arrived.”


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