An Open Letter About Dodgeball
Submitted to Streetplay by Bob Pisano
In his recent article, Robert Lipsyte, noted sports writer for the New York Times (Dodgeball, In Adult Hands, March 3,2002), asks whether the pervasive schoolyard game, Dodgeball, is detrimental to the physical social and emotional well being of teens.
Let me shout out a loud and clear "Hello." It's just fine and I'd like to tell you why we may be dodging the real issue.
I know I'm starting to sound like my grandfather but when I was a kid running around New York City in the 50's and 60's, the whole world of freeplay and street games was different. We played for the sake of having fun and stayed outside until the streetlights came on and the lightning bugs could be trapped in a Mayo jar. When we discuss the socially detrimental effects of dodgeball on our disadvantaged, Nintendo toting teens, it's time to talk.
Dodgeball's is an elementary team game. Simply put, the goal of one team is to throw a large, red gym ball at the opposing players below the waist thus knocking them out of the game. Last team with members standing wins. Pretty simple, no? You don't need a lawyer or any Olympic Skating committee to pass a ruling or give out another gold medal. The knock on this game (a.k.a. killer ball or bombardment) is that it promotes bullying, victimizing and isolation for those who drop out of the game.
After reading the Lipsyte article I fondly recalled my experiences at summer day camp and gym classes. Back in the simple 1950's before we had terms such as "less capable" or emotionally challenged," we played lots of games outdoors. The game of dodgeball (and it is a game) had nothing to do with the difficult skill of hitting a baseball or guiding a basketball through a hoop 9 feet in the air. Tall, short, fat or skinny, all of us played. For all its shortcomings, the game promoted other life and social skills.
Let me explain. My 20 year-old son, who was never blessed with Michael Jordan's jumping prowess, told me he would size up the his team, scope out the strongest player or the one with the widest girth and position himself behind him. He concluded that his chance of not taking a hit improved. On he other hand, if my son was not in the mood to play on a hot humid day, he would, like a good pawn, take a shot to the foot within the first seconds, retire to a shade tree and read his favorite comic book while the others fell, screamed or got scratched up. No dope was he. Another life- skill is knowing when to cut your losses.
For me, 40 years ago, big, rotund Henry was my protector. Not agile but big and round, Henry was my shield and protected me until of course clocked in the knee, Henry lumbered to the sidelines. Then I had to think for myself and try to survive. When I was eliminated, I would cheer for our remaining comrades. Isn't this a life skill- supporting your friends even if you can't be a part of the fray?
Another important rule had to do with catching a ball flung at you traveling 80 miles an hour from 4 feet away. If you caught the ball, then the player who threw the red ball was out. Isn't this a skill always mentioned in intelligence tests- great hand-eye coordination?
Even the way teams were chosen for dodgeball, stickball or touch football on a crisp, fall morning had its rituals. At age 12, we polished negotiating skills that would make Henry Kissinger proud. Unknowingly we were learning how to reach a consensus, build political alliances , barter, and analyze the value of potential team players. Choosing sides in dodgeball is no different than a New York City mayor wanting his way and trading political favors to get it. Dodgeball is no different than what happens in Congress every day. I'll support this if you offer that. It's just that kids don't wear suits and declare war.
With dodgeball all you needed was a big red ball and kids. Today's organized sports programs for all their benefits of keeping kids aged 3 to 17 off the streets is so organized that it has given birth to a host of commercial enterprises unknown a generation ago. Now we have big-box, sporting goods stores selling all types of expensive equipment for soccer, swimming, track and skating in addition to the standard team sports of baseball and football. Families can't plan vacations any more because of playoff games and tournaments that stretch into August. (And by the way, what is a traveling team? I thought that was the New York Yankees?) Family dinners are compromised because coaches call constant practices after school and into the night. Teachers know when Little League season starts because homework becomes an afterthought for most players. Winning the trophy comes before grammar, reading and math.
Maybe I'm just getting old and grouchy but we seemed to have more fun naturally, informally than kids involved in highly organized sports programs today. Nobody was killed at a hockey rink or clubbed with a baseball bat because the umpire missed a call at the plate. We fixed pour broken Louisville Sluggers with black electrical tape and wrapped are baseballs with duct tape until they rolled down a sewer. But we still had lots of fun, fought hard but knew it was just a game.
I am sure we can take any game and find something that offends the politically correct crowd. Most nursery rhymes are based in violence, treachery and the control of women. Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall and that fair lady in" London Bridges Falling Down" was being locked up in the tower of London. Kindergarten kids form a circle and sing "Ring a Ring O' Roses. A pocket full of posies, Tisjha, Tisha , We all fall down." Isn't that a reference to royalty dying in England? And let's not forget that great pre- school classic "The Farmer in the Dell." Doesn't this end with "and the cheese stands alone"? Now isn't that a great self esteem builder. Hey, Billy, you're the cheese. Go stand in the corner."
It's easy to lose sight of the big picture. Kids play all kinds of games and they're going to learn different physical and life skills from each. If the kids have a game they like with lots of involvement and no one's getting hurt, I say let them play. That's the good part about growing up
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