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Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 2000 / 18 Kislev, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Outlawing dodge-ball -- WE ARE OFTEN TOLD sports prepare young people for life. Sometimes I worry that might be true, but it probably depends on the sport.

Baseball can impart an unreasonable belief that things will always stay the same. It offers the false security of an orderly universe that can be understood through statistics. Football promotes a slap-happy faith in the value of hard-charging team effort, although it can also provide all the metaphors anyone needs to become a cable-news political commentator. Soccer fosters the mistaken belief that you can be a huge success by achieving only one or two goals.

Then there's dodge ball.

Dodge ball is a game that has more than a few life-preparation benefits. Unlike veterans of games with elaborate rules, dodge-ball players understand basic, free-form conflict. They know rules shift game to game. They learn the basic political lesson that standing out in a crowd means having to dodge incoming objects.

I mention this because it appears dodge ball is falling upon hard times. This saddens me.

Physical-education teachers have been quietly eliminating the game. And administrators denounce it on the not unreasonable around that encouraging kids to throw objects at each other sends something of a mixed message. Particularly when the rest of the non-PE middle school day is often devoted to discouraging kids from throwing objects at each other, with intervals of instruction tossed in.

Of course, this is the very subversive element that gives the game its appeal, its glamour.

Some school systems have even banned the game. In Cecil County, Maryland, the school board is set to vote next month on an anti-dodge-ball policy. It would ban all 'activities requiring human targets.'

Under that language, I suppose the school knife-throwing club would also be in trouble. Hockey, too. But clearly this volley is aimed straight at the heart of dodge ball.

But the more subtle threat to d-ball is changing phys-ed philosophies. A shift away from activities that stress winners and losers and toward less competitive sports. Away from activities in which most of the kids sit around and watch the one or two kids who are good at this kind of thing. Away from activities that damage self-esteem. Less stress, more movement are the goals of The New PE.

My own dodge-ball record in The Old PE was mixed. As a red-haired person, I was a natural target. Along with the fat kids, tall kids, the visually impaired and kids who still managed to dress badly even when they were wearing standard-issue PE uniforms.

Although my hair has grayed -- I prefer the term 'blonded' -- I still have a red-haired person's defensiveness. I have the walk of a person who fears a dodge-ball game might erupt at any moment. And I am still certain to be a first-strike target.

The natural-born dodge-ball target develops uncanny peripheral vision, a sixth sense of motion in the air nearby, and a tendency to stand in the back row of groups.

But even though I was certain to have no fewer than five balls aimed at me in any first volley, I did not dislike the game. On the contrary, because there are few rules and therefore fewer ways of messing up, I rushed into it with gusto. Gusto that might be timed in fractions of a second, but something gustolike, nonetheless.

Then, while the last few champions contended, everyone else would goof off, talk and walk around. Me and the fat kids, tall kids, the visually impaired and kids who still managed to dress badly even though they were wearing standard-issue PE uniforms. People who would turn out to be among the more interesting people I know.

The dodge-ball universe is divided starkly into spazzes and bombardiers. We are, most of us, the former. I can still size up a person under his or her adult clothing as a spaz or bombardier and react accordingly.

It may not be a life sport, but it is a sport that prepares you for life. When dodge ball is outlawed only outlaws will dodge balls.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2000, M. R. Lane