Dodgeball wasn't what you think it was.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 21 2004 4:59 PM

Saved by the Ball

How popular culture has gotten dodgeball all wrong.

Back to the blacktop
Back to the blacktop

College Gardens Elementary School, 1988. Maybe you weren't there with me, but you know the scene: The recess blacktop filling up with kids in Velcro sneakers and mock-Hawaiian Jamms shorts, our pockets stuffed with thumbed and faded Garbage Pail Kids. Fifteen seconds ago, we were devouring nuclear-orange Sloppy Joes with forest-green sporks; now we've got a mere 30 minutes to release the pent-up energy that comes with being cooped up in cinderblock cubes and forced to memorize state capitals and execute basic fractions. Our only piece of recreational gear during this half hour is a large maroon rubber ball, which an intimidating badass named Tim Woods is bouncing against the hot asphalt, over and over, awaiting suggestions.

Someone: We could play kickball?

Woods: Did that yesterday.

Someone else: Foursquare?

Woods: You a girl, all of a sudden?

Someone else: Dodgeball?

Woods: Line up.

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Pop culture is a funny force: constantly metastasizing, infiltrating, infuriating. Six months ago no one was talking about dodgeball; now even my grandmother is, and she's an 83-year-old woman who, since having a stroke, can barely talk. The culprit, of course, is an oppressively ubiquitous (and queasily irresistible) ad campaign for yet another mediocre Ben Stiller vehicle—Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Before the movie was even released it had begun to spawn bastard children: The cable network GSN started an "extreme dodgeball" league, a schlocky attempt to colonize the ironic longings of the holy 18- to 34-year-old demographic. And then there's something called the International Dodgeball Tournament of Champions, which is exactly what you're imagining it to be: a chance for that same demo to feel as if they've slipped back into the 6- to 13-year-old slot by pretending they're still in elementary school.

Call me a spoilsport, but I'm sorry: I just don't buy this "cultural moment," even if the movie: a) was the top-grossing film over the weekend; b) made a cameo appearance in the "Week in Review" section of the New YorkTimes; and c) is the topic of the winkingly self-referential personal essay you're reading right now. Granted, most cultural phenomena brought to us by Hollywood movie studios tend to feel a bit manufactured, but this one seems especially disingenuous. To believe the hype is to perceive dodgeball as a kind of preteen gulag where the cool kids mercilessly destroyed the uncool. Demeaning social strata were reinforced, egos crushed, futures in therapy solidified. But did dodgeball ever really hew to this survival-of-the-fittest mold? Does anyone actually have memories of being a repeat blacktop terrorist or a perennial dodgeball casualty?

I certainly don't, and I must've played it every other day for the majority of my career as a suburban elementary school kid in the pre-Ritalin era. What made the game unique was that it managed to eliminate, if only for a few adrenalized minutes, all those cruel social hierarchies that torment you so when you're young. It was a wholly egalitarian pastime and for a wholly unromantic reason: In trying to dodge the ball, you often failed to dodge the fellow players. The pale forehead of a geek would collide with the Herculean nose of a bully, knocking him flat on his face, and that was more than OK: It was the whole point. No one was safe. Everyone got hurt. Dodgeball, in short, wasn't Lord of the Flies so much as Fight Club for the Saturday cartoon set: I hit you; you hit me; see you here tomorrow.

Take the recess in question. Look at us: lined up now against the brick wall, more alert than when we're pretending to be Navy SEALs ridding the world of communism. Tim Woods has the ball in hand. Not only is he the fastest kid in the school and the strongest, but Tim Woods is hands down the ambassador of cool: the first to know the Humpty Dance at a time when the rest of us still consider Alvin and the Chipmunks to be a hip band. And there I am, a schizophrenic youth (arrogant class clown one moment, shy freak the next) standing alongside Justin Swope, a beanpole who wrote an essay on why he loved America, which led to him being propped up on stage by none other than Ronald Reagan, who touted Swope as an example for America's youth, thus cementing his reputation as the Universe's Least-Cool Kid. There was also Chuck Trombetta, an affable, chunky little gnome, and Thomas Paskowitz, a quiet guy who in a few years would be a Dungeons & Dragons fanatic.

Anyway, here comes the ball—and something miraculous happens! Tim goes straight for Chuck, gets him right in the gut, and the ball is ... absorbed. Sinks into Chuck's solar plexus just enough to allow him to catch it. He's king now! Tim's demoted to fish-in-a-barrel status with the rest of us and so amped up that he literally can't control his movements. He collides into me, and like that, I'm out: skinned knee, bloody nose, relegated to the sidelines by the lackadaisical P.E. teacher. And Tim's not finished! A few minutes later he smacks into Paskowitz, though this time the outcome is somewhat different: Tim gets the bloody nose and sits down with me in the losers' circle.

We say hello, which I realize we've never done. We watch the rest of the game, seeing Swope wind up the surprise winner (beanpoles make for tricky targets). As casualties, Tim and I become comrades, biking after school in the weeks to come, playing basketball ("Double Dribble" on Nintendo to be specific), debating the merits of cartoon characters. It was an evolution that slyly forced me to graze a deceptively simple epiphany, one that teases us all throughout life: that people are never quite what you think, which is just the sort of thing you can never really learn in a classroom.

And which is the real irony here: As it turned out, those were the last days when dodgeball was deemed good clean fun. A few years later, P.E. officials across America would brand it an amoral game, a breeding ground for societal ills. It would be linked with corporal punishment, Columbine, and eventually banned on many blacktops. In came the current era of plastic, globular jungle gyms. Zany Brainy would be born: a national chain of toy stores selling products that deceptively sneak things like basic fractions and state capitals into … playtime.Of course, the moment adults deem something dangerous, they only reinforce what kids generally already know: that that thing is awesome. And so dodgeball became cultural contraband, which when glimpsed through the lens of self-conscious nostalgia becomes a marketing opportunity. Fine. That I can accept. I just wish the executives at 20th Century Fox had hired Tim Woods as a consultant.  

David Amsden is a contributing writer at New York magazine and the author of the novel Important Things That Don't Matter. He is currently writing a personal and reportorial account of middle-class kids in their teens and early 20s.