Scourge Of The Playground

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Parents and educators have learned to fear drugs, cliques and school shootings. Now, added to the list of things that threaten our schoolkids is dodge ball. You read that right. In a growing number of school districts in such states as Texas, Virginia, Maine and Massachusetts, circles of kids dodging and throwing balls at one another have been banned from gym class. Advocacy groups are pushing to get rid of the game; and Neil Williams, an Eastern Connecticut State University phys ed professor, has created a P.E. Hall of Shame, ranking dodge ball as his No. 1 villain. "It allows the stronger kids to pick on and target the weaker kids," he charges. "It's like Lord of the Flies, with adults encouraging it."

Opponents warn that dodge ball--also called murder ball and killer ball in some places--could be an incubator for later aggressive, even violent behavior. "The whole game to [some kids] is about hitting someone as hard as they can and laughing," says Lilla Atherton, a fifth-grader in Fairfax County, Va., where the game has been banned. "If a boy doesn't throw hard and make a hit, the other boys call him a girl." Critics charge the sport isn't even good exercise, since it typically leaves the weakest, most overweight kids--the ones usually knocked out first--to sit on the sidelines while the good athletes keep playing.

But the old playground game has drawn some vocal defenders. "You mean there's weak in the world? There's strong?" howled SPORTS ILLUSTRATED columnist Rick Reilly. "Of course there is, and dodge ball is one of the first opportunities in life to figure out which you are and how you're going to deal with it." Martha Kupferschmidt, director of personnel and student services at the Murray school district in Utah, wonders why dodge ball has been singled out. "If we were going to ban dodge ball for aggressiveness," she says, "we would have to look at a whole gamut of sports"--such as football, kickball and wrestling.

Rick Hanetho, a parks manager in Schomberg, Ill., started the National Amateur Dodgeball Association after noticing that local kids, given a choice, always picked the game. He says dodge ball is most loved by the geekier kids, who could never make the basketball team or cheerleader squad but still crave team sports. "It teaches incredible hand-eye coordination, quick decision making, concentration and agility," he says. "And it's just a game. This criticism is absurd, just crazy."

While it gets hounded out of more and more schools, dodge ball may be winning new fans among adults. Hanetho's league has held three championships, attracting teams from as far away as Los Angeles and Canada. At the last matchup the oldest player was 58; the most valuable was 47. And Vanity Fair in March pronounced that dodge ball is now the cool party sport. If so, Sam Cohen is at least one kid who is willing to let the adults have their fun. The Fairfax County eight-year-old liked playing dodge ball before it was banned in his grade school, but he doesn't miss it. "We haven't played it in a long time," he says. "There are lots of other things to play anyway."