Goofballs No More
Backers of the out-of-favor school sport dodgeball try to build a professional team
For most people dodgeball is a painful grade school memory, or a hobby for beer league goofballs. You might dimly remember it: each team tries to eliminate the other side’s players by clocking them with grapefruit-sized red rubber balls.
But even as dodgeball has been banned by many schools that consider it too violent, a retro backlash, a movie and new popularity of extreme sports has created a resurgence of interest.
A new National Dodgeball League hopes to form a team, and envisions turning dodgeball into a major spectator sport, complete with cheerleading “Dodgettes.”
“We’re looking for people who are going to represent our brand, we’re not looking for someone who’s not going to take it seriously themselves,” said Ed Prentiss, the NDL’s founder and president. “We don’t add rules that are goofy, and we’re not trying to make fun of the game.”
To wit: only 23 players have made the cut so far. Many come from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona and Ohio. Robert Immel, a lifelong dodgeball fan and elementary school gym teacher in Saratoga Springs, New York, is the only person from his state to make the team.
Immel, 24, loves dodgeball because it’s fast.
“It’s just the adrenaline, the speed, the idea of pitting your skill against another player,” he said. He’d always wanted to professional athlete, he added.
Retro schoolyard sports are making comeback, Prentiss said.
“There’s also been an uptick in sports that move at a fast pace, like the X-games. Dodgeball has a lot in common with those extreme sports.”
Prentiss believes in a latent population of dodgeball fans waiting for their game to get its moment in the spotlight. Since the release of the 2004 comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, he said, dodgeball’s popularity has surged.
Grassroots amateur organizations have been playing dodgeball in isolated pockets, meeting in parks and church basements for years. The combination of the movie and the networking power of the Internet are now helping bring these groups together, Prentiss said.
“The movie was the spark that sent a lot of people looking for these pockets,” Prentiss said.
“It would probably be big in hipster-ville,” agreed Nicole Parkerson, who lives in a New York neighborhood-of-the-moment, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. “I’d pay to see that in Madison Square Garden.”
Others are more skeptical.
“If they can do it, great,” said Randy Cruse, an eighth grade gym teacher at Memorial Middle School in Albany, Oregon. “I don’t figure a lot of people watching it, though.”
Women players are to be treated just like the men.
“We have not designated a specific slot on the team for women, but women are more than welcome to try out,” Prenti said diplomatically. “The women that do well are the women that can catch, or the ones that play fast-pitch softball.”
Besides dodgeball’s silly image, a big hurdle to expanding it nationally is that many schools have banned it from gym classes, where it was traditionally played. The ban could eliminate future generations of dodgeball fans.
Dodgeball just isn’t pc. The National Association for Sport & Physical Education says it’s inappropriate for gym classes at because it offers “limited opportunities for everyone in the class, especially the slower, less agile students who need the activity the most.”
While it agrees that the game teaches important skills, like throwing, running and catching, the NASPE argues that those skills can be taught by other activities that don’t involving targeting other players.
Prentiss complains that the ban is unfair: he says it focuses too much on throwing, when dodging and catching are just as important.
“Most people think of dodgeball as a guy with cannon of an arm, the big bully throwing 100 mph at the cowering nerd,” he said.
In truth, dodging is the central thing.
“It’s called dodgeball, it’s not throw-a-rock-at-someone’s-head-ball,” Prentiss pointed out.
Even at Immel’s school, Wood Road Intermediate in Ballston Spa, dodgeball is banned. He naturally thinks that’s overkill. “Safety isn’t really much of an issue if you have a good teacher there,” he argued.
He gets around the restriction by running variations of the game, of which there are some 25 (though all involve hitting opponents with rubber balls).
“If you don’t call it dodgeball, then you don’t have a problem,” he confided. “You can use variations that involve the same skills. I call it “Survivor” or “Castles and Cannonballs.”
Although he hasn’t signed a contract with NDL, and it isn’t paying him (yet), Immel works to promote the game.
“I’m not doing it for the money,” he said. “I want the sport to get better, to be better recognized.”
But he’s not about to quit his day job.
“I’m not ready to give up my years of college and training just to go off and play dodgeball,” he said. “But if I have to take a year sabbatical, I’d definitely do it.”