Some kids cringe at the idea of suiting up for gym and playing dodgeball, and plenty of grown-ups have not so great memories of getting pegged by playground balls during one of the country’s favorite physical education activities. And now researchers say there’s a good reason for it: dodgeball sucks because it’s literally a tool of oppression that hurts and dehumanizes others.
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A group of Canadian researchers presented their idea — that dodgeball is basically “legalized bullying” — this week at at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Vancouver, and a write-up of their study will be published in the European Physical Education Review later this summer.
For their work, the researchers observed various middle schoolers playing dodgeball and questioned the students about how they play the game and what they feel during and after the class. The results? Most kids hate it. The reason? Well, Joy Butler, a professor who studies pedagogy and curriculum development at University of British Columbia, says that it’s because dodgeball fits into what political theorist Iris Marion Young called “Five Faces of Oppression” in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference.
More specifically, dodgeball involves 1) exploitation, 2) marginalization 3) cultural imperialism (when the ruling class establishes its customs as the norm) 4) powerlessness and 5) violence.
Yep, we can see that.
“When you’re setting up the environment for students to learn, and you introduce the idea that it’s okay to slam the ball at whomever you like, even if it’s with a soft ball, the intention is there,” Butler told the Washington Post. “I think of the little girl who is running to the back to avoid being targeted,” Butler said. “What is she learning in that class? Avoidance?”
The researchers said that they observed teams of stronger kids teaming up to eliminate weaker individuals on the other team, ganging up and even changing the rules of the game. They also saw less commanding kids running for cover and going on the defensive as they were attacked.
“The message is that it’s okay to hurt or dehumanize the ‘other,’ ” Butler said. “The competition is about annihilating one’s opponent, and the true definition of competition is between two evenly matched teams. Well, kids stack their teams, and they really enjoy beating the other team. What’s the enjoyment of that?”
The response to the news of the study was mixed, with some people agreeing that it’s a crappy experience for kids, and others on the right declaring, “Snowflakes!”
What do the researchers suggest we do about the apparent oppressiveness of dodgeball? Well, definitely that dodgeball shouldn’t be one of P.E.’s go-to games. And probably that it shouldn’t be played at all in school. Really, aggressive games not only alienate some students, but they may be one cause of girls dropping out at higher levels of physical education. They also suggested that schools expand their physical education offerings so that they’re more diverse and welcoming, including subjects like “outdoor education, fitness, gymnastics, aquatics.”
“[Physical education class] should be an arena where teachers are helping [students] control their aggression and move on instead of expressing themselves through anger,” said Butler.
We’re not sure if dodgeball is on a level of oppression as some other real-world issues that hurt and dehumanize others, but we do know that we still cringe when we see those rubber playground balls. And maybe this study is shedding light on exactly why.