Jun 27

Are Sports Under Moral Attack by Liberal Academics?

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Academics Claim: Dodgeball Harms Student Players!

I was actually working on “gender and female coach mentorship” for the June Newsletter when I received this bizarre article over the Internet and US Fox News, USA. 

Yes, coaches, get this! The play/game and physical activity of dodgeball that many of us most likely played during our school years or in our neighbourhood is under attack although the game has been a gym class staple for generations. For some, it is the highlight of the day but for others, it is “an anxiety-inducing activity calling it legalized bullying,” according to UBC professor Dr. Joy Butler. No game seems to rouse the passions of reform-minded educational progressives quite like dodgeball, a team sport in which players throw balls at each other, trying to hit competitors, and banish them to the sidelines. 

Thousands of academics gathered in Vancouver, BC for the Annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, June 1-7. A trio of education theorists argued that dodgeball is not only problematic, in the modern sense of displaying hierarchies of privilege based on athletic skill, but that it is outright “miseducative.” Really? Dr. Butler argues that dodgeball also encourages students to aggressively single others out for “dominance and to enjoy that dominance as a victory.” What? According to Dr. Butler, the games children play in schoolyards are “famously horrible, if you stop and think about them.” Tag, for example, singles out one poor participant, often the slowest child, as the “dehumanized It”, who runs vainly in pursuit of the quicker ones. Capture the Flag is “nakedly militaristic.” British Bulldog has obvious “jingoistic colonial themes.” Red Ass, known in America asButts Up” involves the “deliberate imposition of corporal punishment on losers.” Really? Is this funded academic research or just an opinion?

Players are Human Targets?

Dr. Butler recounts the story of a girl in elementary school running to the back of the gym and hiding from her classmates to avoid getting hit. “She is being hounded, said Butler. What is she learning from that experience?” Butler believes the game teaches kids to avoid their classmates rather than engage with them and says there are alternative activities educators can opt for, activities that don’t teach kids “it’s OK to actually victimize other people.” Some American schools have even banned dodgeball, but Butler said the game shouldn’t be played in schools, and start paying attention to kids cowering in the back rather than catering to their classmates “with the loudest voices”, who take pleasure in “picking off human targets.”

Dodge Ball Equals “Murder” Ball?

Stephen Berg, an education professor at UBC Okanagan, said he grew up loving dodgeball – a game his teachers called “murder ball” – but “changed his tune” when he became an educator. “In schools we talk a lot about kindness, empathy, compassion, and citizenship,” said Berg, who finds those terms “go out the window” in the gym. “It’s almost contradictory to what we are trying to demonstrate in schools,” he said. Berg knows the anxiety that dodgeball can induce from his daughter. He said she is “a great human being but not that athletic”, and when she leaves a gym class after a game of dodgeball she “feels ashamed that she is not contributing.” Berg acknowledged that other kids love and excel at the game and that it is a chance to release energy, but he disagrees with the notion that kids should “suck it up or toughen up.” He said mental health is a serious concern these days for youth, and telling them to toughen up “just doesn’t fly anymore.” Berg agreed with Butler that a variety of alternative, more inclusive activities could be substituted for dodgeball.

According to Josephine Mathias, National Post, Canada (video): “These congresses are safe places for opinion writers, who masquerade as researchers to present an exchange of ideas in an academic bubble.” So, what is next? Attacking any sport we play? It is not enough that children and youth sports have to bow under pressure that a) everyone has to participate, b) there are no winners and losers, and c) everyone has to receive an award! This approach does not teach “lessons for life” as society has traditionally argued but it has resulted in a “coddled whiner” generation hovered over by “helicopter” parents who protect their children even to the point of College/University admission scandals to secure entry to their favoured school. Now, dodgeball is no longer a physical activity or game played in school gyms or schoolyards, but is a physical attack on teammates!


Let’s examine the nature of dodgeball: 

Modern dodgeball may be based on a game first observed in Africa about 200 years ago, where players threw rocks at each other with the aim being to injure and possibly even kill other players. Defending injured players while trying to retaliate taught teamwork, endurance, and hunting skills. Missionary Dr. James H. Carlisle saw them playing this game and returned to teach at St. Mary’s College, Norfolk, where he transformed the dangerous African game into a safer game with a leather ball instead of rocks. In 1884, Phillip Ferguson of Yale redesigned the game with a faster pace like modern dodgeball. In 1905, he returned to America and wrote the first official rules. American colleges started playing each other and the sport grew rapidly into what we now call dodgeball. 

Dodgeball is a team sport in which players on two teams try to throw balls and hit opponents, while avoiding being hit. The objective of each team is to eliminate all members of the opposing team by hitting them with thrown balls, catching a ball thrown by an opponent, or induce an opponent to commit a violation, such as stepping outside the court. The sport is played informally (in schools and pick-up games) under varying rules, and formally as an international sport under rules that vary among international governing bodies, such as the World Dodgeball Federation (WDBF) and the World Dodgeball Association (WDA). The National Dodgeball League is an organized league in the United State.

Duane Wysynski, Head of Dodgeball Canada is coming to his sport’s defense in the National Post: “Inclusion is at the very heart of Dodgeball.” Asked in an interview, he had this to say (citation verbatim by Schloder with some modifications, June 4, 2019):

…For some, the word might trigger painful childhood memories of being pummelled with a ball by the most sadistic kid in your class while your gym teacher looked on. Others might think of the 2004 not-Oscar-winning movie Dodgeball. It’s a bit of a source of amusement in the community because our community is actually made up of a lot of people who have moved into our sport from more mainstream sports where they didn’t necessarily feel included… 

Q: The nature of the sport is to smash balls into your opponent’s body, right? 

…No, I wouldn’t say that’s the nature, to smash balls. Yes, you do throw balls, and the object of the sport is to hit people and to get them out. However, it would be like saying that the nature of hockey is to lay someone out with a hard check, or the nature of football is to hit a crushing tackle. Teams that rely on brute strength are not going to be successful, because trying to overpower someone with a direct throw is almost always going to result in a catch. Our sport focuses on teamwork and strategy. Hitting someone in the toe or picking them off on the hand is always going to be a better way to get an out than to go at someone really hard with the ball. The balls that we use in competition, from youth to high-performance competition, are foam balls. So, they are specifically designed to not cause a lot of pain. It’s difficult to look at any sport and not see that part of the point of the sport is to win or to get better or to improve yourself. What we try to do with dodgeball is, especially for youth, we focus on the aspects of teamwork, strategy, of fellowship within the game, of communication on the court. Winning becomes kind of secondary at that age. I compare it a bit to when you start playing something like Tim Hortons soccer. You don’t even keep the score because the objective isn’t to get the kids to be extremely complex on the field with their footwork and to score a lot of goals. But it’s introducing them to the core mechanics of the sport. It’s introducing them to the athleticism of the sport…

Q: But the concern is that it picks on kids. A lot of the complaints are about the weak kid in school or some kid that gets bullied ends up being victimized in this game. Is that the reality?

…No. I think again it depends on how any sport is taught, how is it introduced. I actually received an email earlier this morning after the reply the rebuttal to the post was printed. The comment was from someone who was in her 50s, and she said one of the things she liked about dodgeball was every little mistake wasn’t put on display. Since there were six balls and there was a lot going on, if she made a mistake it wasn’t on display as opposed to when playing baseball, and it was obvious when she was at the bat if she could or couldn’t perform… (Wysynski, 2019, June 5)

“The world needs more dodgeball not less of it”

David Staples, Post Media, Edmonton, Alberta commented on the dodgeball attack. (citation verbatim by Schloder with some modifications, 2019, June 5). He argues that:

1. Dodgeball is the most democratic of sports

…For a sport that is supposedly so bad, folks sure love it, according to an online poll. A variety of us can at least adequately play dodgeball, which is much more than we can say for most other sports. You don’t need to be rich to excel at the game; don’t need expensive equipment or lessons. No one practices this sport much, unlike most school sports, and everyone is on similar footing starting out. Athletic children do have an advantage but tall or strong ones do not necessarily triumph…

2. It is important to carefully weigh risks

…The game involves lessons on risks and rewards. Rushing to grab a loose ball, or catch an opponent’s throw and thus eliminating him/her are skills entailed in the game. In other words, “hustle”! On the other hand, if a player pushes too intensely, the attempt to scoop or catch the ball can lead to elimination…

3. The best things in life are free

  … The game teaches us about Fun we can have without spending much money. The sport is cheap, cheap plastic balls but it gets the children running, jumping, sweating, and laughing. Where else can you find such “bang for your phys-ed buck?”…

4. There are smart and safe ways to channel powerful human instincts

…The genius of dodgeball is that it is safe but also satisfying.  It is a clever pantomime of the primal activity of hunting. Children get to play act as being both predator and prey, but without any bloodshed. It is important that this is the aspect of the game which seems to offend academics. They argue that is a moral problem because it encourages students to aggressively “single out others for dominance and to glory in the victory of a kill.” How did we get to the point where harmless play-acting is classified as a moral problem? The academics are confused. They inappropriately inject social justice thinking into the realm of games and play, and thus fail to grasp the innate safe-but-satisfying allure of the game, which is so enticing that even indolent children “married” to their video games can be persuaded to play…

5. Authority figures don’t always get it right

…For a long time, headshots were allowed in the game. One could slam the ball into the opponent’s face, which would eliminate, humiliate, and harm the opponent. Some teachers may still allow this but they are wrong now. The lesson here is not that dodgeball is bad, it’s that sometimes authority figures get the rules wrong. In the case of the current debate, the professors are the authority figures. As educational experts, they have the power to influence physical education curriculums for provinces or states. In this case, the danger is that they are being listened to and that schools move forward eliminating an engrossing and healthy physical activity. If this should happen not only dodgeball but other sports will be banned, which widens the gap even more among children. On the other hand, parents who know the many benefits of sports and competition surely find schools or private programs where those values are still emphasized, thus preparing their own children for the robust team play and complex competition of the real world. On the other hand, public schools swept away in misguided socially engineered attempts to reduce imagined victimization won’t prepare students. They will instead “coddle” them – a recipe for failure…  

My reflection on Dr. Butler’s hypothesis

If her arguments have any base at all then any contact sport is oppressive! Take Canada’s favorite past time game of hockey. NHL playoff games recently showed players running into backs of opponents, smashing them into boards, hitting them on the chin and head, and causing concussions. According to Coaching Canada NCCP and Ethical Decision Making and Rules of Fair Play: That is intent to harm! Is it oppressive play, degrading, and dehumanizing? How about CFL and NFL Football? A caucasian linebacker tackling a black receiver, or vice versa – is that now racial oppression and dehumanizing a race? How about Boxing? How about Wrestling? How about Karate and Judo?

Canada’s ParticipAction advertisements regularly on television encourage 45-60 minutes of daily activities for children and youth. Dodgeball can represent all the values discussed with supervision and control by the teacher/coach, in my opinion. The actual issue, however, is that being ejected from the game does very little to enhance children’s physical fitness or activity – unless of course they really “hustle” to avoid such happening! There are enough problems to encourage increasingly overweight and obese children to move regularly. Many Elementary schools lack quality physical education programs, and in most cases, those programs do not even exist! “Free Time” on the school playgrounds usually resembles a “zoo” where children run, shove and push, kick and hit each other! Is that not disrespect for classmates and dehumanizing or bullying? Dr. Butler, have you visited school recess lately in BC schools? 

Many Elementary Schools have removed so-called wall bars because of complaints that they were too dangerous and children could “slip and fall.” Wall bars are safe and have multiple uses if instructors are trained appropriately. In my Calgary neighbourhood schools have removed playgrounds and all equipment! It is too dangerous! Really? Instead of standing around and chatting while sipping from tumbler coffee mugs teachers ought to lead some activities. But that is too much to ask! If the inclusion of trained physical education teachers were to be mandatory there would not be issues in programming. Teachers usually have one-semester of physical activity course experience offered by many education departments, and therefore are not qualified! Nevertheless, the government continues to promote ParticipAction without substantial practical leadership action.

Physical Literacy has been promoted in Canada for a number of years. Balyi, Way, and Higgs (2013) publication: “Long-term athlete development. A guide to developing a philosophy of sport for life; training frameworks; a consistently successful organization” has served as the basis for the Canadian Sport4Life approach with the annual national symposium held in Gatineau, Quebec. Children, adolescents, and adults are encouraged to engage in physical activity with the “Womb to Tomb” approach to foster life-long health, physical and functional well-being. The notion that a game like dodgeball or any other sport activity could be dehumanizing takes away the notion that physical engagement, recreational and competitive sports are played to determine the better-skilled participant, which should motivate the lesser skilled to improve their abilities. 

Growing up as an athlete, who was identified by the age of 12 years for specific sports (swimming and athletics) was based on my involvement in multi-sport recreational activities, providing the opportunity to measure my skills against others. Never in my life have I felt humiliated – instead I pushed myself to do better, get ahead, and strive for excellence!

I strongly suggest that these academics get acquainted with German classical literature and philosophy on the “Nature of Play.” In his “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man” German poet, philosopher, physician, historian, and playwright Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) writes: “Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” “Man is never so authentically himself than when at play. Jean-Paul Charles Sartre, French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic (1905-1980) states: “As soon as a man apprehends himself as free and wishes to use his freedom…then his activity is play.”

By the way, I refuse to replace the usage of “man” – meaning universal mankind – as cited in the original quotes with the “politically correct madness” of using nouns and pronouns that are now saturating our society! The quotes stand as written during those years of enlightenment! 


Brean, J. (2019, June 5). Dodgeball isn’t just problematic, it’s an unethical tool of ‘oppression’: researchers. The moral problem is that dodgeball encourages students to aggressively single others out for dominance and to enjoy that dominance as a victory. National Post, Canada. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from  https://nationalpost.com/news/dodgeball-isnt-just-problematic-its-an-unethical-tool-of-oppression-researchers

CBC Radio (2019, June 11). Profs took aim at dodgeball. Now the head of Dodgeball Canada is fighting back. Retrieved June 14, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-thursday-edition-1.5173769/profs-took-aim-at-dodgeball-now-the-head-of-dodgeball-canada-is-fighting-back-1.5170657

Mathias, J. (2019, June 21). Oppressive dodgeball, racialized skiing and other dumb research. Comment Nation: It’s not helpful to treat dodgeball as the next battle in the never-ending quest for civil rights for all. National Post, Canada. Retrieved June 21, 2019, from https://nationalpost.com/opinion/josephine-mathias-oppressive-dodgeball-racialized-skiing-and-other-dumb-research

Paplauskas-Ramunas, A (1968). Development of the whole man through physical education. An interdisciplinary comparative exploration and appraisal. Ottawa, ON, CAN: University of Ottawa Press. 

Schloder-Sublette, M. E. (1975). Natural movement as the essence of man. Journal of the Arizona Association of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. Spring 1975, 8-10, 20-21.

Staples, D. (2019, June 5). How dodgeball can help, not harm, students today. The Calgary Herald, A9. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://edmontonjournal.com/business/local-business/david-staples-the-world-needs-more-dodgeball-not-less-of-it

Watson, B. (2019, June 4). ‘Legalized bullying’: Stop playing dodgeball in schools. Retrieved June 5, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/dodgeball-dangerous-stop-ubc-professor-1.5161403

Wysynski, D. (2019, June 10). Don’t pick on Dodgeball. It’s no more ‘oppressive’ or ‘problematic’ than any sport. National Post, Canada. Retrieved June 10, 2019, from https://nationalpost.com/opinion/duane-wysynski-dodgeball-is-still-an-emerging-sport-but-has-inbuilt-potential-for-teamwork-and-inclusivity




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