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The Fascinating History of Dodgeball

Sports History | March 12, 2019

A player clutches a ball while dodging three others at the Elite Dodgeball National Championships at Boston University on Aug. 17, 2017. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Remember dodgeball? That dreaded game from elementary school gym class? Today, the sport has been banned in many public schools because the entire game is literally designed to allow the intimidating athletic kids to pick on the weak, nerdy kids in a gymnasium-set survival of the fittest battle. While scenes of cowering book-worms being pelted with rubber balls hurled by muscle-bound jocks are common sitcom and movie tropes, the history of the sport of dodgeball shows us that the game was really created to weed out the weak links. Let’s look at the fascinating and sometimes-gruesome history of dodgeball. 

Source: (orillia.com)

An African War Game

More than two centuries ago, a dodgeball-like game was being played in Africa, but it was even more brutal than the dodgeball that was played in middle school! Those reddish, rubber balls were not used. Instead, the players threw large stones at each other. The goal was to injure an opponent with a thrown rock and then finish him off with more stones after he was down. The fallen player’s teammates had to protect him while fending off the attack and launching a counter-attack. Yes, players died playing this form of African dodgeball, but that was the point of the game. It was used as a form of training or preparation for battle. First, throwing large rocks is a good workout. Second, it helps identify the weaker members of the tribe. Lastly, it was a good bonding experience that encouraged team work. 

Dr. James Carlisle. Source: (findagrave.com)

A Missionary Brought Dodgeball Back to England

Dr. James Carlisle, a missionary working in Africa in the 1800s, learned about the dodgeball game and had the opportunity to watch dodgeball games on a regular basis. At first, he was shocked and appalled by the sport, but after careful observation, he marveled at the way the game taught players to be quick, strong, and agile, as well as the team building component to it. When Dr. Carlisle returned to England to teach at St. Mary’s College in Norfolk, he taught his students how to play a somewhat safer version of dodgeball, without the brutality and death. A rubber ball was used instead of rocks. At first, the students were clumsy and slow, but they quickly learned to be nimble and flexible. 

St. Mary's College in England. Source: (dur.ac.uk)

A Different Sort of Dodgeball

The dodgeball game that Dr. Carlisle introduced to his students was still very different than today’s dodgeball. Dr. Carlisle’s game was played on an outdoor field, not inside a gymnasium, so the players couldn’t be trapped and cornered by the gym walls. This forced the opposition to be more strategic in trapping and attacking a player. Players could move around anywhere on the field. A player got out when he was knocked to the ground by the pelting balls, but he was allowed to hit the balls away with his hands to save himself. 

Source: (seewhatshecando.com)

Changes in Dodgeball

Dodgeball continued to be played in an outdoor field with little rules until 1884. That year, students and faculty members visiting St. Mary’s College from Yale University watch dodgeball being played. One of them was Phillip Ferguson, the man credited with bringing dodgeball to the United States.  As he watched  the St. Mary’s College students playing the game, he noted that there were ways to improve upon the sport to make it more fast-paced and more challenging. For starters, he suggested moving the sport indoors and confining players to their own territories. 

Source: (who-invented-it.com)

Dodgeball in America

Once back in the U.S., Ferguson drew up official rules for dodgeball in 1905. In addition to moving the game into a gymnasium and setting the boundaries, Ferguson established rules that a player was out after being hit once with the ball and rules which allowed players to return to play after a catch. He also introduced dodgeball as a collegiate sport and organized games between different colleges all over the country. This helped to spread the sport of dodgeball all across the United States where it quickly found its way into school gym classes. 

Source: (reddit.com)

Dodgeball, the Most Hated Sport in America

For decades, dodgeball was a mainstay of school gym classes. In the last twenty years or so, parents and educators have denounced the game of dodgeball as a vehicle for bullying. The battlefield-like, survival of the fittest component of the game, they stated, makes target out of weaker students and they are systematically picked off by the stronger players. Several reports, including the 1986 article, “Premeditated Murder: Let’s Bump off Killer Ball” and the 1992 article, “The Physical Education Hall of Shame” helped open eyes to the psychological impact that playing dodgeball may have on some students. Beginning in the late 1900s and early 2000s, schools around the country started banning dodgeball from phys ed classes. 

The Dodgeball movie came out in 2004. Source: (tallwriter.wordpress.com)

A True Underdog Story

In 2004, the movie, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, was released. A comedy, the film focused on an odd group of players who form a team and enter a dodgeball tournament so they could use the prize money to save their local gym from being bought out by a corporate chain. The film is credited with shedding light on the little-known world of professional dodgeball. 

Professional dodgeball in San Diego. Source: (govavi.com)

Professional Dodgeball

Even though dodgeball was removed from schools, there were still plenty of people who didn’t want to see the sport die out. In 2004, the National Dodgeball League, a professional dodgeball league, was established in the United States. The league is divided into two conferences, the National and the American conferences, and there are currently 24 teams that play each other. 

Source: (justified.nuslawclub.com)

Yale and St. Mary’s College Still Remember Their Dodgeball Roots

Every four years, St. Mary’s College in England hosts dodgeball players from Yale University for a friendly game of dodgeball to commemorate the Africa origins of the game and how Dr. Carlisle introduced the sport to England. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.