Stand Behind Your Man: Is dodgeball sexist, or just strategy?

Artwork by Andy Buteyn

“I got you, I got you!”

Few sentences in the English language are as comforting and full of trust, but somehow on this night, it rang hollow and unnecessary. The exclamation of hope and camaraderie reverberated against the aged hardwood floors, rising to deaf ears before getting lost somewhere near the lone women’s volleyball banner that hung from the ceiling.

Her worried eyes darted from left to right, so his shout didn’t appear to quell her fears.  Out of breath, her face bathed in an exhausted crimson, the realization of defeat slowly enveloped her tired body.  Her squad, now down to a duo, was seemingly out of time.  Her fellow combatant, slightly overweight but with sharp reflexes, was to either be the man of the hour or a colossal failure.  His hair sweaty and disheveled, untucked shirt bouncing wildly as he juked shot after shot – this was the look of a true hero, or more accurately, a panicked man.  The woman behind him mirrored every step, but was always one movement divided from her chivalrous lead and he was but a human.

With two simultaneous shots speeding toward his lower body, our savior could only manage to elude one of them while the other ball caught him in the upper thigh.  He was out, and as he quickly joined his fallen teammates on the side of the court, you could swear by their faces that they had already lost the match.  Dejected and already limbering up for the next series, their remaining comrade was nothing more than a patsy – another one for the fire.

The males bark orders from the sidelines, which in their heads reason to be sound suggestions, but from the outside, it is a lot like an overzealous Little-League dad.  At this point in the game – five against one – dodgeball is in its simplest form.  There is only so much vocally-contributed strategy the bench can do for someone who is just trying not to get hit by a playground ball.  In an act of desperation, the woman tries to make a play on a low thrown missile.  There was no way this was going to be a catch, as it exploded against her stumbling chest, coming to its final resting place on the floor.  It was a long-time coming, but they had finally lost.  The sitting duck apologizes to her team, drained from the game and happy that it’s over.

This is dodgeball.  A man’s sport.  But there is a three girl minimum.

Sports have always been divided, if not entirely exclusive to men.  The world has separate competitions for the sexes, from high school, to the Olympics.  Routinely, it’s to even the field and enhance the thrill of the game.  No one would expect a Greco-Roman wrestling match to be fair, let alone enjoyable to watch, if it were coed.  Sometimes the idea of separate but equal can be an advantage for both the competitor and the spectator, but perhaps only amongst classic and popular sports.  When it comes to playground games, like dodgeball or kickball, especially when played within adult recreation leagues, the simplicity of sex-specific games is non-existent.

So where does that leave a coed playground-sport league?  You get a male-dominated arena, and there is no debate about that. In two separate matches, the ratio of men to women straddled about three to one.  Beyond just simple numbers, the face of the organization is male and the feeling on the court is that men run this game.  Double teams of men hurling spheres in unison, women retrieving balls and divvying them amongst their male teammates – on the surface, it appears to even the newest spectator to be all about men, all the time.

Despite all that, the game has been geared by organizers to be accessible to women, and at the same time, limiting towards men.  In many leagues, it’s customary to use two different-sized rubber balls; larger ones for men and smaller balls for women.  On the face of this rule, it appears that league commissioners are trying to level the playing field, but to others, it is just another example of benevolent sexism.

Artwork by Andy Buteyn

“Sexism is a widespread social problem, so it’s only to be expected that it would appear in dodgeball,” says Dr. Donna Lisker, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education at Duke University and also teaches seminars on gender and sports. “Organizers and teams can’t control [sexism], what they can control is their response,” she continues, echoing a sentiment that others in her field of study share. “It is a situation beyond the true control of leagues, but that doesn’t mean commissioners should play into the conventions of society.”

The loosely organized nature of adult, recreational, obscure-sport leagues does not typically lend itself to being well-governed advocates of equality.  Asking leaders to hold themselves accountable for something like, out-of-control sexism in dodgeball games isn’t akin to enforcing the center-line rule. That being said, it doesn’t mean rule changes and adjustment to structure can’t help bring some parity to dodgeball games. Some familiar with dodgeball have suggested that leagues be more uniform in structure, going so far as proposing a national governing body.  But before groups can come together, some organization with a two-ball system built to assist females, need to reassess whether or not a one-ball system will illustrate a tone of parity along gender.

“It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me that there are different-sized balls in the same game.” Dr. Lisker concludes, “It reinforces the notion that women are weak and need special accommodations.”  This idea that women are somehow less athletic and require special rules to compete with men is a common misconception, from high school sports, all the way up to the pros.  Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano combat this falsehood in Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports, outlining that sometimes being “fair” is just a convenient excuse for perpetuating stereotypes.

While league organizers take a lot of flack from experts and female players alike, they are simply providing a set of rules and venue, so teams can relive their playground glory.  Team structure has as much to do with rampant sexism as the organizers gearing their rules towards it.

“[Leagues] should not condone or encourage teams that limit the role of women players, and they should have a process for dealing with teams and players who are mistreating women, or men for that matter,” Dr. Lisker outlines.  Teams have the choice to include women in all aspects of the game, or to reduce them to moving targets that need constant protection by men.  Going to dodgeball games, you see a little bit of both as a spectator.  Some squads embrace the core ideals of dodgeball – a game that is best played when it is just people throwing balls at other people.

So, to the player, is dodgeball sexist?

“Absolutely,” says a New York female dodgeball player, wishing to remain anonymous.  “I’ve played [dodgeball] in two different states, and the feeling of exclusion crosses borders,” she continued.  She highlights that even outside of the gym; the rampant segregation is still prevalent.  “Women always seem to be afterthoughts to teams, like, ‘we got a bunch of guys, now what girls can we get?’.  Even if they don’t mean it, they are being very sexist,” she added.

Luckily for her, her team-equality issues were solved with the formation of a girl-heavy team that reversed the trend of the male-centric dodgeball team.  She readily admits that they win fewer games with this structure, but all participants are excited and happy to be a part of a team that celebrates the joy of the game. They enjoy the thrill of being a little younger at heart.

Artwork by Andy Buteyn

Last battle of the night.  Most have left, but one squad rests their weary bodies against the bleachers, their eyes fixated on the drama set forth.  On the ropes, she doesn’t even glance to the bench.  Her head and heart are in the game entirely.  Bouncing from left to right, nimble and anticipating a barrage.  Her adversaries stand twenty feet away, palming their ammo in their sweaty paws.  The fear had fallen with her last teammate, and all that was left was the foolish bravery of a woman scorned. The enemies convene to discuss their final attack in hushed tones.  She relaxes for a second, lets out a sigh from deep within her lungs.  There wasn’t much time left on the hidden clock, but this intermission seemed to last for an eternity.  She brushes her brow and readies her body. The firing squad begins their final run.

The first shot is lobbed by the more athletic of the two, but it just barely misses our heroine. Almost immediately, right on top of the release, the second shot is launched.  This one is on target, blistering towards her chest.  Her arms can’t get around it and the ball hits with a twang, but deflects towards the ceiling.  She regains her composure in an instance and lunges towards the now falling ball. She lays out for it, limbs extended and eyes fixed.  Her hands grip it tightly as she hits the ground. The gymnasium erupts in jubilation as her entire team pours out onto the floor to continue the fight.  Without hesitation and washing the enthused room away, she jumps back up and lines up at the backline.  Just as she reaches her teammates, time is called and the game is won.

This is dodgeball.

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