Not Sports

Dodgeball's transformative journey from gym class to world class

The future of dodgeball might look nothing like its past.

The World Dodgeball Federation's website welcomes you with a simple statement: "You already know dodgeball."

Familiarity, though, has never been dodgeball's problem.

Dodgeball has a reputation that's been difficult to shake, seemingly a childhood game that's beloved by some and disdained by others.

Critics of the game have compared it to "organized bullying." As early as 2001, school districts started to slowly ban dodgeball across the United States. In 2006, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education released a position paper stating that dodgeball was "not an appropriate activity" for schoolchildren. Even defenders of dodgeball like the writer of a 2019 Op-Ed in USA Today, embraced the idea that dodgeball was about teaching hard life lessons. Dodgeball is about winning, the Op-Ed reads – about "beating your opponent into submission."

Duane Wysynski is the President of the World Dodgeball Federation, and the person charged with helping shape dodgeball's identity. He admits that there are horror stories of gym class dodgeball games allowed to go awry (Dodgeball, the movie, memorializes the idea), but dodgeball doesn't have to be that way. Dodgeball, he argues, is about more than domination.

"We're actively trying to carve out the strategy and the rules and to make something that kids actually enjoy doing and make it a positive experience, and not fall into that stigma of 'well it's all about trying to hurt someone," he says.

Michael McGee, an 18-year-old baker at the family-owned Modern Pastry in the North End, tunes up for the one on one showdown at the Elite Dodgeball National Championships at Boston University on Aug. 17, 2017. More than 360 of the best dodgeball players in the country competed.

Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

What makes dodgeball a sport – Ahead of the 2017 World Dodgeball Championships in Toronto, Canada, Wysynki hired the ad agency Leo Burnett to rebrand dodgeball. The agency offered a slogan, now plastered onto a T-Shirt: "You know the game, now meet the sport."

Since then, the transformation of dodgeball from game to sport has centered around changes in gameplay, as well as changes in the values that the game is supposed to embody.

Dodgeball will always reward strength, explaining why athletes that come from other sports tend to be successful. If you've ever seen a fastpitch softball pitcher throw a dodgeball, it's clear how treacherous athletes from other sports can be.

At the highest level, you'll see a game that's slower, and less dependent on physical strength. "There's a lot more strategy than you might think," says Wysynski.

Take the 2019 World Championships in Cancún, Mexico, for example. In the title game between the US and Malaysia, strategic huddles and coordinated throws punctuated the match, rather than the unruly chaos of a recreational dodgeball game.

The strategic elements of dodgeball have become one way of combating the sport's critics who have long argued that the game is defined by violence.

On one hand violence in dodgeball is a joke about. "Dodgeball is a game of violence exclusion and degradation," says Patches O'Houlihan, the coach in the 2004 comedy Dodgeball.

But there's also legitimate criticism of that violence. In April 2020, Joy Butler, a professor at the University of British Columbia. published a paper suggesting that dodgeball aided in the marginalization of students seen as "weaker."

It's all criticism Wysynski has heard before. The criticisms of dodgeball, that is violent or oppressive, "could happen it could happen in any sport really," he says. Football, for example, is rife with war metaphors. When dodgeball gets out of control, it's not any different from another poorly refereed game, he argues.

"Hence the need for a governing body like ours, to step up and say okay well, what are we really trying to accomplish here?" Wysynski says.

More importantly, violence isn't the center of the sport's identity. That's where the tactics come in, he argues:

"There's strategy, there's teamwork. There's fellowship. There's coordination; there are roles on the team."

The World Dodgeball Championship in 2019.

The Michael Jordan of dodgeball– No one has claimed the title "Michael Jordan of dodgeball" but the Lebron James of dodgeball does exist.

That person is Vince Marchbanks. Marchbanks is an architect when he's not playing dodgeball or competing for Team USA — he was at the 2019 World Championships in Cancún. He's been called the Lebron James of dodgeball since 2014: The Wall Street Journal awarded him the title after he led his team to their third Championship at the Ultimate Dodgeball Championship in 2014.

Marchbanks is one of the few dodgeballers to make news in the wider sports world thanks to a signature move that was featured on ESPN. In a 2017 recreation game, Marchbanks fakes a throw, spins around, and throws out an opposing player from behind his back.

"That clip has been on Bleacher Report and ESPN a billion times," Wysynski says. "So he's certainly one of the more well-known guys."

On the women's side, Wysynski points to Katharina Wasinger, a world champion in cloth dodgeball, a version of the sport that's also overseen by the World Dodgeball Federation. He calls her "one of the top cloth players in Europe."

A dodgeball team huddles up before the next play.

Duane Wysynski.

The spirit of dodgeball — Dodgeball's governing body is aiming to redefine who actually excels at dodgeball. They see it as a haven for people who just aren't into classic sports – the very people the critics of dodgeball seem to think it actively harms.

"The people who come to dodgeball are often people that have tried a mainstream sport and it's not for them. Or we've had people come from mainstream sport and decide they want something different," Wysynski says. Dodgeball's growth goals have been tailored to reflect that idea.

Wysynski does harbor some Olympic dreams for dodgeball and the organization has taken their first steps toward seeking International Olympic Committee recognition. More pressing is the fact that the organization has already taken more concrete steps through alternative pathways to development, seeking a path to legitimacy that's outside the IOC.

In 2019, the World Dodgeball Federation was recognized by The Association for International Sport for All, (TAFISA). TAFISA is less focused on athletic achievement. Instead, it coordinates events like World Walking Day and is focused on getting people to play any sport in general. TAFISA's tag line is "Sport for All." The Olympic motto, for comparison, is "Citius, Altius, Fortius, or stronger, faster, better."

It's not the Olympics, but it's better aligned with where dodgeball wants to be going forward.

"You have people saying 'maybe I'm not going to be this high powered, world-class athlete, but there is a role for me here,'" Wysynski says.

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