No longer the sport of the underdog (but underdogs still welcome). —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Jesse Valenciana
Half the game is mental, and half the game is BEING mental.
When you see a fluorescent foam ball fly through the air and hear it thwack off a jolly belly, it’s difficult to imagine that dodgeball is, or has ever been, anything more than a rec-league sport for twenty-something urbanites. You can picture it, right? It’s Friday night, and a group of ex athletes way past their prime is on the court, forever chasing playground supremacy. Throw in a movie starring Ben Stiller in a bad wig and fake mustache, and any remaining dodgeball credibility plummets.
For those who do take the game seriously, dodgeball is a real sport and not simply a midweek hobby played before a session of half-off pitchers at the neighborhood bar. THIS dodgeball is something greater, something that purportedly evolved from a Darwinistic warrior-in-training exercise to a sport with a governing body that (wait for it, wait for it) even has Olympic aspirations.
WINNER TAKES ALL, LOSER DIES?
There are as many stories regarding the history of dodgeball as there are devoted fans today. According to some writers and “historians” of the sport, the precursor to dodgeball dates back more than 200 years—making the game older than all four major professional sports leagues in the US (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL). The sport evolved from an African training exercise, only the tribesmen weren’t using soft, inflatable balls. They were using large STONES.
The object of the fitness test was to hit and incapacitate your opponent, and it didn’t end there. The ultimate goal was to “finish off” the opposing party with a barrage of stones. It was the responsibility of the fallen opponent’s team to defend their teammate and force the other side to retreat by throwing stones back at them. As brutal as it may sound, this exercise was meant to teach tribes to work together as well as how to fend off enemies and protect their communities.
So how did the sport end up stateside? Supposedly Dr. James H. Carlisle, a missionary in the mid-1800s who claims to have spent hours observing the rituals, saw through the sheer brutality of these training exercises. Besides the obvious physical demands and agility required to be successful, a unique camaraderie developed between the tribesmen that went hand in hand with the heart and sheer will to survive that these men exhibited. Dr. Carlisle essentially took the survival-of-the-fittest element of the game, made it less “deathy,” and with a few tweaks brought it back to England. Carlisle switched out boulders for leather balls, and dodgeball as we know it was born. From there it is believed that an American student from Yale, Phillip Ferguson, witnessed dodgeball matches at St. Mary’s University in London; Ferguson went on to create his own rules and a game structure that would ultimately speed up the matches. (St. Mary’s and Yale still play a match every four years in tribute to the founding fathers of the sport.)
Prior to 2004, dodgeball was largely seen as a game that American kids played during gym class. Sure, there might have been a handful of rec leagues sprinkled around the country catering to adults trying to find a midweek activity. (One that, on the athletic-activity scale, was a step above playing video games or ripping bongs.)
Enter Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, and a mildly entertaining movie all about the sport: DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story. Yes, the movie was silly and pandered to our nostalgia. But almost overnight, leagues were showing up all over the country with everyone reciting the movie’s most memorable line: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball!”
From the outside looking in, this “big” Hollywood movie was exactly what a fringe sport like dodgeball needed to catapult from a sweaty grade-school activity to something “legitimate” that belonged on the main stage. Of course, this was wishful thinking. Dodgeball may be a simple enough game for a kid to understand, but as a cultural phenomenon, it has more layers than a snack-table taco dip.
A TWO-SIDED BATTLE
Fast-forward to the present day, when both an awareness of and interest in dodgeball is, for fans at least, at an all-time high. But at what cost?
Two organizations are battling it out to gain official stewardship, tussling to be the governing body with the goal of making dodgeball a legitimate Olympic sport. On one side sits the World Dodgeball Association (WDA). On the other is the World Dodgeball Federation (WDBF). These organizations stand merely one year apart in their inception date, but they couldn't be more different.
The WDA boasts 70 million participants, with 20 million on the horizon (it’s unclear how these numbers were compiled). The organization lists affiliations with a multitude of international sports organizations, including—are you ready for this?—the World Anti-Doping Agency (Apparently doping is even a concern in dodgeball; is nothing sacred?). According to its website, the WDA also has a stakeholder partnership with the the International Olympic Committee (IOC).*
The WDBF takes a seemingly more inclusionary approach. Its mission statement emphasizes the federation’s role in “promoting the sport globally with the principles of unifying, educational, cultural, and humanitarian values.” Though less specific about the number of participants, it ponied up other stats. The group has national associations in more than fifty countries, and the number of participants has grown substantially over the past three years. Besides overseeing indoor dodgeball, the WDBF is the governing body for beach and trampoline dodgeball. (Color me impressed that these variations of the sport even exist.)
*This seems like as good a time as any to note that the WDA isn’t very shy about bragging about its World Cup Finals being hosted at Madison Square Garden, but it doesn’t exactly mention that the games were actually held in a basement theater within the huge complex (Don’t let reality get in the way of a good brag.)
NEXT GAME ON?
Jake Mason, the president of USA Dodgeball (and a member of the WDBF), explained the major difference between the two organizations. Simply put, the WDBF plays primarily with foam balls, and the WDA plays with cloth ones. When asked about dodgeball possibly becoming an Olympic sport, Jake let it be known that gold medal potential wasn’t the ultimate goal of the WDBF. Instead it wants the growth and awareness of the sport to take precedence over all else for USA Dodgeball.
Although Jake was humble and diplomatic in regard to both organizations, he did mention that the WDBF/USA Dodgeball tournaments have been covered on ESPN’s SportsCenter and the Spanish-language channel ESPN Deportes. Jake, who also established WeHo Dodgeball (the largest “neighborhood” adult recreational dodgeball league in the US, which is based in West Hollywood) way, way back in 2012, recalled how surreal it was to see the sport showcased in a language he did not understand. (That, dodgeball haters, is when you know you’ve hit the big leagues!) The live stream of that WDBF world championship game received a whopping 400,000 views.
UNDERDOG TO MIGHTY ALPHA
Today dodgeball is a million miles away from being the obligatory gym-class activity of yore. Leagues are popping up in unexpected places and with yet-unrivaled opponents.
Here in Chicago, those of us at Goose Island Beer Co. host a dodgeball tournament that we’ve dubbed “The Battle of the Breweries.” The weekend event has grown to include more than thirty local breweries. In a series of single-elimination matches, they face off against one another to earn a very brewer-worthy trophy—a keg with a victor’s cup on top. But most importantly, the winner earns brewery BRAGGING rights. It should be noted that the teams are not always evenly matched.*
What began as a one-off event five years ago to celebrate Illinois Craft Beer Week has become one of the most anticipated annual beer events in the city. “Half the game is mental; the other half is BEING mental,” says Goose Island brewer Austin Niestrom.
*Chicago’s Revolution Brewing has multiple dodgeball league players on its team, which might have drawn the ire of opposing breweries in years past. Their team is one of the most feared in the tournament and several of their players serve as alternates for Team USA.
GOLD MEDAL, BABY!
On the professional front, the Olympic goal is lofty but—who knew?—likely attainable. As of October 2017, the sport had earned Observer Status from the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF). (Observer Status is the first step in a “clear” pathway toward full GAISF membership, in theory getting the sport that much closer to Olympic competition.) Fans are looking forward to what the future may hold, but the revived interest in the sport is bringing avid dodgeballers the greatest source of pride. At its core, dodgeball is a very diverse and inclusive sport for amateurs, yet seasoned players can attest to the level of athleticism required to make it as a competitive player.
Whether you’re looking for a dodgeball beer league to meet your Fitbit activity-level goals or itching to kick some competitive ass with the dream of one day representing your country in the Olympics, GET OUT THERE AND PLAY. From setups at indoor gyms and skate parks to matches at the beach and via trampoline, there are enough variations of the court and the sport to suit almost anyone.
Dodgeball is—finally—no longer the underdog.
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