Chivalry on the Dodgeball Court

(From the Commons)

A few weekends ago, I played dodgeball for the first time in ten years. You know the game - where you get to throw rubber balls at high velocity towards unsuspecting faces - that is being phased out of elementary schools because of its violence. My Saturday morning was filled with a bunch of (mostly) twenty-something-year-old guys maintaining no-holds-barred chaos, and it reminded me of all the great elementary recesses on the playground spent hurling little green balls at friends and enemies alike. It was a time when accurate aim was as important as academic success. But as I was running around in my headband, tank-top and short shorts, frantically ducking, dodging, and counterattacking, now with fifteen more years of life experience, I was reflecting on how playground dodgeball taught me life lessons that I still rely on.

C.S. Lewis penned a great essay called “The Necessity of Chivalry”, in which he said that a knight was a man who was both “fierce to the nth” and “meek to the nth.” A good knight knew his manners while banqueting with the royal ladies, and yet could cooly dual-wield battle axes in the gate of his castle as the invaders approached, ready to cleave barbarian limb from torso. A properly chivalrous man - that is, a true knight - needed both fierceness and meekness. More than that, he needed to be able to embody the extremes of both at the appropriate times instead of straddle some Aristotelian Golden Mean (wiki); acting macho 24/7 makes one perpetually brutish, while erring the other way produces effete doormats. 

What does this have to do with dodgeball? 

Playground and PE dodgeball was invariably co-ed, and one of the qualities that a good game of dodgeball teaches young boys is the tact to treat others respectfully, according to their ability. Some unwritten rules kept everyone in line: 
  • Don’t throw hard at girls. 
  • Throw the softer balls at the girls if you have a choice. 
  • Girls who (hopefully accidentally) get hit in the head, stay in. 
  • If a girl throws a ball at you, work to dodge rather than catch it, because catching it will get her out. 
  • If you have two balls, give one to the girl next to you so she can defend herself. 
  • If some chump opposite dares to hide behind the girls on his side, it’s your whole team against him.

It was honorable for us boys to play like this, and the girls seemed to appreciate our efforts to include them while keeping them safe. Along with this code of meekness  - the “rules of the banquet hall” - was the code of the battlefield. Dodgeball is like war, after all, and it’s a great game for boys because it respects different skill levels. Is it fair to call it a playground equalizer? Being able to throw a ball hard was one thing; being accurate was another. Both of those skills were on par with being able to catch anything that came to close to you. Having a cannon of an arm wasn’t everything; if you could take a rocket to the chest and hold onto it, you were a god for the rest of the afternoon. 

(Another one from the Commons)

Size differences were equalized, too. Bigger boys might be forced to try to catch balls that the smaller and/or more flexible ones could dodge, and a team needed those different members, like how it says in the Bible, “the body does not consist of one member but of many...The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Every knight needs a squire or two!

Dodgeball was also a lesson in humility. Lots of balls are all flying at once, coming from every direction, and there were times when I was so focused on heavy artillery that the most diminuitive effort from the shy guy in the corner would bounce off me! There’s no point in making a fuss over it - “all’s fair in war” and all that. The tough guys were naturally the most targeted, and it was the aim of every boy to guide his orb into the nose of the class powerhouse. This taught tact, too. Being an honest loser was as important as being a valiant attacker.

Tough guys or not, dodgeball illustrated that people of all different body types and abilities were valuable to a team. Attitude mattered more than ability. You could have the strongest arm on the playground, but if you had no discretion as to how hard you threw and at whom, you were a jerk. Girls and boys were different, and there was honor in treating boys and girls differently. As dodgeball games are increasingly discouraged or banned in school recesses across the country, I can’t help but wonder if we are losing something that teaches boys how to be chivalrous - how to be respectful when appropriate and fierce when appropriate. Lewis knew what he was talking about.

(As an aside, the recent Fallon Fox controversy highlights this loss well. There’s nothing honorable in how Fox is acting, but it’s generating publicity. Female opponents are hesitant to speak out because any publicity in professional fighting is good news for the viewing numbers. Someone needs to admonish Fox back into acting honorably, but that is isn’t the focus of this post.)

_DZ submit to reddit