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The Painful Playground

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, May 9, 2001; Page A31

Now it can be told. Two years after the killings at Columbine High School, two months after the murders at Santana High School, concerned school administrators and cutting-edge gym teachers are at last cracking down on one of the menaces that prey on the psyches of America's young.

The culprit in question is dodge ball -- also known, depending on where you went to school, by such aliases as killerball, prison ball and bombardment. In school districts across the nation, including Fairfax County, authorities have banned the playing of these games in physical education classes, on the ground that they foster aggression and discriminate against less athletic children. In a recent symposium in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, Dennis Docheff, of Wisconsin's Concordia University, said, "In today's world, with so many things breeding violent behavior in children, there is no room for dodgeball anymore." A game that uses "students as human targets," says Mary Marks, health and PE coordinator for Fairfax County public schools, "sets up the potential for teasing and ridicule."

The alarm over dodge ball stands at the delta of two rivers of social concern: One is a push within the physical education profession to make PE more inclusive. Given the constricting hours devoted to gym classes across the country, many teachers have a sensible resistance to games that eliminate players, relegating them to the role of spectators for the bulk of the class. This movement deserves applause for its efforts to make gym class more appealing to kids who aren't naturally inclined toward sports.

But the other critique of dodge ball and similar games flows from the perceived crisis of bullying in the schools, highlighted by the murderous reactions of the Dylan Klebolds and Eric Harrises and Andy Williamses who have responded by killing their classmates. This social boomlet subscribes to a Slippery Slope view of the world, in which all manifestations of childhood aggression are seen as potential seedlings of pathology.

The grandfather of dodge ball abolition is Neil Williams, a professor of physical education at Eastern Connecticut State University, who recently told the Chicago Tribune that dodge ball "encourages the best to pick on the weak and to be glorified for picking on the weak." In the '90s, he published a series of influential articles in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, outlining what he termed the "Physical Education Hall of Shame" -- games that included kickball, dodge ball, Simon says, red rover, musical chairs, spud, tag and even duck, duck, goose -- some on the grounds that they include too much sitting-around time but others on the grounds that they promote cliques or aggression.

The only way this pocket social movement makes any sense is as a mirror of adult anxiety over children's lives -- a sort of smiling cousin to the "zero-tolerance" policies that grown-ups have devised toward drugs and toy weapons and sexual harassment on the playground as a way of coping with the teeming variability of children's personalities and problems and backgrounds. It suggests that if only we can systematically eliminate all the transactions through which children express their aggression, we can eliminate aggression itself.

It might seem pessimistic to think that children bombarded by images of violence (Mortal Kombat, anyone?), and all too often by violence itself, can be plunged into depravity because their gym teachers sanctioned a game in which they threw balls at each other. But this belief is in fact a form of screwball optimism: If only we do everything right, it whispers -- if we add precisely the right ingredients to the snakes and snails and puppy dogs' tails of boys' natures -- then we can, after all, control or forestall a terrifying social disorder.

This wishful illusion of control is much easier than most of the other possible avenues to avoiding future Columbines, which include assigning every child a parent who is paying attention, and a school whose officials actually know the children in their charge, and maybe even a social order that doesn't hold the rights of gun owners in such holy esteem.

Of course there are kids for whom gym class is purgatory -- just as there are those for whom math class is a bed of nails. Of course we should teach children to treat each other well. Of course we should take seriously the damage that even the best kids can do to each other in the state of nature we call sixth grade. But we can't eliminate social pain from childhood, and we don't do children any favors by suggesting that its every manifestation is unendurable.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company