Harmless fun or Bullying 101? Any kid who’s ever cowered in the locker room to avoid dodgeball can tell you it inflicts psychic wounds. And now science agrees: Dodgeball is a nightmare for the less skilled, more vulnerable participants, according to three Canadian researchers who presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Vancouver in June 2019. After studying focus groups of middle schoolers, the three determined that it’s also possible the game sets children up both to be bullied and become bullies. Here’s what science has to say about dodgeball:

Rules of engagement

In case your days of agonizing gym class are far behind you, here’s a refresher on the game under discussion. The object of dodgeball is to “take out” the opposing teams players by throwing a game ball from your team’s side of the court to the other. In theory, at least, the “hits” only count if the ball strikes the opponent below the shoulders. Dodging balls thrown by the other team is one key skill, but the game pace is set by the kids who are best at throwing balls so they hit members of the opposing team. The harder to dodge, the better.

That aggression is one aspect researchers led by Joy Butler of the University of British Columbia object to. They say such unbridled violence is inappropriate in the educational environment. It reinforces the idea “it’s OK to try to target weaker students or different students,” co-author Claire Robson told Global News.

The researchers also concluded that dodgeball was simply a form of institutionalized bullying. Not only does the game require kids to allow others to pummel them with forcibly thrown objects, but the researchers also found that marginalized students suffered social anxiety from being picked last and were systematically targeted during the game. Some focus groups also revealed the prevalence of the stronger players forming super-teams and banishing the weaker players to a single team that could easily be crushed.

Dodgeball critics in America

This isn’t the first the U.S. has heard of dodgeball being a negative influence in the complex and emotionally-charged school environment. In 2017, SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators, released a statement titled “Dodgeball Is Not an Appropriate Physical Education Activity.” It pulled together statistics and research from as far back as 2004 and as recent as 2015. The conclusion: “Traditional dodgeball, in which the objective is to eliminate opponents by hitting them with a ball, undermines the goal of creating and maintaining a positive school climate,” SHAPE said. “Even with modifications such as using softer balls and recycling eliminated players back into play, dodgeball is still a game in which the goal is to hit other students with an object, and that promotes bullying behavior.”

And SHAPE makes another logical argument against dodgeball. Since it’s not ideal for encouraging physical activity, why teach it? Especially when physical educators can choose from a vast number of games that are more fun for everyone and that still “build knowledge, skills and confidence within all students.”

Oh, Canada

Ironically, schools in Canada, where the study originated, are less likely to have banned dodgeball than schools in the U.S. And though Canada is generally thought to be a kinder, gentler neighbor, Canadian press outlets railed against the findings. A sizable portion of the coverage associated the researchers with left-leaning “participation trophy” values and railed against those who would do away with dodgeball. David Staples of the Edmonton Journal heatedly defended the punitive gym class game. He argued that to deprive children of this PE and beach activity would be to let other kids and their parents get an upper hand with their superior knowledge of the “robust team play and complex competition of the real world.”

In any case, the researchers aren’t advocating for the discontinuation of dodgeball. They just question why it’s sustained in the school environment.  “People can do whatever they want, but in an educational context, it’s our responsibility as adults and teachers to [be] in situations where everybody feels seen and heard,” Robson added.