The Reason Dodgeball Was Once A Much More Dangerous Game To Play

Dodgeball can certainly be a brutal game. Fans of "The Simpsons" will surely be familiar with Springfield Elementary gym teacher Coach Krupt, who gleefully terrorizes classes. Throwing the ball as hard as possible at the hapless students while bellowing his catchphrase/warcry "BOMBARDMENT!", this twisted take on dodgeball may not be all that different from many people's real-life experiences with the game.

What Coach Krupt didn't seem to appreciate is that, unlike in his own game of Bombardment, the crux of dodgeball is having an opportunity to actually dodge the ball (or, rather, prevent it from hitting your body). Nevertheless, accidents do happen, and alarmingly often. In the study "Dodgeball-related injuries treated at emergency departments," published by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine (via the National Library of Medicine), Mathias B Forrester researched injuries sustained while playing dodgeball between the years of 2001 and 2018. An estimated 185,382 such injuries reportedly occurred across the country, 90.5% of them sustained by children (57.8% of them at school).

According to Forrester, 30.7% of these childrens' injuries were strains or sprains, almost one-quarter were fractures, and 3% of them resulted in a dislocation. These ratios differed among injured adults, as did the area of the body injured, but one thing is certainly clear: Dodgeball is as dangerous as you may have heard. It's nothing, however, compared to how brutal it used to be.

The deadly origins of dodgeball

As England Lions Dodgeball reports, the sport does carry significant risk of injury. As a result, seasoned players will often use a certain level of equipment to avoid (hopefully inadvertent) injuries. Pads for the knees and goggles are often reportedly used, as the head is a relatively large and exposed target. The ball itself, England Lions Dodgeball goes on, is soft and comparable in size to a volleyball, as it would need to be in a sport designed around deliberately aiming at fellow players.

In comparison to certain other sports, dodgeball players seem to feel safe to use comparatively meager protection. By contrast, per SportsRec, league football players each wear around 20 lbs of protective equipment. With the roots of dodgeball in mind, though, much more than this may have been necessary. Dodgeball is one thing, but dodge rocks?

According to the World Dodgeball Association, the sport dates back a couple of centuries, where it was played (though "played" is hardly the operative word) by tribal warriors in Africa. It was more of a combat training exercise, and though the basic objectives were the same (strike all opposing players), it was more vicious than any schoolyard match. The balls, reportedly, were "large rocks or putrefied matter," and fallen opponents would then be repeatedly targeted and potentially, or probably, killed. Only their rock- or putrefied matter-wielding allies could prevent this, and in the effort, valuable lessons of comradeship, cooperation and warfare were learned.

Dodgeball has evolved, but some of the danger remains

The World Dodgeball Association goes on to report that Dodgeball was brought back to England by Dr. James H. Carlisle, a missionary who witnessed this stunning, graceful brutality first-hand (though he introduced play using a ball made of leather rather than rocks). It wasn't until 1905 in the United States, however, that an official rulebook began to be put together.

Today, the International Dodgeball Association reports, those rules help to ensure player safety. Standard IDA-approved balls, for instance, are made of foam, and a strict "hit etiquette" expects players to indicate that they took a hit and leave the field of play immediately (thus multiple-hit pile-ons are removed from the equation). On top of which, hits to the head are counted, but the IDA makes it clear that "we do not condone intentional headshots. Gym Leads reserve the right to discipline players if there are repeated violations or if the single violation is severe."

Needless to say, though, IDA rules are not enforced in amateur matches, and dodgeball remains controversial. In 2004, NBC News reported, The National Association for Sport and Physical Education stated that "Dodgeball is not an appropriate activity for K-12 school physical education programs." In 2001, the report goes on, a court in New York was presented the case of one Heather Lindaman, a 7-year-old girl who tripped during a dodgeball game at her school (without a safe zone) and broke her elbow.