Ball of Shame

The violence, humiliation, exclusion, degradation, and sheer joy of dodgeball in the park

"It was called 'war ball' at my school," explains Andrew Flurry as we tool toward Golden Gate Parkfor the opening game of the San Francisco Bombardment Society. The flicker of long-buried, unwanted memory darkens his big blue eyes.

"We played on rainy days, when the whole school was stuck indoors. Seven classes all crammed together in one room. They brought out all the yellow balls -- it seemed like there were hundreds of them. Yellow balls are harder than red balls ...."

Flurry trails off, taking a long, deep breath, as if to steel himself for what comes next.

The San Francisco Bombardment Society in action.
James Sanders
The San Francisco Bombardment Society in action.
Roky Roulette is a dodgeball star.
James Sanders
Roky Roulette is a dodgeball star.

"At first, the hooligans would completely ignore the little kids, until all the big guys in school were on the same side. Then they would choose one kid and they would all aim for him. ... It was absolutely terrifying."

To see Flurry now -- tall, broad shoulders, square jaw, solid forearms, easy laugh -- it's difficult to imagine him as a scrawny little kid, cowering on the dodgeball court, but I remember his youth, engulfed by a voluminous leather jacket, topped by half a head of spiked baby down. He was skinny enough to get blown over by a sneeze. Is it any wonder then, in an urban landscape devoid of natural predators like hyenas and lions, that dodgeball left an impression on his still-developing cerebral cortex? No sir, not when a well-directed sphere of schoolyard misanthropy could have snapped his head off, or mine, for that matter. Which might be as good a reason as any to support the seemingly barbaric pastime of using a child's body as a moving target. Certainly, it's better to develop a preternatural fear of a fast-moving rubber ball than of, say, intimacy, failure, or solitude. But as we all know, dodgeball isn't limited to the glee of physical brutality. As "pro dodgeballer" Patches O'Houlihan explains in the latest misfit comedy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, it is a sport of violence, humiliation, exclusion, and degradation.

"The statement is blatantly misleading. Dodgeball is so much more than that," says Sean Speer, founder and president of the SFBS. "Dodgeball is also about one-upmanship, domination, punishment, belittlement, coercion, schadenfreude, and the inherent beauty in a well-aimed crotch shot."

Initially created just to make a fantastic T-shirt logo (which depicts the silhouette of a head getting hit hard enough by a dodgeball to cause globs of spit to fly from its slack mouth), the SFBS now meets in Bunny Meadow, just east of the Conservatory of Flowers, on most Sundays of the summer. And what started as a tightknit group of friends has grown to include any player with a like-minded approach to the sport.

"They're the most excellent group of human beings ever assembled," says Speer seriously. "They're the reason for the season."

When the SFBS was formed two years ago, dodgeball was getting a bad rap. There was, in fact, a national movement to eliminate dodgeball from the physical education curriculum; it was spearheaded by Neil Williams, chairman of the health and physical education department at Eastern Connecticut State Universityand creator of the Physical Education Hall of Shame. "Dodgeball is one of those games that encourages aggression and the strong picking on the weak," said Williams during an interview with Education Week. Despite his position in the debate, which was waged in journals and newspapers from Maryland to California, even Williams publicly admitted a soft spot for the game.

"I have to say I enjoyed it," said Williams. "I was a skinny little runt of a guy, but I was incredibly sneaky and nasty in the game."

"Oh, it's a love/hate relationship," admits 33-year-old Pilar DeGama, who wears a number seven on the back of her SFBS shirt corresponding to nothing much at all. "It's fun, but it's kind of like therapy, a chance to get over all that old dodgeball trauma, to reclaim the game. I still can't throw for shit, but I'm more coordinated and less attached to my ego. And I'm not picked last for every single team anymore."

I watch as two team captains stand opposite a motley gaggle of dodgeball enthusiasts. One by one, names are called as grateful players happily bound over to their respective sides, until only an unfamiliar newcomer remains.

"Damn it!" says Flurry, good-naturedly kicking the sod. "Picked last again!"

A few of the dodgeballers laugh in support, but there is painful recognition in their titters. It's only funny because it's true.

"Game on!" shouts 26-year-old Kevin Lewis, whose most embarrassing educational moment was throwing up in kindergarten. The teams lurch across the grass to grab the familiar balls waiting in the center and let them fly.

"It stings!" bawls a member in mock anguish.

"You're out!" shouts an opponent.

Two players dash from their home court to the back line of the opposing team.

"Watch your back!" shouts Morgan Frank, who has admitted to pants-ing a fellow student on the dodgeball court once upon a time. (The opposing team, of course, took advantage of the entanglement, striking said student with a ball at full force.) Twenty-two-year-old Logan Gilbert, a powerful player with a lower-back tattoo and a spiked leather belt, catches an opponent's ball with a resounding thwack and holds on.

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