Photo by Leo Gomez.
Photo by Leo Gomez.

The annual campus-wide dodgeball tournament dates back to 2005 and has quickly become an exciting Princeton tradition. With four brackets of different sizes, clubs of all kinds can enter the tournament, and the winners get nice cash prizes. Over one hundred student groups regularly sign up, making it one of the few events that attracts people from all different corners of campus. Whereas most Thursday nights campus social activity is physically separated into a handful of eating clubs, on the night of the tournament hordes of students descend on Dillon Gym to hang out and compete together and against one another. Freshman year, I remember marveling at how many unfamiliar faces I saw in one place, and I found the tournament to be exhilarating. The whole enterprise seemed so collegiate and collegial, a time when we could put aside our various commitments and collect in a single place to partake in friendly competition.

It was with this mindset that I arrived at the tournament this year. For the most part, I felt that my expectations were met. One of the nicer things about the tournament is that while each team is identified based on a particular student group, the boundaries are loose and attendees find themselves invited to play for friends’ organizations or groups they may never even have heard of. This convention serves to offset competitiveness. I can play for one team in round one and then play for their opponents in round two with little compunction. This suggests that people are really there to have fun.

The tournament also provides an opportunity for real bonding as a group. The first team I played with was Yavneh, the Orthodox Jewish group on campus. It was nice to come together and collectively participate in an activity quite unlike the ones we normally engage in together. We’re not Triangle or Shere Khan and so we’re not used to being cheered on for things (“yeah, you READ that Torah!”), and I can’t deny that that’s pretty fun. The group ListServ was pulsating when we made it to the third round, and despite the close and unfortunate loss to a club sports team, group solidarity has probably never been higher.

But by the same token, the event can also bring out unfortunate behavior in both individuals and groups. For one thing, the relative lack of oversight creates a moral hazard. The game moves quickly, and judges can’t possibly see every interaction between player and ball. Plenty of people do step out when hit. Others, though, will stay in the game until a judge calls them out repeatedly, or until they are sufficiently shamed by members of the opposing team pointing and shouting at them and can no longer feign ignorance. People will often stay in the game if given any wiggle room at all, ducking out for a moment only to return soon after, banking on the fact that no one was paying close enough attention to notice. It seems that without the Honor Code (and perhaps the looming specter of suspension?), many people don’t behave so honorably. Worse, the same people who choose to stay in after being knocked out will often turn around and shout at those on the other team who they take to be cheating.

This type of behavior is not unexpected, but it is still unfortunate. It takes an event that is presumably intended to be pure, low-stakes fun, an opportunity for campus-wide bonding, and infuses it with a bizarre and unwelcome seriousness. Is it really that big of a deal to leave when you get knocked out? More frustrating than that, though, is the extent of the cheating among certain groups. It is incredibly exasperating to watch as a team repeatedly and systematically refuses to abide by the rules. I leave with my voice hoarse and my sense of fairness feeling battered.

I also think the opportunity to build group spirit often goes too far and amplifies malignant elements of campus culture. This is most problematic when it comes to the eating clubs. In the lead-up to the event a Cottage member sent out an email addressed to the club membership (apparently referred to as “Taj”) encouraging them to show up, saying: “This is an opportunity for the bigger, stronger kids on campus (Cottage Club) to pick on the weaker ones (Terrace).  And since dodgeball is all about exclusion and degradation, we should have no problem maintaining our image and dominating tomorrow night.” Limited to a few emails, this isn’t such a big deal. With the appropriate level of critical detachment, trash talking is fun to engage in and amusing to observe. In moderation it can be a good way to work up a mild rivalry and motivate your own side. No one is contesting the self-congratulatory assessment that Cottage members are (on average) stronger than their Terrace counterparts. The problem is when the type of attitude expressed in an email of this kind makes its way onto the dodgeball court and pervades the entire gym.

Terrace has a significantly larger membership than Cottage, and this was represented in the size of the teams fielded by each side. Terrace officers used the match as an opportunity for to raise group identification, likening the match to the movie “300”—with the Terrans representing the Persians. (“You remember how 300 ends? the Spartans all die. All of them.”) Few Terrans actually expected to win. One Terran (and Nass writer) described herself as “cannon fodder.” But leading into the match, spirits were high, and “T-F-C” chants reverberated throughout Dillon. Many non-Terrace members donned the Terrace tie-dyed headband and joined in.

The match was ugly to watch. With so many people playing, the referees were basically useless, and people used this to their advantage. One Cottage player’s ball was caught, and despite loud protestations to the contrary, he continued playing. To add insult to injury, he opted to repeatedly kick the balls as hard as he could instead of throwing them, hitting onlookers in the face and generally wreaking havoc. Was this a lone Cottage member mistaking himself for Captain Falcon from Super Smash Brothers (I’m pretty sure he bestially screamed “Falcon kick!” as he struck the balls with his foot), or was this an exemplification of a larger attitudinal problem among a large swath of dodgeball participants? He was far from the only offender. Whenever the game reached a lull, a few girls from the Cottage team would scamper forward to taunt the Terrace side, literally thumbing their noses and shaking their butts. It was painfully obvious that many of those on the Cottage team reveled in mocking Terrace and its relative unathleticism. Terrace’s disapproval of Cottage was a bit more subtle, mainly confined to snide remarks about athletes and/or accusations of misogyny. At a certain point, the overwhelmed refs felt forced to call off the match and instead have each side pick twenty players who would then compete. When Cottage—unsurprisingly—won, they celebrated as if this were a major upset. There was lots of shouting, jumping, and backslapping. There may have been cartwheels.

The whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth. By pitting clubs against one another and giving them a chance to build team and Princeton spirit, what ended up happening seemed to be the entrenchment of group stereotypes and enmity. Intra-group spirit was built by demonizing the other team. That’s the opposite of what a campus-wide event should do. I almost wished I was at the Orange and Black Ball.

Sports are idealistically held up as an opportunity to manifest fair play and honorable behavior. I happen to think this is a stupid justification for athletic competition. It reminds me of the response some philosophers give to the argument against God based on the existence of evil. It makes sense that an omni-benevolent being would create evil, they say, because in a world without suffering there would be little opportunity for bravery and kindness, qualities we can agree are good. Suffering provides individuals with the opportunity to act freely and exhibit morally laudable behavior. Similarly, in arguing for the positive contribution for sports on the basis of the sportsmanship, we seem to be saying that by putting people in circumstances which induce their aggressive spirit, we allow them the chance to overcome that tendency and behave politely and respectfully toward others.

The problem—aside from the fact that the good-making response to the problem of evil is pretty dumb for reasons I won’t get into here—is that formal athletic situations are contrived. The dodgeball tournament does not emerge from an omniscient God or from human nature or from the structure of reason. We organize it. I’m not arguing that, all things considered, sports or the dodgeball tournament are bad. I like sports. I generally have fun at the dodgeball tournament. It’s just that in general, Princeton students have competitive tendencies. It would be unfortunate if dodgeball were just an opportunity for the reification of a toxic mindset that lurks under the surface of our academic and social experiences.

The dodgeball tournament is undoubtedly a great opportunity to promote campus synergy, and to some extent it accomplishes that goal. It can be improved. If we are a bit more mindful of our actions, our context, and the tradeoffs that go into “team spirit,” some of the negative behavior that poisons the atmosphere of this event—and of campus as a whole—can be avoided. Let’s aim for an evening where even if Terrace members have to lose their dodgeball match, they don’t have to worry about losing their lunch money as well.

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