Friday afternoon at the Kent State recreation center is a symphony of squeaks and grunts: the sounds of pickup basketball and volleyball practice, the whirring of fitness equipment harmonizing with the piped-in soundtrack of the Doors and Stones.
But as the clock strikes 4, a different brand of athlete shuffles in, and a different sound permeates the space -- the thwack of rubber on hardwood, on concrete, on shatterproof glass. And on flesh.
It's dodgeball time.
"The first rule of Dodgeball Club is you do not talk about Dodgeball Club," Olsen Ebright says before a handful of wide-eyed underclassmen, who respond with knowing smiles. Together they form the core of the Kent State University Dodgeball Club, Ebright being the president and co-founder. True to their Fight Club-swiped code, they don't advertise their weekly games. Dozens of students, most of whom wouldn't otherwise set foot in a gym, just happen to show up.
"Dodgeball is a rite of passage for the elementary years," says Ebright, a PR major with a slight frame and wispy blond hair. "No matter how big of a nerd you were in school, you always had the chance to pelt the playground bully with a dodgeball."
Certainly, there is an element of geek chic at work here. The players look more like sweaty debate-teamers and skatepunks than gym rats. They suck air from the start, launching ill-guided shots. It isn't pretty. But it is getting big -- at Kent and elsewhere.
Dodgeball was bound for extreme-sport greatness the moment school administrators began to trash it. In 2001, a movement to ban the playground game succeeded in multiple states, fueled by the argument that dodgeball makes human targets out of the slow and weak, and instills a culture of violence. The Columbine massacre, it turns out, was all dodgeball's fault.
Around the same time, groups like the World Dodgeball Association and the National Amateur Dodgeball Association sprouted up around the country.
"The thing that's really neat about dodgeball is that it's got a 100 percent recognition rate," says the WDA's Keith Gelman. "We want it to be thought of as an action sport, but it's the first-ever team action sport. Not everybody can ride a BMX bike, but everybody can play dodgeball."
The WDA is a subsidiary of a Chicago marketing group, which promotes the game via sponsorships with companies looking to make inroads into Generation Y. A tournament last fall in Chicago, sponsored by Dodge, drew more than 70 teams. The league hopes to take its show on the road this fall, holding tournaments on college campuses throughout the country.
The WDA and other dodgeball organizations tone down the game's violence by using lightweight foam-based balls and outlawing head shots, while emphasizing teamwork. At the WDA website, the extensive rules (four "dodgers" on the inside; three "floaters" on the perimeter) read like a story problem from hell's geometry class.
"Everyone's going to have their own house rules, and that's great," Gelman says. "But we have to have a set of rules, because there are tournaments with money involved."
It's at this point that dodgeball's grassroots clubs and official leagues veer in opposite directions. KSU prides itself as much on its underground status as on its purist approach. Promoted only by word of mouth, the first game drew about a dozen players; within a month, they hosted a match against a veteran Ohio State squad. "We didn't have any strategy," concedes Ebright. "They were better than us."
No strategy, in fact, is the rule. On a recent rain-soaked Friday, the club held a meeting to elect officers. Nobody showed. But a few minutes later, the rubber was flying -- off the walls, off combatants, onto the adjacent basketball courts.
"People are happy with the way things are now," says Ebright, clad in flowery yellow shorts and a Top 10 Reasons You Know You Play Too Much Kent State Dodgeball T-shirt. "No one really sees any need to push the sport's visibility. If 60 kids show up every Friday to play, what's to improve?"
At a recent rec-sports expo in Cleveland, the National Amateur Dodgeball Association booth was swamped by inquiries from colleges around the country. But campus intramural teams invariably play the sanitized version of the game. And while Ebright hopes the school will grant his club intramural status next year, he's wary of the changes such a promotion could engender.
"If we had to change the rules, I'd definitely be against it," he says. "I don't think anybody would want to play. It's compromising a lot."
Kent's current rules could be spelled out on a Post-It note. Two teams line up at opposite ends of the court; play begins with a dash for the balls -- usually about 20 -- which are lined up in the center. Each team then retreats with its ammo, and a rubberized free-for-all ensues, with balls slamming off players and walls until one man is left standing. It usually takes just a few minutes.
Shots to the groin are permitted; shots to the head are applauded.
"If you can't take one to the face, you're in the wrong place. Yoga ended half an hour ago," says Marc Ybarsabal, an Ohio State sophomore who was part of the triumph over Kent.
The match between the two teams was Ohio's first known intercollegiate action so far. When Kent had to cancel a late-April rematch with Ohio State in Columbus, OSU went trolling for a game against Miami University, where dodgeball is an intramural sport. Miami, OSU learned, adheres to official WDA-style rules: foam balls, no head shots.
Ohio State opted to wait till Kent's available.