“Whatza matter you big toe,” Danny incomprehensibly teased, egging me to wing the ball at him. His flaming red hair and daring blue eyes proved a compelling target. Danny wasn’t stupid – but neither was I. As all fourth graders knew, Danny caught every ball thrown his way. And in Dodgeball, that means you’re out, he wins. The cool lake breeze evaporated the sweat from my forehead as the sun beat abnormally hot that spring day on the elementary school playground. The recess bell moments away, I made my decision quickly.
With the deft eye of a future quarterback, my face feigned throwing the ball into Danny’s broad chest and stocky arms. He bought the ruse and, as I cocked my arm back, I could see his biceps tense. Kids usually thought if they threw the ball hard enough right at him, Danny wouldn’t catch it. Danny always caught it. With a snap release I flicked the ball directly at… his feet!
Stymied by the misdirection, Danny froze. The ball bounced harmlessly off his shoe. The bell rung. I had won.
* * * * *
Six years later, on the hardwood deck of the high school gym, I found myself in Danny’s shoes. Faced in an identical Mexican standoff, I stared at my opponent’s eyes like a preying defensive back. Prepared for anything, his launching of the ball for my lower leg did not surprise me. Its speed, however, did. I quickly slipped my feet behind me and fell forward, curling above and around the oncoming missile. I carefully watched the path of the fleshy projectile, first as it sailed beneath my torso, then as it shot under my quickly rising sneakers. I watched it all the way – at least until my teeth slammed into the unyielding floorboards.
My head ricocheted back, sans two front teeth. My classmates immediately surrounded my dazed body. The first thing I remember seeing were pieces of my shattered front teeth strewn across the shiny wax floor. When asked how I felt, I calmly but matter-of-factly answered, “We won.”
* * * * *
They don’t play Dodgeball in public schools anymore – and not just because kids can get physically injured. No, Dodgeball fell out of favor during the era where “self-esteem” became the mantra. “Don’t let Johnny lose, it’ll hurt his confidence.” “Let’s give everyone a trophy for participating.” “Just giving awards to winners might deflate the self-assurance of the losers.” “Better yet, let’s not have ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ at all, because, really, aren’t we all winners?” “Yes, society has certainly grown out of the ‘macho’ phase of testosterone.” “Why can’t we just all get along?”
And so, out went the virile excitement of Dodgeball and, with it, the grandeur of achievement, and in came the tepid feel-goodness of equality and the glorification of the victim. “Jane shouldn’t get too far ahead of the rest of the class.” “She don’t need help like those less bright, she’s smart enough to figure it out for herself.” “We can’t hold him accountable given his depraved background.”
We went from “defining deviancy down,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once declared, to the “dumbing down of America” as the Washington Times wrote last year.
One need look no farther than in the actions of our financial markets and those investors who had unrealistic expectations. We see it in the government forcing lenders to give money to borrowers who couldn’t afford to pay back those loans. We see it in the banks who didn’t envision losing and willingly gave money to borrowers who couldn’t afford to pay. We see this in the borrowers themselves who, fed on a steady diet of “self-esteem,” never assumed they could lose. Hadn’t any of these folks ever played Dodgeball?
Worse, we see it in the quixotic investors who believed in the fantastic returns claimed by Bernard Madoff’s apparently now obvious Ponzi scheme. What a perfect investment! Everybody wins, nobody loses!
Though I now sport a “White Bridge of Courage” from my childhood antics in the game of Dodgeball, that particular arena left important lessons: Life produces winners and losers; and, its corollary, sometimes, when something seems too good to be true, it really is too good to be true.
In truth, when you play the game called “real world” you either win or lose. Pretending this axiom no longer exists only leads to – well – what we’re reading in today’s headlines. The Founding Fathers understood this. The pioneers and cowboys embraced it. And we today must take a stand - nothing is too big to fail!
And if business "too big to fail" can fail, can't government "too big to fail" also fail?
(Sigh...) It's too bad we don't play Dodgeball anymore...