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Charmed Life

Revenge of the Nerds

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 10/3/2001

Over the years I've heard a lot of strange things yelled at tennis courts. Hell, back in my own racquet-swinging days I yelled a few, uh, strange things over the net myself. But the nighttime chant "Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!" echoing over the courts tucked behind Catonsville's Hillcrest Elementary School? This was altogether new. But then so was the spectacle transpiring on the school's lighted, green courts: two groups of perhaps 25, mostly male twentysomethings dashing about and pounding each other with rubber playground balls.

No, this wasn't tennis. No one was keeping score in French. The loosened net lay flat on the ground. To modify a line from an aged Andy Griffith comedy routine, "What it was, was dodge ball." To be specific, it was a Thursday-night gathering of the Baltimore Area Dodge Ball Alliance of Super Stars--BADASS, for short.

Of course, there's nothing new about dodge ball, the age-old grammar school game wherein players on competing teams hurl balls at one another. (Hit a person with a ball and he or she is out of the game. Catch a thrown ball and the thrower is out. Simple.) What's new is who's playing it these days: hipsters. Well, that was the term BADASS co-founder Dan Janssen employed in an e-mail he sent me about the reborn pastime. He further refined his definition of this old-school game's new-school practitioners: "indie rockers, [Maryland Institute College of Art] students, tattooers, etc."

Janssen, a lanky 24-year-old photographer for an adult Web site--and we'll just leave that there, thanks--says BADASS was born of boredom, that eternal mother of invention. Five years ago he and some buddies living along the same street in Ellicott City were looking for a little exercise outside the usual gym routine; they reached back to dodge ball, which most had played in school. Their regular game caught on with so many people that Janssen and crew moved operations to Hillcrest three years ago. More folks showed up, as did some uninvited guests.

"We've had the cops come many times," Janssen says. "I guess we look kinda scary."

To thwart future brushes with the law, this year BADASS went legit, paying a $20 annual fee to Baltimore County to become a recognized athletic group entitled to reserve and use the courts. Members even have their own T-shirts. This past summer, Janssen says, more than 100 folks came out for the weekly games. Sometimes they had to use two courts at once.

"It really just blew up this year," he says. "And it's mostly just through word of mouth--friends bringing other friends."

While a burgeoning BADASS has been attracting scores of ball-wielding scenesters, dodge ball itself has been taking some hard knocks. It all started last fall in Cecil County when the school board there proposed removing dodge ball and other "human target" games from an approved list of physical activities for students. The debate soon went nationwide, with a host of teachers and curriculum experts chiming in on dodge ball's dangers. The game took a drubbing. Typical of the response was an article in U.S. News & World Report that termed it "a game of violence, exclusion, and degradation."

All the hand-wringing makes Janssen chuckle. "Degradation?" he says with puzzled look. "Where did they get that? You get hit with a rubber ball and you're out. Big deal." And he has little use for the Illinois-based National Amateur Dodgeball Association, which formed last year to bolster the beleaguered game. "Oh, they're weak," he says. "They use foam balls and have judges. That's not dodge ball."

So what is dodge ball, at least according to BADASS? Based on my observations, it's a fast, noisy, jostling game with about six balls being hurled about at once. Janssen says many BADASSers were stereotypical pantywaist "nerds" when they played the game back in school (and were mercilessly pounded by jocks); now the term "nerd" is a playful game-time pejorative, and the ex-geeks are the ones doing the pounding. This is no kinder, gentler dodge ball, though; using a whiplike sidearm motion, many players can hurl the ball ferociously. Shots to the head are illegal, but accidents happen. Black eyes are not unheard of. At least three BADASSers have ended up in the hospital. Janssen just shrugs at the dangers--all sports have risks, he figures, and those involving red rubber playground balls are no exception.

Janssen says he doesn't have any deep philosophical reason for playing dodge ball--but then, after a pause, he comes up with one. "Everything in capitalist society is geared to self-preservation, and this game is a manifestation of that," he says. "You're on a team, but ultimately it comes down to you. You have to preserve your own space on the team."

Spoken like a true ex-nerd.

BADASS has recently added Monday-evening games at Johns Hopkins University to its weekly schedule. E-mail usromance@cs.com for information.

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