A true underdog story
Dodgeball is a farcical sports comedy featuring the love triangle of Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, and Ben Stiller coupled with a cast full of characters and caricatures. Mixing genre archetypes of sports, straight man comedy, and 90's summer camp or ski lodge films, it is easy to overlook this story as a silly diversion instead of it’s true value as a lighthearted distillation of sports, teamwork, and competition. Interspersed throughout the arc of a down-on-it’s-luck mom and pop gym fighting for survival against a global goliath enterprise in the dodgeball field of play there is a parable for anyone who finds themselves cast in the roll of the underdog in this life.
In a sports league at any given time there can be found degrees of competitors ranging from the long tail of underdogs up to the few dynasties at the top of the mountain. Basketball had the Lakers and the Bulls, golf had Woods and Nicklaus, and football had the Crimson Tide and of course the Gators. There’s no single formula for how to achieve the distinction of dynasty. Some teams may get lucky in the draft, but even the Magic, who drafted Shaq and Penny with first picks in subsequent years, never won a championship. Others may have market advantages that allow them additional avenues for monetization such as the Braves broadcasting nationally on TBS. In some cases a team may just have a carefree owner who is more concerned with his legacy than his estate. Each of these pieces on their own may help, but in the end most true dynasties have achieved a kind of lollapalooza of factors that allow them to consistently outperform. You’ll generally find in sustained dynasties some kind of cumulative advantage — in football a conference championship gives a team a material advantage in future recruitment of high school players, in professional sports a successful year opens up the ability to monetize a fan base via national broadcasts and merchandise sales. Golf is an exception, as a solo sport it is a game where consistency of outperformance is strictly a measure of personal talent and discipline.
It is generally a goal of league commissioners to limit the sustainability of dynasties, just as how in the business world antitrust regulators target purely monopolistic competition to protect consumers. Any league where the outcome of a contest is certain strips a game of its color and appeal to fan base. A popular approach to capping dynasties is a salary cap, but even this approach is subject to the emotional appeal of marquee players working at under-market rates in order to win a championship (a sacrifice that could either be considered noble or misguided depending on your viewpoint).
Of course even in the most monopolistic environment a dynasty may be subject to disruption via a new paradigm of play — think Byron Nelson inventing golf’s modern swing, Steve Spurrier introducing the ‘fun-n-gun’ style offense to the SEC in the 90's, or Kodak verses the digital camera. Short of these paradigm changes an underdog faced with competition from a dynasty generally must rely on a combination of his wits/skill and luck/randomness. The investment guru Michael Mauboussin has written about the skill vs. luck continuum of sports in his book “The Success Equation,” and has even gone so far as to rank games according to their exposure to randomness, with the most random outcomes on the far left of the scale being equivalent to slot machines and the most influenced by skill on the far right of the scale being a game like chess. One of the features that helps to move a sport further into the realm of skill is repetition of play — a game with long seasons, short cycles of play, and frequency of scoring like basketball dampens the influence of randomness whereas a game where a single goal or missed swing could change an outcome like hockey is more impacted by randomness. On this scale I suspect dodgeball would fall somewhere on the continuum between football and baseball.
Just as dynasties aren’t born overnight, a marquee player must start his career battling his own limitations in the gym. People go to the gym for many reasons, for some it is strictly a commercial exchange where money is traded for access to the barbell and treadmill, for others it is a social environment where friendships are made and a community is found. It is this dynamic that is at the heart of Dodgeball, where what Mom and Pop’s lacks in the luxury and prestige of Globo Gym it makes up for in its tight knit family of weirdos and outcasts — the underdogs with heart. For while Globo Gym on its surface may carry the luster of success, it is actually a product of the emulation mindset of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ which dominates the middle class. Would you rather live in a heavily mortgaged McMansion alone or in a modest home shared with those you love? I think in this question can be found the answer to of which team you belong. If you see the gym as a status symbol or a meat market you are Globo Gym clientele, if you prefer friendly acceptance over judgment you belong at Mom & Pops.
The casting of Vince Vaughn in the lead is a choice one, in his indifference to the overwhelming odds of his situation can be found the seeds of a leader impervious to stress. It feels strange to watch a Vaughn film without a buddy and comrade by his side, the Jon Favreau of Swingers or the Owen Wilson of The Wedding Crashers, for in this film Vince is the straight man misfit to his comrades of perhaps more unusual misfits, fortunately Christine enters the picture just in time. The problem with surrounding yourselves with misfits is that you risk taking on those characteristics yourself. My uncle Tim, bravely and cheerfully facing the certainty in outcome of an ALS diagnosis, likes to say that you take on the fears of those you surround yourself with.
While it may pay to be choosey about your teammates and connections, it is possible to take that too far. We are not all cut out for solo sports like golf, some of us perform better in a team environment like dodgeball where we can play off of each other’ strengths. The challenge is finding those with complementary strengths who share common goals. The difference between solo play and team competition is so pronounced that this year’s US Ryder Cup team, competing in the most important of PGA international match play events, has even hired a psychologist advising the golfers on overcoming the challenges of team based competition (and perhaps even overcoming a heckler or two).
While the Ryder’s Cup may be a championship caliber competition between equals, the competition featured in Dodgeball is much more lopsided between that of the amateurs and the pros, sort of the equivalent of a startup company taking on Microsoft. Spoiler alert, it is only through teamwork and collaboration that the underdogs are able to overcome their challenges and best their opponents. As we face our own challenges in life we can try to take on the mantle of the solo golfer, a sport with very few historical dynasties, or we can look for our own Mom & Pop’s gym to find our fellow misfits. The single hardest part of team competition is putting a team together in the first place. Fortunately we can always look to the 5 D’s of dodgeball for our inspiration: Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive, and Dodge.
movie still credits IMDB.com
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