Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Does anyone play crab ball any-more?

At my high school, crab ball

was one of the more eccentric competitions we were forced to endure in gym class—a perverse game in which teams of players scuttled around on their hands and feet while facing the ceiling, scoring points by kicking a ball over a low net. A kind of volleyball for contortionists—it makes my back and kneecaps ache just thinking about it.

It’s games like that that have made phys ed the most hated hour of the school day for generations of students.

Now crab ball, as well as less gruesome team sports, may be vanishing from America’s high school gyms. As reported on CNN.com recently, a new model for P.E. programs is emerging in the heartland—Naperville, Ill.—courtesy of P.E. instructor Phil Lawler.

Lawler is the “guru” of the “new P.E.” movement, in which students are graded not on how well they can dribble, hit or kick a ball, but on whether they can achieve their target heart rates. Goodbye team sports, hello electronic heart monitors and body-fat statistics on the permanent student record.

School officials from all over the country have made pilgrimages to Naperville to see Lawler’s fitness-club setup, complete with weight racks, exercise bikes and treadmills.

The new P.E. is emerging just as no P.E. becomes the norm at an increasing number of schools. In 1997, only 25 percent of the nation’s students took P.E. every day, and an equal percentage took no P.E. classes at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some elementary schools are even eliminating recess, ostensibly to devote more precious time to academics. (Six continuous hours at a desk: just the thing for fifth-graders in sugar shock thanks to the school’s soft-drink machine.)

For schools, there’s not much political risk in cutting P.E. Most students loathe it, and their parents remember loathing it. Plus, traditional P.E. has become politically incorrect. For one thing, team sports require that students choose their teammates, which involves passing judgment on their peers. Very bad. Gym class today gives off some of the odor of bullying, as if its whole point were to give the strong yet another opportunity to lord it over the weak.

Ditto for recess, which is increasingly regarded as nothing more than a petri dish for cultivating playground bullies. With those anti-bullying measures perking through several state legislatures, it’s easier just to build schools without playgrounds, as they now do in Atlanta.

Yet the sad and much-publicized truth is that kids are fatter and more sedentary than ever. How can we get our youth to burn a few extra calories without doing fatal damage to their fragile self-esteem?

The new P.E. meets the challenge by getting students off their prematurely spreading butts and onto exercise bikes. Unlike zero-sum competitive sports, in which one team wins and the other loses, this new approach is fashionably win-win.

The agony of defeat gives way to the joy of lowered cholesterol. P.E.’s former untouchables—the fat, the weak and the inept—can ace P.E. by working their hearts on a treadmill. The new P.E. rewards behavior, not skill. If, as one school of thought claims, math can be taught and graded so that wrong answers count as much as right ones, why not a P.E. class whose curve does not distinguish the athletes from the nerds?

Contrary to what many gym class victims believe, traditional P.E. programs were not invented to humiliate the clumsy or torture the lazy. They merely institutionalized behavior that not long ago was considered natural to children in groups: dividing into teams to play games. Homo ludens has been doing it for centuries in urban streets, empty lots, pastures, village greens and schoolyards—the inevitable hurt feelings of the klutzes notwithstanding.

Has anyone ever believed dodgeball did much to improve cardiovascular health? More likely, it found its way into the P.E. class because it’s what children did: play.

The new P.E. is not play. It is work. The playground gives way to the ethos of the fitness club, with its mantras of personal goals and self-referential achievement that in turn come straight out of the latest self-help business books.

Just as recess-less elementary school brings the information economy’s 60-hour-a-week work ethic to the third grade, the new gym class paradigm has young people imitating old people trying to recapture the strength and endurance of their youth.