Mercy, Mercy

By Sean Cavanagh — January 27, 2009 3 min read

Is there any obligation for a school sports team to ease up on an opponent, when one side is so outmatched that the event devolves in a blowout that’s embarrassing to just about everybody involved? Should athletic associations set up rules to prevent this from taking place?

Those questions leap to mind in the wake of a much-publicized beat-down delivered by the girls basketball team from Covenant School, a Christian school in Texas, to the team from Dallas Academy, on Jan. 13.

Even by the standards of high school basketball, where talent mismatches are common, this score was pretty stunning: 100-0, Covenant. As you might have guessed, that final score brought repercussions, according to this story in the Associated Press.

According to the story, Covenant coach Micah Grimes was fired a few weeks after the game, apparently for letting things get out of hand. This related article says the losing side was so badly outmatched that team members were having trouble bringing the ball up court, committing turnovers that turned the game into a virtual lay-up drill for Covenant.

Not long after the game, Covenant’s headmaster and board chairman issued the following statement: “It is shameful and an embarrassment that this happened. This clearly does not reflect a Christlike and honorable approach to competition.”

Coach Grimes responded to the criticism by defending his decisions in an e-mail to a newspaper. “I do not agree with the apology or the notion that the Covenant School girls basketball team should feel embarrassed or ashamed. ... We played the game as it was meant to be played. My values and my beliefs would not allow me to run up the score on any opponent, and it will not allow me to apologize for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”

Grimes was fired not long after issuing that statement, according to the story.

Some state athletic associations have set regulations to reduce the chances of massive blowouts, guidelines commonly known as “mercy” rules. I know of them in basketball, and particularly football, where I believe the thinking is that if one side is so dominant, there’s a good chance someone is going to be seriously hurt. Texas does not have a mercy rule in girls basketball, according to the story.

The value of mercy rules, and the rules about when to let up against an overmatched opponent, tend to rouse strong opinions in the sports world, in my experience. For a lot of us, the benefit of mercy rules is obvious: Why allow athletes, particularly teenagers or preteens, to be humiliated by a huge loss? Common mercy rules include letting the clock run without interruption during blowouts or shortening the game. If participating in sports is supposed to teach students lessons, what lessons are to be gained from, say, a 75-7 loss on the gridiron?

The other view, as I’ve heard it expressed, goes like this (I am drawing from my prodigious memory of sports-radio discussions here): Athletics are supposed to mirror life and to challenge participants in unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant ways. There’s a lesson to be learned in an athletic blowout, according to this line of thinking: If you are unprepared or simply overmatched in sports, as in life, you will be embarrassed. Most athletes face an opponent who is far more talented, the argument goes, and learning to compete against that rival, without fear or the expectation of mercy, is part of what sports is about. I don’t know how many people would support the Covenant coach in this situation. But I know that some people (I’ve heard them) argue that teams should not ease up on a struggling opponent; to do so is anti-competitive, they say.

Looking to professional and college sports doesn’t lend much clarity here. Coaches and players periodically object to being “shown up” by an opponent who runs up the score, but those extreme drubbings go on, year after year. Of course, in those situations, athletes often settle those disputes through what amounts to street justice, by exacting revenge through cheap play or simply blowing out that opponent, if ever the tables should turn.

In high school athletics, what rules should apply?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.