Mercy rule in school sports: is it necessary?

A few years back, there was much hoopla over a girls basketball game in which The Covenant School of North Dallas beat Dallas Academy of the White Rock area 100-0.

The publicity even resulted a funny stunt by a The Ticket radio team to play a basketball game against the Lake Highlands High School girls team.

A few weeks ago, The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools instituted a “mercy rule” for football and basketball that will come into play in the 2012-2013 season.

According to an ESPN.com piece, the Covenant-Dallas Academy game was cited as the main reason for the change.

The new rule requires that any game which reaches a 40-point difference after halftime will be subject to a running clock for the remainder of the game. This includes plays that end out of bounds and play stoppages for fouls in both sports.

As much as I dislike bullying, especially in the form of a coach and parents urging players to humiliate a weaker team, I’m not sure that rules are the answer in cases like this. If someone is employed as a football or basketball coach, especially at a pricey private school, shouldn’t part of the job requirement be good judgment, good leadership skills and sportsmanship? Sure, not all of them will demonstrate these things at all times, but when they don’t, they can be reprimanded as anyone else who fails at a job.

Is putting mercy rules in place tampering with the integrity of the game? Might it backfire and embarrass the losing team more than a blowout? Rob both teams of valuable learning opportunities?

Dallas Lutheran coach John Bronkhorst told ESPN that he has declined so-called mercy or clock rolling in the past.

“It’s not to be cruel to my team because it’s a teaching opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to learn in life you’re not going to get bailed out. We need to learn how to overcome adversity, and I can tell you right now, we grew from that game.”

I watched one of my kids’ public school basketball teams get beat by more than 40 points a couple weeks ago. The other team never let up on defense (they did let up on scoring, it seemed) and the winning teams’ parents, cheerleaders and coaches continued to root their team on to massive victory — no mercy on their end.

Our losing team walked away feeling OK that they had fought to the end. I heard them commenting about how impressed they were by the talent on the other team. They did not seem devastated or broken by the experience. (If I remember correctly, neither did the Dallas Academy girls).

On the other hand, last night’s game was lost by a single point. Now that was more heartbreaking than any blowout.


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  • Wooof100

    My experience in high school soccer for many years has been that usually the refs and coaches talk during the game and certainly at the half to agree to a running clock if a game is one-sided.  However, some winning (and losing) coaches don’t want a running clock for various reasons.  Not having a “mercy rule” would enable caches and officials to maintain this flexibility.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, last spring that LH/Samuell game created a good mercy-rule conversation, too: http://lakehighlands.advocatemag.com/2011/03/even-after-54-0-lhhs-baseball-win-there-should-not-be-a-run-rule-limit/

  • Triple Wildcat

    They need a rule because not everyone displays good sportsmanship. There are coaches who will intentionally embarrass an opponent to draw publicity to his team and himself. I believe the Houston Yates basketball coach was guilty of this a couple of years ago. The vast majority of youth and high school coaches have an innate spirit of sportsmanship, but there are jerks in every crowd.

    Mercy rules also protect the good guys from backlash – sometimes. Remember the LH-Samuell baseball game last year that got out of hand? Even with a 10-run rule after five innings and the LH coach doing everything reasonable to keep the score down, the game could not end soon enough to keep the score from reaching ridiculous proportions. LH was blasted by ignorant readers when the lopsided score was publicized in the local paper.

  • Wilson!

    Why do they need a rule?  In my limited experience at (public, 5A) high school football games, if a game is out of hand at halftime and both coaches agree, they will huddle with the referees before the 2nd half starts and ask them to let the clock run.  No rules needed, just people acting with sportsmanship.

  • Bill

    Right as rain Coach. If parents are embarrassed then they can leave at halftime. The kids have an investment in a loss like that and artificial endings just cheapen the result for all involved.

  • Anonymous

    My husband’s coached in private schools that are in leagues already using various mercy rules. In TAPPS and even smaller leagues, often the more isolated schools have to play whatever other teams are in the same district just to have someone to play. Sometimes that results in uneven competition. A mercy rule benefits fans just as much as it does players. Neither side’s spectators wants to watch a team get pounded into the ground for the full time. It’s boring, embarrassing after a certain point, and total overkill. What’s the point in watching that? There’s no sport in it.
    But on the other hand, that’s life — sometimes you’re going to get drilled and have your inadequacies handed to you on a silver platter, and it’s valuable practice for the players for how they’re going to handle those kind of moments in life. Sports offers kids chances to practice losing with their head held high just like it gives them practice at winning without being big-headed jerks. So yeah, I’ve always been on the fence re: mercy rules. There’s merit on both sides.