It is a given in sports competition that one team or competitor usually is better than the other team or player. The thrill is finding out which will win the day.
That is the baseline concept of competition, and it also is what fills stadiums and arenas throughout the year as the seasonal sports play out.
Pro sports are in the headlines these days, but for mostly political reasons. We are a nation ideologically divided, and because sporting events are a microcosm of real life, there is that natural dividing line.
But standing or kneeling for the national anthem is not the focus of today’s discussion. Our concern today is the sportsmanship factor in games, usually at the high school level, in which the score is ludicrously lopsided. We’ve seen quite a lot of that in local high school football games this fall.
We fully understand that lopsided scores are one way of validating the young players’ training efforts and skills development. But there is a point in lopsided games at which it is abundantly clear that one side is far bigger, faster, better-coached and just better than the other side.
It is at that point games below the pro level should either be stopped or shortened — because too often a young player is injured after the point at which the losing team has no chance to win. And all too often those injuries will cause pain for a lifetime.
The precedent for stopping or shortening those out-of-balance games is called the “mercy rule.”
The rule is based on the principle that when one player or team has an insurmountable lead, the game for all intents and purposes is over, and all that remains is the potential for physical harm. An outclassed opponent has been thoroughly beaten and humiliated once the scoring gets out of hand.
Nationally, at the middle or high-school level, 34 states use a mercy rule involving a continuous, no-stoppage clock once a team has a certain points lead, mostly used during the second half of such a game. In most states, the cutoff point is a score of 40-50 to zero by halftime.
Even college football has such a provision, triggered when one team is ahead by at least 56-0 at the half. At that point most sides must agree to shorten the duration of the remainder of the game.
Some fans might feel cheated by a score-shortened game — until they see a youngster carried off the field with a broken leg or collarbone shattered while trying to keep the opponent from further running up a hopeless score. At that point the whole concept of “game” flies out the window.
Americans love their sports, especially football. And fans scream for more touchdowns. But there is a point in most lopsided games that effort becomes meaningless, leaving only humiliation and the potential for serious injury. That is the time to stop.
Not everyone shares that belief, and when coaches are asked why they continue to pile on the points in an already-lopsided game, the typical response is that their kids worked hard to be this good, and a lopsided score in a game is their reward.
Perhaps, but what is it for the other kids, the ones on the other side of the line? Is that the kind of team we want to be?
We’d like to hear — and share — your thoughts on this issue. And perhaps someone can explain how running up the score 77-10, 72-14, or 70-7 on an overmatched opponent represents sportsmanship.