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Monday, May 29, 2006
The Mercy Rule
Over the weekend, much was made on the national sports talk shows about the state of Conneticut's school system adopting a new mercy rule for football games. The rule is that if any team beats another by more than 50 points, the head coach of the winning team will be suspended from coaching the next game .

I can see the intentions behind this are good, though I have to question if this is really going to make a difference.

Becuase I can see a couple of things happening. Either you're going to have a coach putting in the freshman team and instructing them not to score or you're going to have coaches having to allow other teams to score meaningless touchdowns and/or field goals in the game's waning moments in order to keep from being suspended the next week.

I can see both sides of this. I can see that if one team is blowing out the other, the third and fourth string players are going to get some playing time, maybe a chance to get on the field and hear the cheers of family and friends. But I can also see the other side where kids on the losing team are going to be mocked mercilessly because, well, this is high school. And heaven forbid it be a community like those portrayed in Friday Night Lights were high school football is life and the community takes its identity and pride from the football team's successes and failures.

But I'm not sure this mercy rule is necessarily going to achieve what it sets out to do. For one thing, I think that by the time you get to high school and are playing competive sports, you should know how to win and lose with dignity and class. And, yes, from time to time the victories may be lopsided--either way. But it's how you face that that really shows your character. And not only yours, but the character of the parents and the coaching staff. If the parents, teachers and coaches can use the losing as a life-lesson, than maybe there is something to be learned from it. Or maybe the kids can learn that sometimes in life you face overwhelming odds, but it's not an excuse to be petty, ugly, rude or to just plain give up.

And maybe it's not just a learning experience for the kids, but their parents, teachers, coaches and community members.

The interesting thing is that in a former career stop, I've covered high school athletics. There was a time that I drove out to cover an away game for one of the local basketball teams. Now I will admit, I got lost along the way and arrived at the gym a few minutes into the first half. To find the home team down by double digits. As the game unfolded, the gap worsened and the team ended up losing by something like 100-28.

Needless to say, it was lopsided.

But the thing that angered the fans of the team I was covering and their coach wasn't losing, but the other team's coach. Seeing that his team was up by a good margin at half-time, he didn't call off the dogs, instead allowing his star players to keep playing and inflating their stats. (The other coach had a reputation for doing this and I seem to recall he was trying to get some interest from Knoxville in some of his players.) I'm not saying they should have started missing shots delibrately or handing the ball to the team I was covering. But in basketball, you can run your offense to drain the clock and not humiliate the other team. But this coach didn't do that..it was still the fast-paced offense he'd opened the game with.

And I'll admit--I lost what little respect I had for the opposing coach. In my mind, he was no more than a bully, beating up on a weaker team.

But it also presented me with an interesting dilemma. See, I was there to cover the games for the boys and girls teams. And as I looked along the bench, I saw the faces of those girls who were losing--and it was pretty despondent. But yet, all my journalism classes had instilled upon me that I should report the truth. And the truth was the girls lost and lost badly. But any small town paper reporter will tell you--you have to walk a fine line. Yes, if something is going wrong like a steroid scandal, you have a duty to report it. But what was my duty in reporting on this.

After much thought and consulting with my editor, I decided to run the box score and ran a photo with an extended cutline from the game, stating the score and that the home team had lost. I wanted to write a scathing sports column about the other coach and call him a jerk in print, but I decided I didn't want to be sued for libel. So, I let it go.

A few days later, the coach of the home team called me and thanked me. He said he was grateful I hadn't further humilated his team and that I'd tried to keep their diginity in tact in spite of losing so badly. Of course, I made sure he echoed these remarks to the editor since she had stood by the decision I'd made on how to report the results of the game.

All that said, I can see what this mercy rule is trying to do. I think on some level its heart is in the right place. I'm just not sure that it really addresses what is really at the heart of the matter.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 5/29/2006 08:39:00 AM | |
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