At first blush, as a sports fan, you might immediately think that having a written “mercy rule” in place is one of those rules that makes a lot of sense. After all, who wants to have their youngster play on the short side of a lopsided score?
Mercy rules are put in place to basically shorten the game in a one-sided affair. That might mean shaving off a few innings of a baseball or softball game, or letting the clock run in football, ice hockey, or basketball games.
But as Doug Abrams pointed out this AM on my radio show, the implications of mercy rules – although clearly well intended – often bring complicating aspects that usually weren’t intended. For starters, the term itself – mercy rule – immediately conveys a sense of unwanted sympathy. That is, no competitive athlete ever wants to associated with a term that basically denigrates their abilities. No athlete ever wants to be the focal point of being on a team that was beaten so badly that the mercy rule had to be invoked.
As Professor Abrams points out, the real reason for these mercy rules is supposed to be preventive – as in, to prevent kids on the losing team from running the risk of being physically injured. It’s presumed that the winning team is most likely bigger and stronger than the losing squad, and thus the concern to reduce the risk of physical harm.
But as Doug suggests, perhaps the term should be “Safety Assurance” suggesting that it has nothing to do with feeling sorry for the losing team, but rather the rule is more about making sure kids stay healthy. I think Doug makes an excellent point, and I would strongly suggest HS athletic associations all over the country actively start to rename their mercy rules.
In addition, Doug and I both agree that we would like the refs and officials who are working the games to take a more pro-active approach. If a game is clearly getting out of hand by half-time, then the ref should gather the two opposing coaches at half-time, and discuss how they feel about running the clock in the second half, or taking other measures to ensure that the rest of the game is played safely and fairly. I know that puts extra pressure on a ref, but I think it’s smart to empower the ref, and it also makes certain that the coaches keep their perspective on what is transpiring.
Besides, I would like to believe that most coaches today would do the right thing if they find themselves on the winning side of a lopsided score. That is, make sure that the reserves get plenty of playing time, or make sure that the kids in a basketball or hockey game do a lot of extra passing before taking a shot. And of course, be sure not to do a full-court press in a basketball game. Or in hockey or soccer, have the defensive players move up to offense, and the traditional scorers move back to defense.
And above all, the coach should remind his/her players not to taunt or make fun of their opponents. That just goes to basic sportsmanship.
In tournament play, in order to avoid the run-the-score-up mentality, one caller suggested, in a tie-breaker situation, that teams advance by keeping track of how few goals or runs they allow. Doug and I both felt that was an excellent suggestion, because it eliminates the desire to develop a lopsided score.
But there are other complications. Another caller suggested that a baseball coach might actually want to run the score quickly in a game so that innings are chopped off at the end of the game. Why? Because it means that winning coach doesn’t have to have his pitcher throw extra innings. Again, that’s a good point.
So what’s the bottom line? Well, above all, we do hope and expect winning coaches to be respectful when it comes to lopsided games. There are plenty of ways to make sure a score remains a definitive win, but without having a ridiculous score.
Secondly, here’s hoping the refs and officials step up if they sense the score is getting out of control. The refs rule the game, and they can intervene if they think the coaches aren’t seeing the entire picture of good sportsmanship.
And finally, don’t ever think that the kids on the losing team are going to be suicidal because they are being drubbed. Doug related the story of a youth hockey team he coached which travelled two hours to play in a game. Doug’s team was getting beaten soundly, but when the ref asked at the end of the second period if they wanted to run the clock in the third, the kids universally replied, “Heck, no, we drove two hours to get here – we want to get as much ice time as we can.”
In other words, the kids knew they were losing big….but they still wanted to play. Kids, even when they lose by a big score, tend to be a lot more resilient than many coaches or parents give them credit for.
That kind of insight is worth keeping in mind. Remember, never overlook what the kids want to do.