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Posted on Tue. Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT


Time to show a little mercy to student-athletes

It wouldn't mean we were trying to crush competitive spirits

“We shall show mercy,” Winston Churchill said from the depths of his country's agonies in World War II, “but we shall not ask for it.” That's the epitome of the just, noble warrior, isn't it? Don't whine if you lose, be gracious when you win. We cheat our young people if we merely teach them how to play the game without showing them how to win and how to lose.

That makes a recent basketball game last week in Indiana a teachable moment. The girls of Bloomington South High School beat – the word hardly seems adequate – the girls of Arlington High School by the score of 107-2. That's not a blowout; it's annihilation. This was not a demoralizing experience for the losing team; it was abject humiliation. The game's ending was a mercy.

Couldn't mercy have been shown sooner than that? Bloomington South coach Larry Winters defended his team, saying all nine members were played – it wasn't as if they were trying to run up the score. Besides, some supporters of the team point out, losing is part of the game and going up against superior players improves a team.

But wasn't a score that lopsided rubbing their faces in it? Couldn't the South team have just started passing the ball around and not taking shots when the outcome became obvious? At some point, shouldn't the adults have stepped in? Of course, when another team isn't even trying against you, that can be humiliating, seen as a sign of derision and contempt.

To keep anybody from having to make such decisions under these conditions, many states have adopted “mercy rules” for their student athletes. In baseball, it can involve ending the game early when one team is ahead by, say, 10 runs and a certain number of innings have been played. In basketball and football, it can mean that once a certain point differential is reached – say 30 – a “continuous clock” kicks in that keeps running instead of being stopped when it normally would be (such as for an incomplete pass).

Indiana has no such rules, but Indiana High School Athletic Association Commissioner Bobby Cox says one will be under discussion because of the “unfortunate occurrence” of this game.

Good. Mercy doesn't mean giving in to the self-esteem craze that dictates a win for everyone and no hard feelings. And such lopsided games are rare enough that no one has to feel like anybody's competitive spirit is being crushed. But sports, kept in perspective, should be seen as a teaching tool just like any other part of the curriculum. Let's be sure we're teaching our student athletes the right thing.

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