I’d like to preface this article with the following statements:
I am aware the title of this article is insensitive.
I am aware my opinion may be an unpopular one.
I don’t believe all “mercy rules” should be condemned. In some sports, they are necessary.
I am not in favor of “running up the score” under any circumstance.
I encourage you to voice your opinion in the comment section below, whether you agree with me or not.
A mercy rule, also well-known by the slightly less polite term slaughter rule (or, less commonly, knockout rule and skunk rule), brings a sports event to an early end when one team has a very large and presumably insurmountable lead over the other team. It is called the mercy rule because it spares the losing team the humiliation of suffering a more formal loss, and denies the winning team the satisfaction thereof, and prevents running up the score, a generally discouraged practice in which the opponent continues to score beyond the point when the game has become out of hand. The mercy rule is most common in North America and primarily in North American sports such as baseball or softball, where there is no game clock and play could theoretically continue forever, although it is also used in sports such as hockey and American football. It is very rare in competitive sports beyond the high school level.
If you were unfamiliar with mercy rules before clicking on this post, you’ve just received a basic education on the rules being enforced more and more in American youth leagues. The thought process behind implementing a mercy rule stems from the concept that losing by a substantial amount can damage a young athlete’s confidence, and discourage them from participating in sports or other forms of competition. These rules are meant to protect the athlete, but often do more damage than good. We live in a society where hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity are no longer valued as much as they once were, while receiving hand-outs (regardless of work ethic) is commonplace. Don’t get me wrong, though, there are times when mercy rules are necessary.
WHEN MERCY RULES ARE APPROPRIATE:
-Scoring limits in games without a time clock, like baseball/softball
In most youth baseball/softball leagues, a game is ended early if one team is ahead by 10 or more runs after a certain amount of innings has been played (usually 5). In sports with no running clock, a mercy rule may be necessary so that the game ends in a reasonable amount of time. Once a team is down by an insurmountable amount of runs and every player has had a chance to compete, it’s generally OK to end the game.
-”Pressing” rules in basketball when the game is out of reach
I’m not sure if any leagues use this mercy rule, but they should. I once read an article about a high school girls basketball game that resulted in a 100-0 score. The coach was fired as a result after imploring a full-court press the entire game. While he claimed his girls played with integrity, he definitely did not coach appropriately. Applying that type of pressure the entire game shows poor sportsmanship.
-Shutout rule in pickup games
I used to play a fair amount of pick-up basketball. Games were to 21 by 1′s and 2′s, but if you were losing 11-0 the game was over. This kept things moving on the court and gave you a chance to pick up some players that could help you compete the next time around.
NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF MERCY RULES
-Coddling children hurts more than it helps
Many people don’t realize that it is possible to protect and coddle our children to the point where such practices will stunt their development and limit their future potential. Learning how to lose graciously, even in lopsided outcomes, is just as important as winning with class. Young athletes have to learn that it’s OK to lose. How you react to that loss is what matters. We as coaches and parents need to teach our kids to use losing as motivation to work hard and get better.
-Reinforces a sense of entitlement
A sense of entitlement is a terrible thing to be teaching our children. Kids should learn that hard work and determination pay off, and not to expect things to be given to them. When mercy rules influence the outcome of games, they teach young athletes that if you’re down, people are going to take it easy on you. But what happens when these children grow up and enter the workforce? Who’s going to get that next promotion? The person putting up record sales numbers, or the guy who called in sick every Monday during football season because he had the “flu”? Certainly not the one half-assing it.
-Reverts blame away from athletic directors and league organizers, placing it on coaches and athletes
Often times the need for mercy rules can be avoided altogether by making sure talent is evenly distributed throughout the league, or simply not scheduling the game in the first place. It is the responsibility of recreational league organizers to make sure all teams are competitive, and for athletic directors to schedule appropriate match-ups.
Coaches and players also have responsibilities in one-sided games, though. Coaches are responsible for using their bench players when the game is out of reach, while players must maintain class and refrain from taunting. I expect all young athletes to give it their best until the final whistle, whether the score is tied or it’s a blowout, as long as they exhibit good sportsmanship. Running up the score is irresponsible and should not be condoned. In most team sports, coaches can instruct their players to lay off the pressure and manage the clock appropriately to prevent this.
As a very competitive person, I would rather get blown out by an insurmountable point differential than lose a heart-breaker at the buzzer/in over-time/on penalty kicks, etc. Those are the losses that haunt me, not the 50 point blow-out at the hands of a team whose best player went on to play professional sports. I’ve been on both sides of lopsided games, and not once did I want the game to end or for the score to be tainted by a mercy rule that limited the one team. It’s OK to lose when the other team is better than yours, as there will always be a next time or another sport to play.