The Ethics of Sportsmanship
Sports are emotional and mercy rules are empathetic, but they don’t belong in the game.
By Ben Zhang, Duke University
Sports are a time-honored tradition in the United States.
Americans regularly pack gyms and stadiums to get a glimpse of their favorite teams in action. They will cheer good plays, groan at missed opportunities and yell at the referees. After a satisfying win, crowds will leave happy, while after a heartbreaking loss, they will leave anything but.
Those who care little about sports often find fans’ dedication to be puzzling. After all, why would people get so emotionally involved in a game to the point of starting riots when things don’t go their way?
The answer is simple: Sports are more than “just a game” for a lot of people. Investing emotionally in the outcome of a game may be seem silly to some, but teams depend on their fans to be successful, whether it be through ticket sales or on-field support. Not caring about the outcome of games, then, seems to defeat the purpose of watching sports in the first place.
Of course, when feelings are added to the equation, they will almost certainly be hurt at some point. Sports are no different, and many situations arise when bruised egos lead to some undesirable results.
Nowhere is this more evident than the always-contentious issue of “running up the score.” Even the term itself is up for debate. It implies a certain amount of maliciousness, as if teams with a big lead intentionally score more points for the sake of humiliating the opposing side. This is almost never the case. Teams don’t suddenly become any more interested in scoring after they have put up a crooked number. In fact, coaches will often pull their starters and replace them with second- or third-string players, who then just happen to score because the other team simply can’t play defense.
An interesting thing to note is that you will almost never hear players complain about the other team running up the score. The anger usually comes from coaches, administrators or parents. Athletes blame themselves when they give up points to the other team, as they know it is their job to get stops. For others, though, it is easier to find scapegoats than to take responsibility. Most people don’t particularly care for losing, and a blowout often exposes a team’s flaws. But, instead of asking how they can get better, people just choose to blame the opposing coach for a perceived lack of sportsmanship.
The funny thing is that often, the only aspects that are actually unsportsmanlike are the actions taken to prevent “running up the score.” People will often suggest that teams intentionally adopt measures to slow or stop scoring, such as refusing to pass when up big in a football game. Such steps are quite counterintuitive if one takes the time to think about them. Why would you intentionally tell athletes to not do the things that they practice?
For example, a quarterback spends most of his time working on passing, so it wouldn’t make sense if he came into the game just to hand the ball to someone else. The no-scoring rules become even more ridiculous when back-ups come into the game. Many of them rarely get the chance to play at all, and some may never get the chance to do so again. Asking them to not try their hardest and approach the game as they normally would seems more than a little unfair.
There is also the concept of mercy rules. They may seem to carry good-intentions, but they have several drawbacks. Ending a game once a team leads by a certain predetermined margin, as is done occasionally in baseball, prevents both sides from getting crucial in-game experience. In addition, such stoppages take away the possibility of miracle comebacks, as unlikely as they may be to occur.
And mercy rules that don’t end the game can lead to awkward situations, such as one in which an eight-year-old football player returned an interception for a touchdown, putting his team over the league-mandated limit. Though the reason behind the ensuing fine was later disputed, the fact that one even existed for such a scenario should have been cause for concern. Why punish players for doing their job and scoring, especially if they aren’t showboating or being rude to the other team?
Of course, there are some valid arguments for not running up the score too much. For example, young athletes just starting out could be discouraged by being blown out night after night. They may end up quitting altogether due to frustration, a scenario that should be avoided if possible. In addition, leaving starters in too long could lead to them getting injured, which would be especially devastating if they were playing during a blowout and had no real reason to be on the field. Furthermore, no lead is technically safe, so additional scores to prevent comebacks are justifiable, especially if the other team is known for them.
But, for every reason to not continue playing hard, there is one that suggests one shouldn’t care too much about how the other team will react. As stated before, taking measures to prevent scoring often takes away playing time and opportunities for players to prove themselves, which could come in handy when teams face better competition.
Also, the argument that only younger players need to be told not to run up the score doesn’t hold up in practice. In a game against Purdue earlier this year, for instance, Michigan basketball coach John Beilein stopped one of his bench players from dunking at the end of the game. And even in the NFL, where teams consist of grown professional athletes, coaches still occasionally get angry over a perceived lack of scoring sportsmanship by the other team.
Running up the score isn’t the only example of largely-emotional reactions that should be avoided. Fans are often targeted for their behavior during games, usually for good reason. Occasionally, though, the criticisms go too far. For example, a Syracuse fan called Georgia Tech basketball head coach Josh Pastner recently to complain about the GT student section chanting “air ball” over and over again at a Syracuse player.
The call seemed like a severe overreaction. After all, if you don’t want a team to chant “air ball,” don’t give them any reason to by making sure all your shots draw something other than air. In addition, remember that the best way to silence the other team’s fans is to win the game. Would the fan have called Pastner if Syracuse had managed to pull out a victory? It’s unlikely.
Pastner’s reaction to the call—politely disagreeing and encouraging GT’s student section to chant “air ball” with even more vigor—was perfect. There must be limits to sports-related complaints, especially those predicated upon emotion rather than reason. Running up the score is one such complaint that should be retired, as the arguments against it don’t match up to those for it. Plus, there are bigger issues to deal with in the world of athletics, such as cheating, scandals and scandals involving cheating. A few extra points here and there, by comparison, seem rather insignificant.