Shakespeare once penned that sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.
Ole’ William didn’t know a thing about a basketball jump shot, but his message is exactly what Colorado high school hoops officials are trying to convey through a new rule change. It’s called the mercy rule, or the sportsmanship rule, which speeds up a game when a team has an insurmountable lead.
It’s in place now because the scores from a lot of high school basketball games in previous years were getting out of hand. Rulemakers say some coaches weren’t doing enough to reign in their players when their team is winning big against a lesser opponent.
“I don’t think I know anyone in this world that likes bullies,” says Bert Borgmann, an assistant commissioner in charge of basketball for the Colorado High School Activities Association. “And sometimes you wonder are kids being bullied on the basketball court when they’re being beat by 67 points or whatever.”
The rule has sparked a moral debate around whether strong teams have a responsibly to show mercy on the weak. Not everyone agrees. Shawn Shepherd, whose son plays for Resurrection Christian School in Loveland, has a Darwinian approach when it comes to sports.
“Let it roll,” he says. “... Winner’s the winner. Loser’s the loser. You don’t need to show quarters. You don’t need to show mercy. It’s a sport. The strong survive, the weak go home.”
Coaches themselves are split over the mercy rule. Many understand why it’s being implemented, but also say the rule could have unintended consequences. They argue it doesn’t do anything to prepare kids for tough lessons they’ll have to learn when they’re out of school; that sometimes life is hard.
Bruce Dick, the head coach of the boys basketball team at Resurrection Christian, feels it’s a good rule at lower grade levels, but “once they become a varsity player, they’re for the most part a little older and closer to the real word. And it’s about competition. And not everybody gets a trophy. That’s life.”
The Colorado High School Activities Association mercy rule kicks in when a team has a lead of 35 points or more at the start of the final quarter of a game. From then on, the game clock will run without stoppage — except for timeouts, free throws, or player injury. Even if the ball goes out of bounds, the clock continues to run. The hope, CHSAA says, is that the running clock with help curb gigantic blowouts.
Borgmann says about 20 percent of games during the 2016-2017 season ended with a point difference of 35 or more.
Aracly Hernandez, a senior leader for University High School in Greeley, has been on the bad end of those blowouts. Her basketball team won just two games a few short years ago during her freshman year.
“I remember I would go home and talk to my mom and I would be so upset by it,” she says. “It just… hurts you as an athlete. But you know, nobody wants to lose, but somebody has to in the competition.”
But the Bulldogs are a more mature team now and they’re off to a great start this season — yet Hernandez is torn over the rule.
“I feel like if I were on the losing side team, I would be the one that was like, ‘Please get this game over with faster; like i'm ready to go home, I don’t want to be a part of this anymore.’” she says. “But now that I’m on the winning side, I barely look at the clock anymore because we’re having such a fun time on the court.”
Before the season got underway, CHSAA sent a survey to coaches, athletic directors and principals, asking whether Colorado should adopt a mercy rule. More than 86 percent of administrators responded in the affirmative. Assistant commissioner Borgmann says administrators are the ones tasked with crowd control in games where blowouts can lead to taunting from students, or outspoken parents, angry that winning teams might be running up the score.
In the survey results, principals and athletic directors took issue with some coaches, with one respondent saying “there is no excuse for beating someone by more than 50 points.” Administrators also said some smaller and poorer schools struggle to field a team, much less be able to compete on the same level as schools with stronger programs.
Borgmann agrees and says opponents of the mercy rule forget there are “haves and have-nots” in high school sports. Outside factors are helping build the bigger programs, things like club teams and private coaching.
“That’s good for them, but they're also playing against teams that maybe don’t have that opportunity to do that, and it may be partially a socio-economic piece… or you're not close to a lot of clubs around your community, particularly if you're in an isolated town in the mountains, or on the Western Slope or Eastern Plains.”
Surveyed coaches were split. Most boys coaches oppose the rule change, while the majority of girls coaches support it.
Sarah Wildt is an exception. She coaches the University High School Bulldogs girls basketball team that lost a lot of games in Aracly Hernandez’ freshman year. Now that they’ve become a winning program, she opposes the mercy rule.
“I really believe that there's always going to be really difficult things in life and you can't measure yourself by somebody letting it be easier for you,” she says. “You need to measure it by overcoming that obstacle, no matter how hard.”
Wildt also thinks it carries a stigma when kids say they “got mercied” during a game.
“You can call it a sportsmanship rule, you can call it whatever you want, but in the end that’s still what you're going to tell people when you go back to school the next day,” she says. “You know, the moment those words come out of a kid’s mouth, I think they see it as a bigger defeat than even just getting beat by a really good team.”
The rule could also have unintended consequences, coaches say. Younger bench players will get less playing experience during a mercy rule game because of the running clock. Coaches also worry shortened games will potentially prevent star players from making history, like if an athlete comes up just a few points short of a high school scoring record.
Rick Harris doesn’t think a mercy rule benefits anyone. He’s in his second year coaching the girls team at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora. The team finally won a game after losing all of their games the year before.
“There are natural consequences at competing at the highest level and sometimes that’s getting your feelings hurt by getting blown out,” he says. “But it's my obligation as a coach to prepare my athletes for both – the winning and the devastation of the losing.”
It doesn’t bother Harris when his teams get blown out. It’s when the winning side doesn’t police themselves when they’re “up by 30 or 40 points at end of game and their athletes take a last minute shot… or when a coach is up by a considerable amount and he's still pressing an inferior team.”
That bothers Borgmann too. He says the Colorado High School Activities Association’s new mercy rule embodies what young athletes should take away from sports.
“One of the greatest educational lessons in athletics is able to teach is compassion,” he says. “Compassion. Respect for your opponent. The camaraderie of two people on the floor playing against each other, each of them doing their best.”
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