I’ve always hated the mercy rule. Does that make me a poor sport?

English: Leinart holding his Heisman trophy at...

Matt Leinart holding his Heisman trophy at USC’s championship celebration held in winter 2005 on the USC campus in Los Angeles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout my life as an athlete, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of many winning teams. My earliest memories of triumph are of the four goals I scored in a single game as a 9 year old soccer player. As much as the coaches tried to keep it a secret, I was well aware they did everything they could to keep me on their team each year. My next taste of sporting success came in the form of a hand-full of Little League championships. Finally, I reached the pinnacle of my performance as part of the 2001 CIF Southern Section Division I Champions of high school football. I was part of a shut-down defense and we had a future Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback so we enjoyed many comfortable leads over our opponents.

Then came college football…

I had such a rude awakening in college. For the first time in my life, I was on a “losing team”. Sure I had felt the sting of a 42-0 blowout but I had never laced up my cleats week after week, knowing that we had little chance of winning. It gave me a completely different perspective on sportsmanship and the nature of competition.

The “Mercy Rule”

As long as I can remember, I never felt right about “letting up” or “going easy” on an opponent. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t alone in my sentiments. Right about the time I was scoring my 4 goals in a single game (1992), The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport published a paper by Nicholas Dixon titled, “On Sportsmanship and ‘Running Up the Score'”. He argued that the “Anti-Blowout” thesis (AB) – the idea that to seek a maximal margin of victory once victory is secured – though well intentioned, runs contrary to good sportsmanship. He articulates that to support the AB thesis is to uphold victory as the ultimate end to the sporting contest. This position would wrongly overly ascribe value as a person to the winner while rendering the loser worthless.

So, does the “Mercy Rule” teach us that winning is everything?

I can distinctly remember the immediate regret after scoring my 4th goal and hearing the coach announce, “everybody has to touch the ball once before you can shoot on goal.” I didn’t feel bad for the other team because they were losing so badly. I felt bad because they were keenly aware that we weren’t giving our all. Even then, I knew this robbed them of something far more important than a win. Our holding back of our full ability made any growth that comes from fair sporting competition impossible. I knew this team would improve less because we didn’t show them the extent of their deficit of either preparation or ability.

Cheaters never prosper

In my previous post or the rules of sport, I defined cheating as any action contrary to the constitutive rules of the game. We all know cheaters are poor sports right? So why is it considered to be a good sport if you cheat on behalf of your opponent?

Randolph Feezell puts forth his conceptualization of “sportsmanship” in his 1986 paper titled, “Sportsmanship” (creative guy, huh?). He describes a scenario in which a basketball player is fouled in the final seconds of a game. The coach notices that the referees are confused over which player was fouled. The coach knows that the actual player who was fouled is a poor free-throw shooter so he instructs his best shooter to claim he was fouled. The ploy works and they win the game. This is obviously cheating (as opposed to strategy) and therefore an act of poor sportsmanship, says Feezell. His primary reasoning is that the, “two teams agreed to play the game of basketball, defined by certain rules that constitute what it means to play basketball.” In other words, any deviation from the agreed upon terms is poor sportsmanship because it is now a waste of time to the opposing team. Both teams showed up with the primary goal of evaluating athletic ability against a worthy opponent. Once either team resigns from that end, they are wasting their opponents time. (Remember, Suits defines all play by a diversion of time towards autotelic activity.) This “waste of time” thesis is also how Dr. Ken Ravizza argues for the development of purpose in an athletic life. Sport is an absurd pursuit in that it serves no real function beyond the agreed upon spacial and temporal boundaries. We place artificial barriers in or way for the purpose of limiting our ability to get from point A to point B. We measure the results against others as well as ourselves. All benefit from the practice is sensitive to the integrity of how the game is played. The athlete provides the meaning in sport. Cheating by injecting an overemphasis on outcome directly assaults the subjective experience of sport.

The makings of a good sport

Sport allows us to practice the virtues we wish to emphasize and restrict the vices we wish to minimize. As the undulating emotions and adverse situations arise, we are forced to always keep our composure and display good sportsmanship. This is the message we teach our youth athletes.

In order to determine just what these virtues and vices are, we must make the following acknowledgment:

“The idea of sport as justice maintains that when a player enters in to the institutionalized social practice of a sport he tacitly agrees to abide by the rules which characterize and govern it. It implies that sport involves a proper understanding of and a commitment to the two principles upon which it is based, namely freedom and equality.”

Peter J. Arnold

“Go get ’em tiger” Actor, Will Ferrel portrays a super competitive youth soccer coach in the 2005 comedy “Kicking and Screaming”.

 Freedom and equality are necessary and, I would argue, sufficient for determining the parameters from which acts of good sportsmanship can be constructed.  We must remember that every athlete competes of their own free will. They are a self-selecting bunch that chooses to compete against another team or individual in an institution governed by fair and equitable regulations. If the athlete does not meet this criteria of competition of their own volition, then that is the act of poor sportsmanship on the part of whomever is coercing them to compete. If it is their parents who force them to play a sport and they suffer a humiliating defeat, blame should not be placed on the victor. The parent is to blame to the extent that any irresponsible overemphasis of self-worth was placed on the outcome of the event in the first place.

One of the defining characteristics of games and sport is that they are formulated and regulated so that there is an “equal playing feild” for all. Equality of opportunity is far different from equality of result. This message is germane both to our view of sports and our view of our society. This time last year, the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted to bring attention to our income disparity in the USA. The general message was that our society is set up so that only a few (the 1%) have real opportunity to succeed in our free-market capitalist economy. While being interviewed at the “Occupy Oakland” demonstration, Michael Moore told Anderson Cooper that our current version of Capitalism is “an evil system set up to benefit the few at the expense of the many.” (VIDEO here) When asked by Cooper what sort of system he would prefer, Moore responds, “”Well there’s no system right now that exists. We’re going to create that system.”

Moore’s frustration is analogous to the parents and coaches witnessing a one-sided game. Despite the knowledge that the game is not “fixed” and the play has been fair, they are tempted to “create a new system” by augmenting how the score is kept or moderating the effort put forth. Like so much of our politics today, this reaction in sport is driven by an emphasis on material outcome rather than “how the game is played”. Competition is seen as a bad thing. Robert Simon has defended competition on the grounds that the material good (the win) is not the only benefit to engaging in competition. He points out that sport is often erroneously seen as a zero-sum game. Since there can be only one victor, the misconception is that the loser gains nothing from the experience. In both life and sport, we all know we gain from our failures. Resilience is a key characteristic necessary for future success in any pursuit. Having failed in a contest where both parties are engaged in what Simon calls a mutual quest for excellence, allows the loser to have a scale for improvement. The competitive nature of sport challenges each individual to be their best. Although it is pre-determined that only half who engage in this mutual quest for excellence will win, it is wrong and unsportsmanlike to assume that only half may be successful.

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3 thoughts on “I’ve always hated the mercy rule. Does that make me a poor sport?

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  2. Pingback: Ninety-one to zero | A Mover's Blog

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