I was interested to read the comments of the coach of the Yates High School (Houston, TX) boys basketball team after the media and public response to his team's 170-35 shellacking of another team on January 5, 2010. Greg Wise, the coach of this obviously talented team, responded to criticism by saying:
"The real story isn’t getting out, and that’s what hurts me. If you are interested in breaking records, that’s not the main focus of high school sports. That’s not the stuff I’m teaching my kids. Nobody shows me taking kids home in an impoverished area where there is gang violence, or calling kids before school and telling them to get on the bus. Nobody shows them doing study hall before school. It’s crazy.”
His frustration is not unlike that of many whose stories are reported by the media with an eye toward simplicity, sensation, and what will grab the attention of a CNN Headline News viewer. But I have to ask, how would showing his players in study hall contribute to a well-balanced view of this issue? As far as I can figure, the issue at stake is one of sportsmanship, a commitment to the unspoken, unwritten contract that two high school teams enter into when they play each other. That contract, as I see it, includes the assumption that both teams will play hard, play fairly, and will treat each other with respect. Pressing, running the break, and allowing starters to play when you have a 100-point lead is not respect. Even if you are a regular participant in study hall.
I will allow that there is some gray area when it comes to "running up the score." There are countless stories of teams that were soundly beating another team, let up, and then ended up losing the game. But this doesn't look gray to me. It looks as black and white as a Holstein (and smells just as bad). And why do I think this is one of the more blatant acts of unsportsmanship I've seen lately? In part, because it is disregards one of the most important elements of team competition: that the game simply wouldn't exist without the full participation of two teams. The Yates team relied on the other team to even have a game (and the referees too, of course). They couldn't achieve any of their goals if the other team didn't exist, show up, or play. Unlike, say, pole vaulting, they couldn't score their hoped-for 200 points and have it count for anything if there wasn't an opponent (and I don't know enough about international track and field to know whether or not a pole vaulter actually needs to have opponents for his or her vault count, but let's say for argument, that they don't).
We can rationalize such running up the score, particularly in professional sports, for all sorts of reasons. But this coach's rationale is weak at best. In fact, his argument doesn't even address whether or not what his team was wrong. He deflects the issue by saying "My players and I do all of these other admirable things so you should ignore this particular act." Like many "rules of the game," not running up the score is unwritten. And these unwritten rules are most vulnerable to abuse since they are followed only when teams and coaches demonstrate thought, restraint, and discretion. This is REALLY hard in a competitive arena. How do you tell competitive players not to score or to play soft when all of their training has been geared toward the exact opposite?
No doubt, successful athletes have the "killer instinct." Successful professional athletes almost as a rule, need to have that characteristic. But to cultivate that at the high school level to such a degree that the utter humiliation experienced by the other team isn't even recognized, is a disservice to all involved in high school sports. The chance to blow out another team (and resist the temptation) is a great teaching moment. It is an opportune time to instill in players that competition and at least some level of empathy are not mutually exclusive. And it's a great time to demonstrate the honor of respecting another team's presence and participation in the game.