The Rule Book's New Compassion
What's more demoralizing for a high school football player: a Friday night shellacking or being bailed out by a rule that helps prevent the score from becoming even more lopsided?
We'll find out this season in Virginia, where high schools for the first time are using a mercy rule similar to what Maryland and D.C. high schools have used for years. Anytime a team is ahead by 35 or more points in the second half of a regular-season game, the clock will continue to roll on incomplete passes and when the ball carrier steps out of bounds.
The mercy rule, known by a number of nicknames, including "Dr. Kevorkian," is supposed to help ease the pain of a one-sided defeat. The idea is that the final score will be less humiliating, injuries fewer and heads cooler if the uncompetitive game is sped up.
But some take the special treatment harder than the thumping itself. On Sept. 8, Madison was playing its season opener, at home, against Vienna rival Oakton. A caffeinated clock -- its pace altered between mercy speed and regular speed as the Warhawks dipped in and out of the 35-point range -- did not make the bad news on the scoreboard any easier to swallow. In fact, it made it worse.
"It's kind of demeaning to that losing team and is kind of putting them down," said Warhawks fullback-linebacker Ranyer Bravo, a senior. "It's basically saying to the team that's losing, 'Well, you're losing so badly that we just kind of want to get the game over with.' "
Loudoun Valley senior lineman Patrick Conroy thought the rule, which kicked in during his team's 42-0 win at Loudoun County, only further disheartened the opposition.
"Being beaten in your home stadium, and you have to run the clock so you don't get scored on anymore," Conroy said, "I definitely think that took their heart away. . . . Some of the fans [said], 'Oh, you killed those guys, put the mercy rule on them.' It was kind of an embarrassment for them."
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than half of the states use some form of the mercy rule in football. The federation implemented it in 1989 and added the running-clock component in 1993. Baseball, softball, lacrosse and field hockey are among the other sports in which mercy rules are sometimes used, a federation spokesman said in an e-mail.
"Many, many kids don't even know the difference: 'Man, that was a quick second half; glad it's over,' " said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "There's no big announcement made."
Indeed, sometimes the worst part of a lopsided defeat is not the game itself, or viewing the game film or enduring a grueling practice. It's facing your needling classmates, said sports psychologist Debbie Wilson, who likes the intent of the mercy rule.
"There's more damage done in the aftermath of the game about how the adults and how [the players'] peers, particularly, deal with that kind of loss," Wilson said. "That's where so much of their growing sense of self-esteem and ego development is taking place. It's very critical that they feel that going out for a team and going through practice and going out on the field . . . in and of themselves have tremendous value."
Some coaches want to be able to accept or decline the mercy, but there is no choice in Virginia, Maryland or the District. In Georgia and Florida, though, the losing team has the option of not using a running clock in the third quarter. If the point differential is still at a mercy-rule margin at the start of the fourth period, the running clock becomes mandatory.
W.T. Woodson Coach Trey Taylor asked an official whether he had the option of not invoking the mercy rule in his team's 43-0 season-opening loss to Centreville. He wanted his players, particularly his young quarterbacks, to get varsity experience against the Wildcats' substitutes. His thinking: Woodson's starters, and Centreville's subs, don't work year-round to play beat-the-clock on Friday nights. They work to test themselves against players from other schools.
"To not give coaches an option, to me, is crazy," Taylor said.
Why not let the sportsmen practice the sportsmanship? Twice in the past five years, when his team was winning handily, Madison Coach Gordon Leib kicked off to start the second half, even though his Warhawks had kicked off to start the game. In those games, he volunteered to play with a rolling clock in the second half, and he said the opposing coaches voiced their appreciation afterward.
If the game is out of hand, the winning coach puts in his second string. If it gets further out of hand, he puts in his third string. The losing team's starters could salvage the night by punching in a cosmetic score or two against the winning team's deep reserves, who receive varsity playing experience they otherwise might not have gotten.
The score notwithstanding, who loses in that scenario?
Maybe those same whipped players. If their bodies and egos might be too bruised to continue, is their coach, the man who has been barking at them for years to never quit, the best person to make that determination?
"You go and ask a coach what he wants to do, and the coach doesn't want to show weakness to his players or doesn't want [to teach] them to give up," Sparks said. "So let's just take him out of the equation."