Saturday, August 2, 2014

How to Deal with Mercy Rule Games

An interesting discussion took place last week on WFAN's show "The Sports Zone," hosted by well known sports parenting consultant Rick Wolff. Mercy rules have been adopted to hasten the end of lopsided games, and typically come into use after a certain score has been reached. The purpose of these rules is two-fold: to save the losing team from being overly embarrassed, and to avoid potential injury caused by players that are either not physically equipped to compete, or who seek "retribution" against the winning team by engaging in dangerous behavior on the field.

It is hard to imagine that opposition to these rules would exist, but it does. Some opponents argue that players need to learn from the experience as if the defeat were in fact a source of motivation to improve their play. Opponents also argue that invoking the rule is in and of itself humiliating, drawing attention to players and parents that the losing team is somehow dysfunctional. The implication is that either the coach or the parents are not capable of producing capable athletes.

Both of these arguments seem more like excuses to continue playing what is a clearly uncompetitive game rather than well reasoned arguments against mercy rules. The risks inherent in such games, especially the safety factor, must clearly outweigh any argument to prolong such games. Moreover, teenagers are a particularly unpredictable group, and the risk of unsportsmanlike behavior on the field must also be considered.

These games also place coaches and officials in a difficult situation. Some officials may see their role as trying to establish some balance, and in the process call "suspect" fouls on the winning team's players that are unfair and confusing to the athlete. Coaches could, and should use these games as a way of giving valuable playing time to their "second tier" players, or to teach their players to "control the tempo" and control the ball rather than score, but it is admittedly difficult to tell players who rarely get on the field to not try and score.

These games are also difficult on the parents, who oftentimes do not know how to react to what they see going on in front of them, and who usually "share the sideline" with the opposing team's parents. For all of those involved, mercy games are difficult to endure, and bringing a quick end to the game certainly seems like a reasonable solution.

The one group of people that seems to escape scrutiny in these games, but who deserve to be scrutinized the most, are the athletic directors. Let's face it, if these games were not scheduled, then all else involved would not be put in these difficult positions.

I coached varsity lacrosse for 19 years, and in the earlier years there were very few teams in the State, so few that my AD let me schedule over half of our schedule. Now it seems every high school has a team, and the range of ability between the schools is dramatic. In my area, the CVC created three "ability and experience based" divisions for lacrosse, which is a sound way of organizing the schools, but then they declared that every school must play schools from every division. Not only does that limit a coaches ability to find competitive games throughout the State, but it insures that every team will be on one end or the other of games with scores of 20-2, 19-0, 22-3, and so on. These are in fact actual scores from last season.

There is no excuse for these games having to be played, and frankly the only reason they are scheduled is laziness on the part of athletic directors. They love their matrixes; it is such an easy way to schedule most if not all of a program's games.

The blame for "mercy games" must be placed squarely on the shoulders of athletic directors; mercy rules are a direct consequence of their reluctance and failure to do their due diligence and work with coaches to develop a competitive schedule. They should not escape scrutiny, and they must be held accountable. Any coach that knowingly schedules such games to inflate their record or to help their star players pad their stats should likewise be ashamed of themselves.

The bottom line is, mercy rules are a reasonable solution to non-competitive games, but, in reality, the best solution is for the games to never be scheduled in the first place, and the blame for that should rest with the athletic directors. It's time for them to do their job.

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