A few weeks ago we came across this story about a PeeWee football team who suffered a $500 fine and an automatic one-week suspension for their coach when a young player’s first touchdown put the team over the 33 point league mercy rule. It’s probably safe to assume that the 8 year old receiver didn’t think that his first touchdown (a major point in any football player’s short career!) would end up hurting his team. And is a coach supposed to stop a player from scoring his first touchdown in order to not “run up the score?” While there are two sides to every story, the mercy rule in youth sports is often hotly debated in leagues and amongst coaches. Does the mercy rule prevent one team from steamrolling the other? Or does the mercy rule actually hurt more than it helps?
The Mercy Rule Protects Players
No one likes to lose. But losing 51-0 in a football game hurts extra hard. Coach Dave Jacobsen said that it’s important that youth sports leagues have a way to deal with one-sided games and that’s where the mercy rule comes into play. “There are very few life lessons to come out of a blowout game,” he said. “There are very few sporting lessons to come out of a blowout game. If you’re a kid who gets involved in too many blowout games, the game gets boring,” he said. “You may leave the game and quit sports altogether and miss out on life lessons.” Getting totally blown out of the water doesn’t teach you that hard work pays out; it doesn’t show you the value of working as a team; it doesn’t give players a reason to want to keep trying. Why even bother if you just know you’re going to get totally shut down? Losing that big too often could turn kids off from youth sports all together! The mercy rule gives teams the chance to level the playing field depending on how it is used.
In high school basketball, there is also a way to stop one team from completely disgracing the other. If a team is leading by 30 points anytime in a game, the clock will continue to run. No stopping. This will not only end the game faster, but give a smaller chance to the team that is leading to completely destroy the other. If the lead falls below 20 points, the clock will go back to all whistle stoppages according to the National High School Federation Rules.
The Mercy Rule Actually Makes Things Worse
Some league administrators also think the mercy rule can do more harm than good. Arlene Virga is the Executive Director of the Yorkville Youth Athletic Association, which serves over 5,000 children in New York City and has leagues in 12 different sports. “The very statement ‘We’re mercying you’ is almost worse than getting beat by a lot.” A strict mercy rule doesn’t give young people enough credit, she said. “We think kids can’t take certain things. We make things so nice for them that when they do come up against difficult things in their life they’re not prepared. It’s really okay to take a shellacking sometimes.”
The mercy rule also forces kids to pull back on their own athletic development in order to not “run up” the score. For instance, one football team has stopped attempting any field goals in order to keep the final scores lower, leaving kicker James McHugh only allowed to kick for extra points after touchdowns. Many coaches are worried that their players aren’t getting to play to their full potential because if they play too well a team (and the coach) might get penalized. The mercy rule doesn’t make losing hurt any less, and it penalizes the other team unfairly.