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OPINION - Sportsmanship and lopsided scores

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) There’s a thoughtful and well-written editorial about sportsmanship in high school athletics. It appears in the WIAA’s quarterly bulletin. (That's the group that regulates Wisconsin high school sports. And I applaud the emphasis they place on good sportsmanship that the role that competitive athletics plays in shaping young people.) Their editorial on sportsmanship, on page 11 of their newsletter  , is thought-provoking, although I disagree with two points.

The topic is running up the score.

I was the play-by-play announcer in one very lopsided football game this year. Kimberly is one of the best football teams in the state. D.C. Everest was not as good as they’ve been in past years. Trust me, I was there; Kimberly could have scored 100-points if they wanted to. They scored every time they had the ball in the first half, and led 42-8 at halftime.

Kimberly coach Steve Jones didn’t play his starters after halftime. His second-string scored another touchdown two plays after taking the second half-kick off. Kimberly’s third sting played the rest of the game, ending in a 56-8 victory. Everest coach Luke Coenen told me that he was glad the other team was “respectful”.

The WIAA has already come up with ways to keep scores from becoming lopsided. Football has a running-clock rule: after halftime, if one team is leading by more than 40-points the clock runs continuously – bringing the game to a much faster end. In addition, the WIAA urges coaches to show sportsmanship by not passing, not blitzing, and not running trick plays.

While I’m not a fan of lopsided scores, I disagree with the unwritten rules.

When a game is lopsided, that’s a rare chance for second- and third-string players to get playing time. These are kids who practices just as hard as the starters but don’t get nearly as many opportunities to play. So when they do get into the game, it stinks when they’re told to hold back and not try to score. And it stinks when the clock runs continuously and gives these kids half-as-many plays as they’d otherwise get. I believe athletes should always be told to do their best. Intentionally underperforming – not trying to score or advance the ball – also shows poor sportsmanship. You show respect for your opponent by putting forth your best effort all times. If I was playing on a losing team, there’d be nothing more insulting or demoralizing than realizing that the other team was no longer trying.

Of course I dislike lopsided, non-competitive games. In almost all cases, coaches will pull their starters once they have an insurmountable lead. But that’s when real sportsmanship begins. Benchwarmers from the winning are still expected to play their best. Players from the losing team are supposed to persevere and not give up.

Kids are more durable than we realize. They bounce back from losses, even demoralizing losses. Only when defeated by a vastly superior opponent does a student-athlete learn the differences between their skills and abilities and those who are at the pinnacle of their sport. Not only is that an important lesson, it’s also the moment where someone might resolve to get better.

Chris Conley