THE SPORTS DOC- Have mercy! Taking pity on high school losers

While frying my brain figuring how Tiger Woods can be the best golfer in the world when he didn't win a major all year, I came across the Virginia High School League's new mercy rules.

According to the Washington Post, the VHSL is within a hair's breadth of instituting a mercy rule for high school basketball. Softball, field hockey, and soccer are getting the full treatment as well— with girls' sports taking a harder hit. If all goes as planned, no public high school athlete in the Commonwealth could lose a basketball game by more than 30 points, no softball game by 10 runs, field hockey by six goals, or soccer by eight.

If you're wondering what the Virginia High School League is, it's the non-governmental governing body for state championships in Virginia. A 28-person executive committee– 20 of whom are either principals or superintendents– manages the VHSL. One representative from the Virginia Department of Education, one private citizen, one member of the Virginia School Boards Association, and two members of the General Assembly make up the rest of this brutally merciful committee.

On the VHSL website's "Organization" page are two very interesting tidbits: one, the VHSL's mission statement; two, a rundown of the Organization's news. Both deserve close inspection.

Like most governing bodies, the VHSL has an expectedly ambiguous mission statement: "Virginia's public high schools, through their alliance as the Virginia High School League, serve their youth by establishing and maintaining standards for student activities and competitions that promote education, personal growth, sportsmanship, leadership and citizenship."

Imprecise enough for you? Though I'm thrilled the author correctly omitted the gratuitous yet overused serial comma, there's not much else to praise about that mission statement. No one can argue with "personal growth" and "sportsmanship," but the VHSL deliberately left out definitions of such concepts. 

Sneaky, huh?

Also sneaky is the posting "No Current Organization news": an odd way to inform schools, parents and students that the Executive Committee met September 23 and voted to adopt a score-differential rule for basketball games in which the clock would run continuously in the fourth quarter when one team is up by 30 or more points, not to mention the waves of mercy in other sports. What is this, first grade?

And the meeting at which all those proposals passed? It's not mentioned anywhere on the calendar of events for September. 

I don't believe there was anyone on the grassy knoll, but something doesn't smell right. When the VHSL pulls a stunt like this, yet claims "Respect! That's what good sportsmanship is all about," what other conclusion can one draw?

It sounds good, but through word and deed the VHSL has reduced a noble and gallant concept to meaningless and watery drivel. Sportsmanship encompasses respect, yes, but as specifically related to sport. Pity has nothing to do with it, and that's all a mercy rule is: unadulterated pity.

A blogger on, writing about the VHSL's field hockey rule, said it best: "A 2-0 win can be won in an unsportsmanlike fashion, and a 23-0 win can be had in a very respectful manner."

How true. Sportsmanship is not about points, runs or goals; it's about attitude– but it's sure as heck not about mercy. It's about fairness and graciousness in both triumph and loss, by margins large or small. 

It's no coincidence that the group voting to expand mercy rules consists primarily of administrators, and counts neither coaches nor student athletes among its number. Either would know that failure and success are intrinsic to sport. Anyone who knows the true meaning of sportsmanship wouldn't take such action– and certainly not on the sly. 

If you agree that the mercy rule is a good thing, think on this: in addition to every high school sport, the VHSL also governs every other school activity. If the VHSL is willing to pervert sport until it's unrecognizable, it's just a matter of time until the Scholastic Bowl is dumbed down, too.

Have mercy.