THE BLOG

No More 161-2 Basketball Scores. High School Sports Should Have Mercy Rules

02/02/2015 10:23 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

Highly publicized incidents of running up the score occur nationally every year.

The latest incident took place last month when San Bernardino Arroyo Valley High School crushed Bloomington High by a score of 161-2. The halftime score was 104-1. Michael Anderson, Arroyo Valley's head coach, was suspended by the school for two games.

Also last month, the Holy Redeemer High School Girls Basketball team in Pennsylvania beat MMI Prep 125-13.

This is not a new phenomenon. In 2009, a Texas high school girls basketball coach was fired after a 100-0 win.

While many people express outrage over such lopsided scores every year, each situation needs to be looked at on a case by case basis as to whether the coach acted inappropriately.

I discuss the issue of running up the score every year with students in my Social and Ethical Issues in class at Arcadia University in suburban Philadelphia. Through the years, the general consensus is that running up the score can be OK in certain contexts, especially when it involves athletes playing at a competitive level beyond youth sports. At the high Division 1 college level, sometimes running up the score is almost encouraged in order to achieve higher poll rankings. If Ohio State hadn't soundly walloped Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship game, it might not have been selected to compete in the National Championship football playoff. There are some sports where tiebreakers are settled by point differential, such as in the World Cup.

Having said that, there are many ways that a coach can and should keep the score down in a basketball game at the high school level, such as calling off the full court press, going to a passive zone to let the other team get off some shots, not taking fast break opportunities, taking the starters out and letting the deep subs play substantial minutes and passing the ball around to use up the shot clock instead of taking quick shots. For other sports, a football team can stop calling pass plays and just run the ball straight up the middle to run time off the clock. In baseball, there's an unwritten rule not to run a suicide squeeze or steal bases with a huge lead.

In recent years, many youth leagues have established mercy rules, in which the game is ended if one team has a substantial lead over the other team. In Little League baseball, the game is ended if one team is ahead by 10 or more runs after completion of the 5th inning.

Sometimes a blowout is hard to avoid when the teams aren't evenly matched. At the high school level and beyond, it wouldn't be fair to tell the deep subs not to play hard. They practice hard with the rest of the team, and sometimes the only time they might get substantial playing time is during a blowout. These players want to show the coaches what they can do and maybe impress them enough to get more playing time in the future.

Also, in situations where there is no shot clock, it would be insulting and disrespectful to the other team if the team with the huge lead simply held the ball or passed the ball around to each other for several minutes and didn't take a shot.

According to the Orange County Register, Anderson asked the referees during the third quarter to use a running clock, but, pursuant to California high school rules, the officials didn't use the running clock until the fourth quarter. Anderson also benched his starters at the half and told his subs not to shoot until shot clock got within seven seconds. Before the game, Anderson told the opposing coach, Dale Chung, that he planned to run his full offense for a half in order to prepare his team for the beginning of its league schedule. According to Anderson, Chung seemed fine with that. On the negative side, Anderson's team used a full court press the entire first half.

Anderson told the Daily Bulletin, "I'm not trying to embarrass anybody. And I didn't expect my bench to play that well. I had one (bench) player make eight of nine 3s."

In retrospect, it seems as though Anderson should have pulled his starters earlier in the first half and called off the full court press much earlier in the game. However, he did try to keep the score down in the second half. Maybe in the future, the school will try to schedule tougher opponents in its non-conference schedule in order to avoid a future blowout.

Running up the score can have different effects on members of the losing team for young players. Some might feel totally embarrassed and dejected and decide to quit the team or the sport altogether. Others might see it as a learning experience and as motivation to make themselves better players.

Mercy rules are a good option for high school sports. Last summer, North Carolina's High School Athletic Association voted to use mercy rules in football and basketball games. In the future, the California rule should be revised in order to allow a running clock earlier than the fourth quarter, if both teams agree. Also, publicized incidents like this should make high school coaches across the country aware that they should try to minimize ridiculously absurd blowout scores by putting in their subs earlier in the game and calling off a full court press when a lead goes beyond 50 points.

No one benefits from a final score of 161-2 in a high school game. Coaches and athletic directors should do their best to try to avoid such situations in the future.

NOTE: This is an updated version of an Op-Ed that Larry Atkins wrote for www.newsworks.org