Friday, January 23, 2009

Playing until the clock says 0:00

Two Texas private high school girls basketball teams, The Covenant School and Dallas Academy, played on January 13, with Covenant winning a 100-0 nailbiter.

It was a bit of a mismatch, and a lot of people on the periphery aren't happy.

Some details on the game itself:

A parent who attended the game told The Associated Press that Covenant continued to make 3-pointers -- even in the fourth quarter. She praised the Covenant players but said spectators and an assistant coach were cheering wildly as their team edged closer to 100 points.

"I think the bad judgment was in the full-court press and the 3-point shots," said Renee Peloza, whose daughter plays for Dallas Academy. "At some point, they should have backed off."

Dallas Academy coach Jeremy Civello told The Dallas Morning News that the game turned into a "layup drill," with the opposing team's guards waiting to steal the ball and drive to the basket. Covenant scored 12 points in the fourth quarter and "finally eased up when they got to 100 with about four minutes left," he said.

Dallas Academy, a school geared towards enrolling kids with learning difficulties like dyslexia and ADD, has to field a girls basketball team from a student body with only 20 girls total. And not all of them possess suitable athletic ability to even play sports, let alone well. The eight girls Dallas Academy did get to play this season... well, let's just say Louisiana Tech assistants aren't banging down the door to recruit them. The school hasn't won a game in four years.

School directors for both sides, district directors and the media have criticized Covenant for their merciless running up of the score well after the game had been decided, though, honestly, this game was practically decided before tipoff: Never mind that 3A Covenant was playing 2A Dallas Academy: Dallas Academy's team would have a hard time with a well-stocked junior high squad. These girls are just playing for the experience, and not too skill-equipped for competitive interscholastic high school basketball.

Even the winning school felt bad about the blowout. REAL bad.

Now officials from The Covenant School say they are trying to do the right thing by seeking a forfeit and apologizing for the margin of victory.

"It is shameful and an embarrassment that this happened," Kyle Queal, the head of the school, said in a statement, adding the forfeit was requested because "a victory without honor is a great loss."


One of sports' great arguments concerns the matter of running up the score. Once a superior team gets far ahead and has the game well in hand... do they continue playing hard until the game is over, or do they ease off the gas and give the losing team a chance to save some face? This is actually a heated topic in many a sports discussion both online and off. Some say you should never quit trying. Some say once you know you've got the game won, you should allow the other team to save some face.

The term 'running up the score' comes from the argument that continuing to play hard after the game's clearly been decided shows bad sportsmanship and disrespect towards the other team. The argument is that once the game is in hand, you should play your backups, run out the clock and give the other team some dignity, if not some breathing room.

Interestingly enough, the term and concept are unique only to sports in the United States. Granted, other popular sports around the world don't lend themselves to running up the score like American football or basketball do.

Soccer: Scoring a goal is very difficult in soccer, and it's rare to stake yourself to more than a 2-3 goal lead, a dominant margin of victory but hardly an embarrassing blowout akin to running up the score. Plus, you can only substitute a small handful of players per match (usually 2-3, no more than 4-5), so you still need to leave many of your best players on the field. Also, given the small handful of goals in a typical match, it's very easy for a losing team to suddenly score a goal and get right back in the match.

Baseball: Pitching and hitting are both difficult acts. Big rallies that produce 10 run leads are often quite flukish: yes, they can be a byproduct of talent, but you can't produce them at will against inferior opposition the way a football team can produce first down after first down against an inferior front seven. Like soccer, the other team can rally from seemingly large deficits with some luck, and if you pull starters, you can't put them back into the game, so pulling the starters can hurt you if the other team comes back.

You also can't necessarily 'ease off': a hitter must maintain his proper swing to not throw off his performance in subsequent games... and the other pitcher still has to throw strikes. If, say, hitters decided not to swing out of courtesy, but the pitcher can't locate, he could still walk a lot of guys and maybe force in some runs, which itself is even more embarrassing to the losers than if the winning team just continued hitting as usual.

Also, blowouts just don't happen that often in baseball. Every now and then you take a bad loss, but losing teams generally don't curse the other team for, say, making a 10-1 deficit a 15-1. They usually consider it their own damn fault for pitching and fielding like crap.

Cricket: Each side only gets 1-2 chances on offense per match, so running up the score IS the idea! You damn well better run the score up as far as you can, because you don't want the other guys running it up more than you do.

Boxing: Got a problem with the other guy piling on the scorecard? Can't fight back worth a damn? Take a punch. Go down. Stay down. Wait for the ref to count to 10. Problem solved.

But America has sports that facilitate scoring and operate on a clock, thus lending themselves to the possibility of looming blowouts that emerge well before the contest has concluded, which creates the winning team's dilemma: 'do we keep playing hard and make a big loss worse for them, or do we stop trying, just so they can get back some dignity?'


So, was Covenant as "disgraceful" as school officials claim they were in pushing the floor well after they clearly had the game won? I'll say yes and no.

No, it's not disgraceful to continue playing hard for every minute you're on the floor. There certainly may come a time where you meet your match and you'll want to have the experience of playing a full four quarters or nine innings or three periods, and you won't get it if you take the rest of the night off every time your game is decided well before the buzzer. Give Dallas Academy credit for never quitting and keeping their heads up when they clearly were getting their asses handed to them. But give Covenant credit for playing a full game instead of hot dogging the last two periods. Neither team quit trying, and there's more honor in that than the district may want to admit.

However, yes, it was disgraceful for Covenant to keep the starters out there when the game was clearly in hand. Covenant has a bench with reserves: coach Micah Grimes should have given extended minutes to every girl on that bench. It's not like the 12th girl on the bench gets to play a ton. Yes, they should have run their offense/defense and tried to execute plays to their best, and it's quite likely the Dallas Academy girls would have still been overmatched against the weakest team Covenant could possibly throw out there. But it would've loosened the strings a bit, would have offered a lot more value to both teams than the extended pimpslap that resulted, and maybe the Dallas Academy girls could have scored a basket or two to save some face. There was no need to get Covenant's point guard 48 points or shut out Dallas Academy.

College basketball coach Billy Tubbs had a thing for letting his Oklahoma teams run up the score. When criticized about this, he offered up the following, "If they don't like it, they should get better."

Ultimately, sports are a competitive endeavor, and when you play a 60 minute ballgame, the idea is to give your best effort for 60 minutes. Teams get criticized for quitting during the game, and go figure society also criticizes teams for not quitting during the game. Some compromise by taking knees, running generic sets and playing the backups. I'm a believer that every player on the field should give their best as long as they're on the field. But once a game's in hand, the coach should do his best to get everyone on the team who doesn't regularly play some playing time, not only to give the other team a chance to save face against lesser competition, but to take the opportunity to get those infrequently used players some cherished action. They can try and use different strategic sets and see how they look in a low-pressure situation.

Blowouts can present an opportunity, not to run up the score, but to give others a chance, whether they're on the other team or yours.

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