It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how long you play the game

About 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote that the quality of mercy was such that it blessed both he who gave and he who received.

But when it came to giving or taking mercy when one high school football team was slaughtering another, a lot of Ohio coaches weren’t buying what the Bard was trying to sell. No matter how lopsided the score became, they didn’t want the night to end.

So now the Ohio High School Athletic Association has stepped in, and Ohio has joined 34 other states that have a “mercy rule” for those times when a game is no longer a contest.

When one team is up by 30 points or more in the second half, the referees will allow the game clock to run continuously, with only a few exceptions.

Coaches have long had the option of agreeing to bringing a game to a quicker and more merciful end when one team was running away from the other, but not every losing coach is prepared to ask for mercy, and not every winning coach is prepared to extend it.

As a rule, coaches and players live for playing time. They work hard preparing for games, and fans and parents who come to the stadium are expecting to get their money’s worth. Sending everyone home early just doesn’t sit well with some people.

But after a yearlong study, which included consultation with the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, the OHSAA decided in May to enforce its mercy rule beginning this season.


It may have surprised some people to see how often the rule had to be enforced. As a story in Monday’s Vindicator reported, of 31 season-opening games played last weekend, 13 saw the mercy rule invoked sometime in the second half. In more than a third of the games played, the clock was stopped only for a team or official’s timeout, at the end of a period or when one of the teams scored.

In announcing the new rule, Beau Rugg, the OHSAA commissioner in charge of football, said: “Lopsided games aren’t good for anybody. The risk of injury goes up, and it can be a tense situation for coaches and players.”

High school sports are, first and foremost, a learning experience. The student athletes not only learn to play the game, but they learn about sportsmanship, respect for an opponent and how to win or lose with grace. It is difficult to impart those lessons when the two teams on the field are so mismatched that one has no chance of making a game of it, much less winning.

Coaches or athletic directors who are inclined to question the mercy rule might want to instead take a look at their schedules and ask why more than a third of the games on the opening weekend were blowouts. To be sure, there are conference games that must be played, and from year to year the quality of the teams in a conference can vary widely. But working toward building a more competitive schedule could help reduce the percentage of blowouts. Players on both sides of the ball learn more in tight games.

And very little of value is learned when one team humiliates another.

The OHSAA will be evaluating the rule at the end of the season. We’d be surprised if it found that mercy is a bad thing.

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