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Should teams run up the score in games?

Why different sports have contradicting views on good sportsmanship

Should teams run up the score in games?

You’re sprinting down the pitch, chasing a pesky striker, and you’re nearly out of breath. The offensive player, shirt darkened by sweat, has his back to you as he makes his move toward the goal. There are only a few minutes left. You inhale, reach for the ball, miss, and the striker dashes the other way. He winds up, kicks, and boots it home: another goal.

You know your team is down, but you’ve lost count at this point. Then, the whistle’s blown. The game’s over. Very reluctantly, as if it’s the sun itself, you peer at the scoreboard, 30–0. No, now it’s 31–0. Great.

This was the disturbing reality for the 20 members of Team American Samoa in 2001. After losing 19 of their 20 players due to visa complications, the national team was forced to field a less-than-optimal squad against Australia.

Comprised of second-string junior-high students and call-ups who had never played a full 90-minute match, the team was annihilated, and left the sporting world asking, should the Aussies have run up the score so much?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that it depends on the stakes of the game and the sport being played.

‘Goals-for,’ the stat that shows how many goals a team notches over the course of a season, is one of the battle cries for those who believe running up the score is the logical thing to do.

After Team Canada’s World Junior hockey team destroyed Denmark 14–0 last month, some commentators questioned the politeness of the massacre; shouldn’t Canada show some mercy to the poor Danes?

But the key tiebreaking statistic in that tournament was goals-for, and it was the World Juniors, after all. 

In the NHL, where Hockey Night in Canada icon Don Cherry’s word is as good as God’s, coaches do not run up the score. Cherry is a proponent of ‘the code,’ an oral tradition passed through the ages that acts as hockey’s rules of engagement.

These commandments dictate that players don’t celebrate too hard, don’t question the coach, and don’t tint their visors, and that teams definitely do not run up the score.

The league even has rules reflecting this code. A team’s goals-for is the third, rarely-considered step in the season-end tiebreak process. The first two tiebreak disputers, overtime and regulation wins, as well as the outcomes of the season series between the two teams, usually solve the problem of equal points.

But soccer is a different demon. This sort of code doesn’t exist in soccer.

Basketball has a different culture too. There are some who believe that the gentlemanly thing to do is to play defensive, to lay off on the fast break, to stop heaving up three-pointers. But this was clearly not the attitude of one infamous basketball coach, who led his high school squad to a 100–0 victory over a traumatized opponent. The odd thing is, it wasn’t even a playoff game. It was the middle of the season. The coach was subsequently fired by the administration.

But back to the Aussies. They were justified in running up the score. They wanted to win, they needed to get goals, and they used American Samoa’s misfortune to their advantage. This fits soccer’s rules of engagement and its culture. But it would never fly in an NHL game.

No approach is better or worse. Sometimes, running up the score is excusable. But sometimes, easing off the throttle is advisable. Sport is all about context, and the score is no exception.

Advice from the Sports Ethicist: Is it okay for a pro athlete to quit in the middle of a game?

Former Bills cornerback Vontae Davis shockingly retired at halftime

Advice from the Sports Ethicist:  Is it okay for a pro athlete to quit in the middle of a game?

Veteran NFL cornerback Vontae Davis shockingly retired at halftime during the Buffalo Bills–Los Angeles Chargers game on September 16, their defeat marking the second blowout loss that the Bills have faced this season.

Davis joined the Bills this past offseason, after five years as a member of the Indianapolis Colts and two seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

Davis cited his ailing physical health as the reason for his retirement, having undergone multiple corrective surgeries in order to keep himself playing. “I’m not feeling like myself,” Davis claimed, saying that he did not mean to disappoint his teammates, but felt the need to preserve his health by ending his playing career on the field.

His teammates, Lorenzo Alexander and Micah Hyde, called Davis’ actions “disrespectful,” while ex-football player and TV show host Shannon Sharpe commended Davis for respecting the game enough to exit with both his mental and physical abilities intact.

While it seems hard to fathom why a player would choose to quit in the middle of a game, I do see where both sides are coming from. It’s disrespectful to the teammates who are counting on your support, as well as to fans who have paid good money to come see players doing what they’re paid to do.

On the other hand, it’s always crushing when a pro athlete is injured, and it was probably a good move on Davis’ part to not play in the rest of the game. Having residual injuries and needing joint replacement surgeries later in life is a commonality for professional athletes, and Davis’ need to maintain his physical health is completely understandable.

But I think there could have been a much better way to approach retirement than the route Davis chose. There were so many other things that he could have done, least of all waiting until a timeout to announce his decision and sit on the bench for the rest of the game. No retirement decision is made lightly. Many an athlete have spoken about it when they knew it was time to retire — their bodies had been feeling slower and they weren’t able to keep up with the younger players on their teams.

Keeping this perspective in mind, it seems hard to believe that Davis’ decision was spur of the moment, and the Bills apparently had issues with Davis before his announcement.

The main conclusion to draw is that there are almost no circumstances that I can think of in which retiring in the middle of a game is an acceptable, moral, ethical, or respectful decision. As reported, no one knew before the game that Davis would make the decision to retire, and some of his teammates didn’t understand what had happened until after the game.

Hopefully, the Bills won’t let the loss of Davis prevent them from trying to come back from their blowout of a start to the 2018–2019 season.