About three decades ago, in high school, I was on the football team. Well, no, not really. I was affiliated with the football team. Well, no. Not really that, either. I covered the football team for our questionable local paper. I knew absolutely nothing about football and didn't particularly like it and felt alienated from it, so my stories had a sort of smug and ironic Wild Kingdom tone to them, like when the New York times covers nearly anything.
At the time, my school played eight-man football in a prep school league. There was a mercy rule — if one team was ahead by 45 points, the game ended. Such endings were not uncommon. Our team would mercy-rule one LA-area private school every year at their own homecoming. They seemed to draw from an unusually short population, and the sight of their team on the field saluting the flag after a dubbing, tiny helmets held firmly over humble hearts, had a certain amount of pathos. The worm turns; that school is now dominant in the league and has been for several years.
This year my son, having entered seventh grade at my old school, played on the seventh- and eighth-grade flag football teams. He did fine — he's mid-sized, but quite fast from soccer, and the spinning and dodging of flag football suits his skills. His team didn't win a single game. There's no mercy rule any more. Yet the kids don't seem to mind. After each touchdown against them they'd square their shoulders and return to the line, and after each game they'd listen patiently to the coach's speech, then return with equanimity to talking about sports and (still obliquely) girls and homework and video games.
Some of the other teams ran up the score, given the opportunity. 12-year-old boys, able to run the long plays they dreamed of and practiced on summer lawns, romped and cheered in the Autumn sun. It would never occur to me to complain.
It would occur to some people.
Down in Texas, Aledo High School beat Western Hills High school 91-0 last week at a football game. These things happen; sometimes one school is simply outmatched, and apparently that league has no mercy rule. But a Western Hills parent was angry and filed a "bullying report" with the school district. We have all decided that bullying is a Serious Problem, although we rarely agree about what it means. Such reports — whatever their merit — have immediate legal consequences, thanks to the no-discretion rule-bound zero-tolerance approach we take to educating our kids in America:
Buchanan spent an hour in the superintendent's office this week and the school is currently investigating, as mandated by the state. The Aledo principal told Buchanan that a written report is expected in the next day or so, something required by state law. Buchanan — who is in his 21st season as head coach at Aledo and said he has never been accused of bullying — said he has the support of the Aledo administration.
I suspect that the report will be resolved in the coach's favor. Folks understand that sometimes one school is in a slump and the other school is riding a crest. The opposing coach certainly understood it:
Western Hills coach John Naylor, whose team dropped to 0-7, didn't have any issues with how Buchanan and his staff handled the game, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the athletes played hard and didn't "talk at all."
"They're No. 1 for a reason, and I know Coach Buchanan," Naylor told the newspaper. "We're fighting a real uphill battle right now."
Various news outlets are trying to portray this incident as part of the weakening of America. That's too much. It's important to point out that the report is from one angry father, not from an entire culture. The systemic issue, if there is one, is the series of laws that requires a formal investigative process no matter how facially ridiculous a complaint. Another systemic issue, if there is one, is the malleability of words like "bullying," which can be used to pursue any sort of grievance, whether or not it is actually related to the well-being of children.
So was the 91-0 win unmerciful?
A mercy rule — in which a game ends when one side is ahead by 45 points — is perfectly legitimate. It's a previously agreed-upon recognition that such a game is no longer much of a contest, and it doesn't require either side to change the way they play.
But a rule or norm that a winning team must stop trying its best is insulting to both sides. It's condescending to the outmatched team, which must keep struggling to score as the other side struggles not to struggle too hard. It's debilitating to the stronger team, which must unlearn good habits and adopt bad ones. Often, when a contest is lopsided, the better team's second- and third-string players will come out, eager to have their day in the sun, and they are the ones who will be given the unmanageable instruction to play but not to play too hard.
Is that mercy? I think not. Different people have different abilities. It is not merciful to pretend otherwise. It is the opposite of merciful to teach children to expect that when they grow up and graduate and make their way in the world, somehow the world will refrain from beating them 91-0 when it can. There's honor and dignity in fighting a lost cause against an overwhelmingly stronger opponent. (I could hardly be a criminal defense attorney if I didn't believe that). But there's no pride in a system that asserts that you are entitled to perform at a certain level whether or not you can reach that level yourself, or that you are not entitled to try your hardest if the results you can achieve are too strong.
Mercy is refraining from ridiculing or abusing the young men who lost 91-0. Mercy is complimenting them for their effort. Mercy is treating them like athletes and competitors after such a loss. Mercy is applauding when they return to the line time after time against hopeless odds, and when they return to practice again the next day. Mercy might be sitting down with them and telling them about times you lost badly and how you felt and how you got up again. Mercy is pointing out to other kids the character it takes to keep trying under such circumstances, and challenging them to have character like that. Mercy is teaching kids how to deal with the adversity they will certainly face in their life.
It is not merciful to teach them they have a right not to lose badly.
Afterthought: This is what mercy looks like.