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Mercy Rule in California Youth Football League sets the bar as a Low as Possible

Halting games when score differential is 35 points or more sends the wrong signal

The commissioner of the California youth football league that defended the “mercy rule” in the league has been quoted as saying: "When you see these kids line up at the end of the game to shake hands, there's nothing worse than seeing how devastated these children look who just lost by 50 points," he said. "A win is a win. At this age, there's no reason to run up the score."

The mercy rule punishes any coach who runs the score up by 35 points or more by suspension for a week of practices and one game. Teams must also sit their first-string players if they lead by 28 points or more at the half.

The teams in this league are comprised of players between the ages of 6 to 13 years old from various towns in Northern California. They play from August through October. There are playoffs and an eventual championship game is played each year. There are no individual awards like MVP or Most Improved Player.

The rightness of the mercy rule is not black and white. On the one hand we have the fragile ego of youngsters who fall behind by 35 points or more in a football game and have virtually no chance to win the game. Those in favor of the mercy rule say talented players are taught sportsmanship and losing players face a softer blow to their confidence. "We lose a lot of football players because their teams lose so badly," Robert Rochin, the league deputy commissioner. If they are constantly getting beat, who wants to play anymore? We lose kids all season long because of that." It seems to me the lesson kids are learning here is to give up with things go very badly for them – not a good lesson in life.

Those against the rule (i.e. parents) contend that the league is stripping their children of opportunities in the name of a level playing field. They feel that the rule cheats their children out of a chance to develop and also poses a safety risk. The logic here is if a kid doesn’t play 100 percent, he might get hurt because the lack of effort makes him more vulnerable to injury. One parent said: "The kids who are in the position of trying to protect their coach are backing off and are at a higher risk of being injured."

From an ethical perspective this issue can be analyzed through utilitarian analysis. The benefits of the rule are mainly to shield those on the losing team from the embarrassment of being defeated by 35 points or more. I believe it is a vacuous claim to say that it is good sportsmanship for a leading team to turn off the juice after a 35 point lead. Good sportsmanship relates to how you play the game (i.e. no dirty hits, no trash talking, and no excessive celebrating after a good play) and shaking hands after the game.

The harms of having the leading team back off from playing 100 percent include being exposed to a greater chance of injury. Anyone who watches college or professional football knows the commentators always say that when a player doesn’t play as hard as possible, that is when injuries may occur. It happens because the player is doing something he wasn’t taught to do and that increases vulnerability to injury.

Life is not always fair. Sometimes we win; sometimes we lose. Sometimes things go well for us and at other times devastating things may happen. The same is true of any sport including football.

Perhaps the message here is if a team is behind by 35 points, it is the coach’s responsibility to motivate the kids to play harder; to reach deep inside and summon up more energy and fight to be more competitive. That is a lesson worth learning.

The mercy rule that punishes any coach who runs the score up by 35 points or more by suspension for a week of practices and one game only hurts the kids who can’t practice with their coach for their next opponent. How is that fair?

Finally, crushing defeats occur in all sports and those on the losing end have to learn to deal with it. In college football games last weekend Ohio State scored 76 points defeating its opponent by 76 points; Louisville scored 72 points defeating its opponent by 72 points; and Baylor scored 70 points defeating its opponent by 63 points. I won’t say which teams were on the losing end to protect them from another slam to their egos.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 26, 2013