SALT LAKE CITY — The score was 94-31 at the half, and as the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team headed to the locker room, one announcer exulted that he’d just witnessed “the most impressive half in NCAA Tournament history.”
Others called UConn’s first-round route over St. Francis University on March 17 a disgrace.
The final score was 140-52, but that game wasn't the only blowout this year. A few weeks earlier, a high school basketball team in western Massachusetts outscored an opponent by 86 points, prompting the superintendent to issue an apology to the losing team.
For parents who want their children to become not only athletes but good sports, such lopsided victories offer a teaching moment, but people disagree on what the lesson should be.
When the final score of a high school girls basketball game is 100-0, as happened in Texas in 2009, did the players and coach do something wrong? Or are such painfully lopsided games a risk that everyone who plays a sport should be prepared to accept?
Experts in sportsmanship say there are arguments to be made both ways, but in general, it comes down to the age of the players. Still, there are things that parents and coaches can do to prepare children for how to respond if they're ever involved in a dramatically one-sided game.
The UConn victory March 17 was surprising only because of its margin. The Huskies have long dominated collegiate women’s basketball, so much that some observers say that their greatness is hurting the game. They regularly trounce opponents by wide margins, including a 106-45 victory over Temple University in the regular season. (They will play defending national champion South Carolina tonight.)
But critics said the coaching decisions in the St. Francis game were especially egregious and have called UConn coach Geno Auriemma a "a bad winner and a bully."
"These aren’t the SATs. It’s not the Crimean War. They’re college games. Mercy isn’t the issue as much as dignity, specifically how much lies beneath Auriemma’s, and it’s clearly not beneath his to beat a visiting team by 88 points," New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick wrote.
After the St. Francis game, Auriemma dismissed critics, saying “That’s not my fault, that we play well, regardless of whether we play teams in the top five in the country or 305. I couldn’t care less.”
It was a starkly different tone than displayed by the school superintendent in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, when apologizing for her team’s 93-7 victory over Madison Park Vocational High School. "This is not a reflection of our student body or our athletic program," superintendent Elizabeth Legault said, according to a local newspaper.
In 2015, ESPN compiled a list of the 100 biggest blowouts in sports history, which included the Chicago Bulls' 96-54 defeat of the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals and Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes in 1973. The worst imbalance occurred in 1916 when Georgia Tech beat Cumberland College 222-0.
More recently, the coach at The Covenant School in Texas was fired in 2009 after his team beat Dallas Academy 100-0. Covenant leadership said the win was not in keeping with the school's Christian ethics and ultimately had the game erased from official records. But the coach, Micah Grimes, disagreed in an email published by the Dallas Morning News.
"Although a wide-margin victory is never evidence of compassion, my girls played with honor and integrity and showed respect to Dallas Academy," Grimes wrote.
The difference in perspective is common when lopsided games occur, said Tim Delaney, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Oswego and editor of the 2016 book "Sportsmanship: Multidisciplinary Perspectives." But generally, people are more critical of the practice known as running up the score when the players are young.
“Professional players, it’s like 'You’re a professional, I’m a professional, I’m sorry we beat you 56 to nothing, but why didn’t you stop us?’” Delaney said. But, “youth sports, high-school sports, you should never run up the score.”
In New York, as in other places, a sportsmanship pledge is supposed to govern every action in a game. The state's pledge for public high school athletes ends with the words "Let today's contest reflect mutual respect." Likewise, Utah high school athletes are encouraged to take a pledge to represent their schools with integrity, treat opponents with dignity, and "always do our best to achieve what we can achieve."
It's the drive for achievement, however, that can present a sticky ethical dilemma that even people with strict moral codes struggle to resolve.
Values in conflict
When one team pulls in front of the other and the other team seems incapable of catching up, some people believe coaches should bench their best players and make adjustments in their play, such as going for two-point baskets instead of 3-pointers, or slowing the speed of the game.
Sharon Stoll directs the Center for Ethics at the University of Idaho, which focuses on the ethics of sports.
“As a former coach, I could never say to my kids ‘don’t do your best.’ Couldn’t do it,” Stoll said.
It’s not that the people involved don’t have good values, but that in an unequal pairing of teams, these values conflict. On the one hand, we value kindness and compassion, but we also value performing to the best of one's abilities.
“You have these skills, and you should always play your best. Isn’t that what we tell kids?” Stoll said.
If, at halftime, the UConn coach had told his team to let up, it would have compromised those values and demeaned the other team, by virtue of pity.
“When we choose to play a game, we take a risk, and whatever goes on, we accept it,” Stoll said. In the UConn-St. Francis game, she doesn’t think either team is necessarily at fault. “This is a case of poor scheduling,” she said.
Delaney concurred, saying, "This is a matchup that was unfortunate to have happened."
And sometimes, even when coaches decide to rein their players in, the outcome remains the same. In Texas, in 2013, one high school football team beat another 91-0, causing one parent to accuse the coach and players of bullying, even though the coach told a reporter that he spent the second half trying to figure out how to keep his team from scoring.
That's why some communities have instituted "mercy rules," also known as "run-ahead rules," or "the 10-run rule" in Little League baseball. These rules designate a set point at which at game ends if one team gets too far ahead of the other.
Solomon Alexander, director of the St. Louis Sports Foundation and a leader in the National Sportsmanship Foundation, said it’s more common for scores to be extraordinarily lopsided on the college level; in professional sports, coaches are more likely to hold back out of professional respect. They also know that their turn is coming.
“If you play any sport long enough, you will be at the short end of the stick,” Solomon said.
That said, “the objective is to win, not to annihilate; to win, not to crush," he said.
What to do when it happens
In the case of the team accused of bullying, the coach said he was trying to find a way to stop the disaster as it unfolded over an hour of play. But in most cases when people have to make an ethical decision, they do so reflexively, in the heat of the moment, using a lifetime of history, experience and moral education, Stoll said.
This is one reason it helps to teach young people the principles of sportsmanship as well as how to throw or dribble a ball, something Delaney said is missing in many sports programs.
For instance, the first Thursday of March was National Sportsmanship Day, which gave coaches and parents a reason to introduce ethics into sport and talk about scenarios that young people might encounter in sports, as well as the importance of behaving ethically on the field and court.
The Institute for International Sport, based in Rhode Island, says athletes should adhere to high standards of behavior because they are role models. "Considerate behavior by an athlete produces a generous amount of good will; inconsiderate behavior by an athlete produces a disproportionate amount of ill will," the group says on its website.
After the fact, an apology can enrage some supporters, but pacify others who believe a coach behaved badly. That's what happened at The Covenant School, where the coach of the 100-0 game was fired after he defended the coaching that left school administrators aghast. One Texas educator said that, in the absence of a mercy rule, the golden rule (Jesus' admonition to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you") should apply.
But even that's a gray area, as the St. Francis head coach showed in his remarksafter the lopsided loss to UConn. "Everyone knows the difference between the best team in America and the teams at the smaller level of Division I," said coach Joe Haigh, who was gracious in defeat, as was his team, which was running hard down to the final buzzer and shook hands with the Huskies after the game, per tradition.
Added Haigh, "The margin of loss doesn't matter as much as how you play."