A Case for Mercy

As published by Inside Sport, July 2012

When a contest goes beyond the pale, where’s the pain relief?

Since the lions routinely gave the Christians more than a good licking, humans have meekly stood by as the weak are plundered by the strong. And nothing’s changed if modern sport is any guide.

Whether at the elite level, where issues of entertainment value and financial consequences are foremost, or local paddocks where a sense of pointless futility pervades, most of us have experienced dark days when we’ve counted the infinite ways we could better spend our precious time, money and energy.  Or on the flipside played the role of voyeur to games akin to pulling the wings off flies.

Sure there are character building benefits of the odd unexpected drubbing.  Ergo the sound of inflated egos popping.  But seriously, what’s to be gleaned when your score regularly resembles the hole you fancy disappearing into after the match.  Nor is the victor really a winner when the tackle bags at training provide stiffer opposition.

One of the most shocking examples occurred ten years ago in an Oceania World Cup Qualifier when Australia’s cream whipped Western Samoa’s curdled remains 31-0.  As he should, coach Frank Farina blasted FIFA’s Oceania governing body, bemoaning that ‘no one really wins’, labelling it a ‘a disgrace’ and ‘embarrassing.’

After one of several Magpie maulings last year (by 138 points in the wet over Port Adelaide), then Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse was moved to voice mounting concern over the AFL’s ‘year of the blow-out’.

“This is not going to bring people to the football.  Do you get any delight out of it? No…  We’re entertainers not masochists.”

How to approach obvious mismatches is a conundrum perhaps on a par with that of batsmen ‘walking’.  The elusive ‘spirit of the game’ chestnut has always been a source of great apoplexy, from the casual observer to the sagest philosopher of athletic endeavour. There is just no one size fits all code to handle the emotive nature and unpredictable scenarios that sport conjures.

For instance, one time when the NFL’s Washington Redskins ran down the clock with a 45-0 lead in their back pockets, Detroit’s middle linebacker Chris Spielman was so embarrassed he lamented ‘no one has ever taken pity on me or my teammates on the field before.’  He called it the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to him on the football field. “If they score, they score,” Spielman added at the time. “That’s better than feeling sorry for me!”

And that would be a common tune (I’m thinking a lonely harmonica refrain) espoused by many on the wrong end of a shellacking.

Yet there’s other examples where NFL teams have been accused of ‘running up the score’ in the latter stages, which generally equates to needlessly going too aggressively against hapless or injury riddled opponents when the contest is done and dusted, or there’s zero at stake.  Furious coaches have stormed off, their counterpart’s conciliatory hand left unshaken (notwithstanding the incongruity of such a gentleman’s pact coming to pass, given the brutal nature of American football).

Interestingly, whilst the NRL and AFL have borrowed heavily on America’s socialist / interventionist bent to procure closer encounters, backing off and affording the opposition any respite is an alien concept here.  It does loom large in AFL circles though, as mismatches and matches without consequence continue to be a trending topic.  Possibly more clubs will copy Hawthorn’s lead last season when they rested half their team against fledgling battlers Gold Coast (and still won).  Instructively, the Hawks contacted the Suns midweek to avert any perceived slight.

Whilst the protagonists, the media and fans (not to forget the all unimportant betting agencies) will have conflicting views, the various keepers of the codes are obligated to consider the big picture, and any available mechanisms to minimise boredom and despair.

Most of us are au fait with the prevalence of the ‘mercy rule’ in American sport, primarily in baseball.  International competitions such as the Olympics call it a day when a team breaks clear by 10 – 15 runs, depending on the stage of the match.  And a similar approach is taken to junior and college level baseball, gridiron, basketball, and soccer.

Respectful or patronising?  Idealism aside, the practicalities of employing a mercy rule is the implications on a team’s percentage or points difference, which can determine the final ladder.  However, a mercy rule need not imply a game is immediately called off when the margin hits the designated tipping point.  A compelling option for our favourite football codes is to take a cue from basketball and gridiron’s application – the match continues, but the clock runs down without stopping for any breaks in play (unless the deficit creeps back within the acceptable amount).  Not only might the margin be contained within the realms of decency, crucially the ‘junk time’ is mercifully shorter.  Furthermore, any perceived shame of a more obviously invoked mercy rule is mitigated.

If it’s bad enough our elite club competitions labour through occasional fish in the barrel massacres, growing an international sport is a tricky business considering the delicate balance between encouraging developing countries, and the damage to reputation inflicted by arduous routs on the big stage.

World Cup Rugby administrators continue to persevere with ‘emerging’ rugby nations for whom the word ‘try’ is more so a patriotic obligation than a remotely feasible outcome.  As for cricket, the ICC eventually went the razor approach, slashing the number of competing countries to the bare bones – until more recently associate members were granted a stay of execution.  Rather than the perplexing qualifying tournaments now mooted, a cricket adaptation of a mercy rule would enable minnows like Ireland to challenge themselves against the big boys with at least some kind of safety net.  Of course ODI’s in general have long been crying out for a swifter resolution when a run chase goes stupendously awry.

Sure in some cases the mercy rule would be a bandaid solution to underlying problems. And those who’ve paid good money for a preconceived duration might object, but really, it’s a bit like gorging one’s self to the point of sickness at an all you can eat buffet, just because it’s there.

The quality of mercy might not be strained according to Shakespeare, but in these enlightened times, players, supporters, sponsors and TV networks really should be spared the pain and the strain of sport at its non competitive worst.

Biggest Losers

  • NRL Parramatta d Cronulla 74-4 (2003)
  • AFL Fitzroy d Melbourne 238-48 (1979)
  • Cricket (Test) England d Australia 7-903d – 201 & 123 (1938)
  • Cricket (ODI) New Zealand d Ireland 2/402 -212 (2008)
  • Cricket (Twenty20) Sri Lanka d Kenya 201-27 (2007)
  • Rugby Australia d Namibia 142-0 (2003 World Cup)
  • International soccer Australia d American Samoa 31-0 (2001)
  • British soccer Arbroath d Bon Accord 36-0 (1885 Scottish Cup match)
  • NFL football Chicago Bears d Washington Redskins, 73-0 (1940 league championship game)
  • US college football Georgia Tech d Cumberland College 222-0 (1916)
  • Major League Baseball Texas Rangers d Baltimore Orioles 30-3 (2007)
  • NBA basketball Cleveland Cavaliers d Miami Heat 148-80 (1991)
  • NHL hockey Detroit Red Wings d New York Rangers 15-0 (1944)
  • International hockey South Korea d Thailand 92-0 (1998 Asia-Oceania Junior Championships)
  • Women’s hockey Slovakia d Bulgaria 82-0 (2007, Winter Olympics qualifying)
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