OPINION: The court of mercy

By Lorraine Connelly

It’s not often that Wallingford news is picked up by New York media markets, but we recently snagged headlines in The New York Times and The New York Daily News. Both outlets reported on the fallout resulting from the January 3 Sacred Heart Academy girls’ basketball game vs. Lyman Hall which ended in a 92-4 blowout.

The controversy brought up a long-debated issue among coaches and athletic administrators across the country. How should interscholastic athletic mismatches be handled? Should decisions be left in the hands of coaches, or should athletic conferences legislate a mercy rule? A mercy rule ends competition between two teams earlier than the scheduled endpoint if one team has an insurmountable scoring lead over the other. It’s called the mercy rule because it spares the losing team further humiliation.

As reported by this paper, Coach Tom Lipka of Lyman Hall stated, “Sacred Heart showed ‘no mercy.” They played a press defense not letting Lyman Hall handle the ball for the entire first half of the game, after which they led 56-0.

Could a mercy rule have prevented this lamentable scenario? The Florida High School Athletic Association, for example, has mercy rules for six sports, including girls’ and boys’ basketball, Florida’s rule is activated when one team holds a 35-point lead in the second half. Connecticut instituted a mercy rule for football in 2006. While this rule doesn’t terminate a lopsided game early, there is a consequence for the winning coach – a one-game suspension if the win is by 50 or more points. Sacred Heart Academy Coach Jason Kirck did receive a one-game suspension.

What was most compelling about the reporting of the blowout was the emphasis on character and its role in athletic competition. Sacred Heart Academy President Sister Sheila O’Neill issued an apology stating, “Sacred Heart Academy values the lessons taught and cultivated through athletic participation including ethical and responsible behavior, leadership and strength of character and respect for one’s opponents.”

While strength of character certainly remains an important part of sportsmanship, I’m hard pressed to pinpoint what character lessons were learned by the girls of either team. One can say that the Lyman Hall girls demonstrated strength of character and good sportsmanship by holding their heads high in defeat and shaking their opponents’ hands after the game, but did the Sacred Heart girls exhibit a character deficit for playing with continued intensity, as they were, no doubt, coached to do?

It seems to me that perhaps the coaches themselves, the adults in charge, could have intervened to prevent this worsening scenario. Going into the game Sacred Heart was undefeated, Lyman Hall’s record was 0-5. The outcome was foretold. Ray Diffley, a longtime youth and prep school coach and founder of RD3 Education Advising Center, which shines a spotlight on character strength development in teens, notes: “This game scenario should have been foreseen by both sides and ideally a conversation would have taken place well prior to tip off.” He adds, “When there is a presumed wipeout, a ‘take it easy on us please’ message from one coach to another is common to invite dialogue from the stronger team’s coach. Short of that, the coach of the stronger team could have called a huddle with the other coach and officials, at the end of the first quarter or halftime, to invite a conversation about another pathway.”

Veteran high school girls’ basketball coach, Jim Davidson at Choate Rosemary Hall, concurs, “When there is an overmatch you can have the weaker kids on the team play the remainder of the game, change the intensity of the defense and offense, and speak to the other coach during the game as to what makes the most sense for all.”

The line between competition and compassion, however, is not an obvious or natural one for players who are coached to win. What would Geno do? In 2018, Coach Geno Auriemma drew criticism in the wake of the UConn Huskies 140-52 win over St. Francis (PA). He pushed back when a USA Today reporter raised the notion of a mercy rule, saying, “We just try to play basketball. We don’t go out to beat anybody by a certain amount, at all, ever.”

The lessons learned from the high school incident seem conflicting at best. But hopefully, when Lyman Hall and Sacred Heart faceoff again on January 28, the adults in charge will have a game plan that includes the commonsense ability to deal with a clear competitive deficit, without having to invoke a mercy rule or to exact a pound of flesh from a winning coach.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.


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