Joe Carter over at First Things posted a spirited defense of running up the score . The debate hardened rapidly into Joe and several others defending the premise against those who stated it was never acceptable for Christians to run up the score. There were attempts at some subtleties, larger issues, exceptions, and trying to set general principles, but these mostly got lost in the simpler Good/Not Good dichotomy.
I’d like to get some of those issues into the discussion, but sketching this out, I’m finding there are so many that it can’t be done neatly. There are wheels within wheels here.
To set my own framing, I believe there are competitions where it is entirely reasonable to run up the score – even Christians. My first limitation on this would be age. What is acceptable for high school varsity may be less so for eight-year-olds. I would place a second limitation based on the attitude displayed by players and coach – though this is already getting tricky. Most teams have a jerk or two on them, so it is often a dodge to claim that there was no intent to humiliate the opponent.
Age*: There was a comment that “Life isn’t T-Ball.” No, but T-Ball is T-Ball. For a reason. A person playing highschool varsity, even for a poor team in a lower division, already has a certain amount of success at a sport. S/he also has a growing perspective on how this sport and this day fit into a larger picture. In that context, there is a great deal that can be learned from even a horrendous pounding. You might learn that this sport is not for you, and you are playing mostly as a fun way to keep in shape for another sport you like better. You may be able to look around you and say “Our team is young. They have lots of starters graduating. If we can learn x or y – get in better shape, not make mistakes, work together, whatever – we can do much better against them next year.” I can recall as early as 7th grade looking at the kids from Ash St School, many of whom had stayed back (one even drove to the game) and thinking “They haven’t got much going for them in the rest of life.” (My teammates were generally not willing to grant this and simply resented them for being big kids picking on little kids.) I use this illustration because at best, one or two out of fourteen 7th graders were able to see this – and even that may be giving myself too much credit. I may be importing later understanding into my 7th grade memory.
Kids don’t have this perspective. They just don’t. The anecdotes about using defeat to try harder are selective, and likely convenient. We impose later understanding on earlier years. 19 is different from 16 is different from 13 is different from 10. And frankly, the people writing in to First Things who are remembering the lessons the learned from late high school may be an unrepresentative sample – more intelligent, more psychologically solid, more reflective – than even the others playing that day. Retrospective anecdotes deceive.
Fortunately, kids also carry these embarrassments more lightly. The parents are still steaming, the kid has moved on. When presented with a similar situation again, such as playing that team again, kids remember and can freeze up or get angry. But it’s not constant. They live much more in the moment, for good or ill. Extending that is part of what we are trying to teach.
Attitude: Not so easy to measure as you might think. People have a thousand ways to rub it in, and if you are stinging in defeat, you can see a thousand more that aren’t there. Kids at Christian schools often do much better at eliminating the most obvious types of poor sportsmanship, because that’s how they’ve been trained. Some of them strive to be good-hearted and internalise the entire idea of putting yourself in another’s shoes – which goes a long way in and of itself. (There are plenty of kids in public schools who do the same, but the First Things discussion centered around running up the score when your school is purporting above all to be representing Christ. Players in other situations who wish to represent Christ, or even merely be good sports in an entirely secular sense, can easily make the necessary mental adjustment from the examples I choose for clarity.)
But you are going to have jerks on your team, year after year, and that has to figure into your coaching. To maintain that it is theoretically possible for players to win by large scores with no intent of humiliation, so it’s all good just doesn’t pass the test. It’s never going to actually happen. It might happen for half a season, or with most of your kids so much that the opponents shrug off your jerks, but poor sportsmanship will happen. And a blowout victory is one of the most likely spots – it is something of an invitation for sin, presenting an occasion for sin.
I think I’m talking myself into a changed POV here.
*Other imbalances between opponents are not all analogous to age and will be treated separately.