Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Bad News Bears Play Basketball

The Covenant School girls basketball team had quite a night against Dallas Academy: it won its game 100-0. Implying that Jesus would have handled the situation differently if he were coaching, the headmaster for Covenant School fired the team’s coach, even though Jesus is unavailable for the job. The ex-coach was unapologetic, saying in an e-mail to the press that he refused to express regret "for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity." Covenant issued an apology to Dallas Academy, and is seeking to get the game forfeited to the school, which hasn’t won a game in two years.

What exactly is the right thing to do for a team involved in a contest where its opposition is helpless? Was the coach wrong? Was the headmaster wrong to fire him? Or are the ethical offenders elsewhere?

Running up the score is a controversial topic even in professional sports, where winning is the prime objective, few leads are safe, and the players are paid to take their medicine. At the point where victory is assured and the only question is the degree of humiliation that will be heaped on the losing team, professional coaches generally take measures like pulling their best players and avoiding aggressive tactics. Apparently the Covenant coach wouldn’t even concede that much, and directed his players to keep taking three-point shots and to score as many points as possible. (And, apparently, he was egged on by screaming parents in the stands, who wanted to see the score reach 100.)

Okay…the coach demonstrated a lack of sympathy, caring and responsibility, not to mention respect for the Golden Rule. His job is two-fold: first, to teach his girls the principles of teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair competition; second, to train them to play good basketball. Throttling a helpless opponent long after a contest is no longer in doubt accomplishes neither of these goals, and is actively antithetical to the first. What he should have done was to direct the girls to slow down the pace of the game. Pass off as often as possible; practice play-making rather than shooting. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, for asking the team to play without intensity could easily lead to injuries. But that’s part of his job as teacher and instructor. He is supposed to be able to navigate unexpected situations, like being faced with hopeless opponents.

The Covenant coach was not the only one who botched this challenge, however. In the film “The Bad New Bears” (the original version, with Walter Mathau, not the pointless remake with Billy Bob Thornton, please), the Bears coach, played by Mathau, sees that his awful Little League baseball team is being slaughtered by the aptly-named Yankees, and suggests to the other coach that they mutually agree to end the game early. When the ultra-competitive Yankee coach (Vic Morrow, in a disturbingly realistic turn as an obsessed Little League parent—he would have been one of the blood-thirsty spectators cheering for 100-0) refuses, Mathau leads his team off the field and forfeits rather than letting them suffer any longer than they have to. And he is exactly right. What was the Dallas Academy coach trying to do, teach his team the nobility of lost causes? To fight bravely against overwhelming odds? Punish them for being so inept? If what happened to the Dallas Academy team was so horrible that it warranted firing the winning coach, both coaches and the referees also had an obligation to try to solve the problem. If the winning coach wouldn’t direct his team to slow down, then the losing coach should have pulled his team off the court. And if the comatose losing coach wouldn’t act, then the refs should have ended the game as an act of mercy.

I think Kyle Queal, the headmaster for Covenant School, went overboard by firing the coach. It is not easy for a team to be faced with a scheduled opponent that has no business playing at your team’s level of competition. It is not “blaming the victims” to suggest that Dallas Academy was negligent and irresponsible in subjecting its girls to certain defeat by playing far superior teams, ensuring boring games for spectators, and ordeals for the players while creating job-threatening dilemmas for opposing coaches. Are we to assume that the team was happy as long as it only lost by scores of 40-2 or 64-6? 100-0 is a massacre, but how much worse is that score than what Dallas Academy was used to, as it lost game after game?

Imagine that a junior high school football team is scheduled to play against Ohio State. Is that Ohio State’s reponsibility? Clearly Ohio State’s 250-pounders must not crush the boys and run up the score. But after there is a rout, Ohio State’s coach shouldn’t get all the blame. Nor should Ohio State’s players. Covenant’s attempt to have the game forfeited to Dallas Academy aims to punish its own students—for what? Being too good? Not missing those three-pointers? The players obeyed their coach, as they are supposed to; they excelled at the game. They did not cheat, and the fact that the game was a mismatch cannot be blamed on them at all. Dallas Academy has been sending its ill-prepared girls out to lose for two years, apparently without concern for their psyches. Now that the team has lost especially spectacularly, the school deserves a reward? Absurd.

Perhaps Covenant’s leadership believes that a Christian school’s basketball team has a higher obligation in such circumstances than other school teams. Interesting theory. Perhaps, after being knocked on his butt by a rampaging tackle, a Notre Dame quarterback should turn the other cheek. I don’t see it. School teams ought to exhibit fair play and good sportsmanship, and Christian teams no more or less than any other. If Covenant cannot reconcile the concept of competition with its Christian values, perhaps it should leave organized sports to others.

I would like to believe that it was the Covenant School coach’s refusal to acknowledge that he mishandled the situation that got him sacked, and not just the lopsided score. It is unfair for him to take all the criticism. After all, Jesus might not have let his team throw in three-pointers if he were coaching, but he still might have been challenged by the task of finding the right way to balance his obligations to his own team with his empathy for the Dallas Academy players. And even he would have benefited from a little cooperation from the other adults involved.

For frequently ethics, like basketball, is a team activity.

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