Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Ethics of a High School Football Rout

Paul McCoy, the star running back for the Matewan (West Virginia) High School football team, apparently set new national high school records with 658 yards rushing and ten touchdowns in his team’s game against Burch High, a 64-0 slaughter. He also played the starring role in an ethics drama that raises important questions about right and wrong in sports and in life.

Matewan coach Yogi Kinder took a 35-0 lead into the half-time break, and realized that McCoy, already with 300 yards and five touchdowns, had a shot at breaking both the U.S. high school rushing and the touchdown record if his team kept giving him the ball in the second half. His prospect looked especially promising because the Burch team had shown itself to be pathetically inept. It would be the gridiron equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

To the horror of the helpless Burch team, Matewan came out for the third quarter using a no-huddle offense, all the better to let McCoy score the maximum number of points while using up as little of the clock as possible. Kinder’s players also stopped running back punts, so McCoy could rack up as many yards as possible in his irresistible marches to the goal line. When the dust cleared, he had scored all the game’s touchdowns, running the ball 29 times. “With about six minutes left in the game, I heard one of their assistant coaches yell, ‘One more should be enough!’ Burch’s Coach Hunt told the Washington Post. “And here I am, my team losing by like 60 points, and I’m thinking, ‘One more was enough two hours ago.’ “

McCoy got his record. Then the criticism began rolling in, led by Hunt, who says that Kinder’s tactics humiliated the Burch team for the most selfish of motives.

Even in professional sports, running up the score in a game when victory has already been assured guarantees controversy. Professional baseball, football and basketball teams usually follow sportsmanship’s “unwritten rule” that a team with an insurmountable lead should put its second string players on the field and avoid using aggressive tactics, like the stolen base, the on-side punt, or the fast break offense. That unwritten rule is progressively more legible the more deeply one goes down into amateur sports, where sportsmanship isn’t competing against the desire for free agent contracts and product endorsements. It is essentially a Golden Rule principle based on kindness, empathy, mercy and respect. You wouldn’t want to be humiliated, so don’t try to humiliate your opponent. Winning is enough; you don’t have to grind your opponent’s face into the dirt and taunt him as well.

That this ethical principle—sportsmanship is nothing but ethical conduct in athletics, after all—would apply with special force in high school contests is a no-brainer, but Matewan’s coach was equal to the task of missing it. As he saw the situation then and now, his actions had nothing to do with Burch at all. According to the Washington Post, Kinder’s team’s morale had been reeling since it had forfeited two games for playing an ineligible player, ruining its playoff chances. (This was presumably Kinder’s fault, it should be noted.) The coach decided that a record-setting performance by its senior star was just what Matewan needed to pull out of its funk, and gave him chance to do something nice for a great player and a good kid before he graduated. “I’ve had kids that have had a lot of yards at halftime, and then we just kind of said, ‘Well, he doesn’t deserve this,’ ” Kinder told post reporter Eli Saslow.”But with Paul, it was like, ‘Hey, it’s time for me to do this if it’s ever going to be done.’ I just brought the whole team over, and I looked at Paul and said, ‘Let’s go get it.’ “

Thus Yogi Kinder fell headlong into the non-ethical considerations trap, the same mindset that recently made forty mountain climbers leave another dying in the snow rather than give up their quest for the peak of Mount Everest. In seeking the records for his star and national publicity for his team, he lost sight of the completely unfair and unnecessary harm he would simultaneously cause to the Burch team, its players, their parents, its fans, and its coach. Did Burch, an indisputably lousy team that was by all accounts doing its best, deserve to be humiliated? No; it deserved to lose, that’s all. And losing was assured. Were McCoy’s records worth inflicting pain and humiliation on a team, a school and a community? Was one student’s exhilaration so essential that it justified demoralizing many more students at Burch High? How much can high school athletic records be worth, especially records set against helpless competition with strategies designed not to win the game but to run up the numbers?

Ethically, the questions nearly answer themselves, unless you’re a member of the reliably ethically-challenged television news media. Kinder’s star got national headlines, just as he “deserved.” ESPN, NBC, Fox and, naturally, Larry King sought interviews, effectively endorsing Kinder’s belief that McCoy’s records were all that mattered, and the psychic carnage produced in the process was regrettable but necessary. The few media commentators who did see an ethical issue in the game focused on a different one: is it ethical for players and coaches to alter game strategies in order to set records, and are records set in this way valid?

The Scoreboard’s answer to this is unavoidable, for ethical principles that are impossible to follow are worthless. If records have any value at all, human beings will alter their conduct as the prospect of setting a record increases. Would Cal Ripken, Jr. have played in every game late in his career despite painful injuries if Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak wasn’t in reach? Certainly not. Will the fact that a quarterback needs one more passing touchdown to set a record influence his choice of plays as the game nears completion? Of course it will. If Michael Jordan was within a few baskets of breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 100 points in a single game, would his coach still bench him because the game was already won? No. It is too much to expect a player or coach to see a record within reach yet not alter his conduct to increase the likelihood of reaching it. It is reasonable and ethical for the pursuit of a record to dictate strategy, up to a point. That point has been passed when it causes excessive and unnecessary injury to others, or makes a travesty of the game. Coach Kinder’s actions did both.

It would have been wonderful, ethical and truly heroic if McCoy himself had understood this and refused to participate in his coach’s scheme. But the Scoreboard cannot find ethical fault with a high school senior for not making a selfless ethical statement rather than basking in athletic glory, no matter how contrived. McCoy is not the ethical offender here. His coach is. McCoy is a student, and his teacher taught a bad lesson.

There was one more ethical breach arising out of the Matewan-Burch game, an understandable one but a breach nonetheless. After the game, Burch’s coach instructed his team to refuse to participate in the traditional mid-field post game hand-shaking ritual, responding to poor sportsmanship with more of the same. According to the Post, he had also considered pulling his team off the field during the game, causing a forfeit and foiling McCoy’s record quest. Coach Hunt was right to reject this plan. Diligence, responsibility and courage required that the Burke team continue to play hard, fair and to the bitter end, even if its opponents were behaving badly.

This year a Connecticut high school athletic association adopted a new rule that requires the suspension of any coach whose team wins by more than fifty points. This is another example of legislating ethics rather than tackling the tougher task of developing a culture that fosters them. Scholastic athletics is not warfare, and rather than being punished for not acting ethically, coaches should be trained to understand that teaching ethical principles and sportsmanship is as important a component of their jobs as winning games.

And much more important than setting records—-or shooting fish in a barrel.

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