Stop Playing So Well, Harrison Bergeron!

The AP reports:

Any Connecticut high school football coach who runs up the score in a game now runs the risk of being suspended. The football committee of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state board that governs high school sports, has adopted a "score management" policy to keep teams from winning by more than 50 points.

The rout is considered an unsportsmanlike infraction and, beginning this fall, the head coach of the offending team will be disqualified from coaching the next game, said Tony Mosa, assistant executive director of the Cheshire-based CIAC.

"We were concerned with any coach running up the game. There's no need for it," Mosa said Wednesday. "This is something that we really have been discussing for the last couple of years. There were a number of games that were played where the difference of scores were 60 points or more. It's not focused on any one particular person." ...

Football committee chairman Leroy Williams ... formerly coached high school in the city and remembers well the beatings his teams were handed. He recalls being down by 54 points in one game and having the opposing team line up for an onside kick after scoring.

"Try to explain that to kids," Williams said. "When you get someone down, you don't have to kick them. The key thing to remember is, it's about the quality of the game. It's about teaching kids right from wrong. It's about the game of life and that's how we had to look about it."

The problem, it seems to me, is quite real: It is indeed dispiriting and embarrassing to be so badly beaten. One possible solution (which the story describes, but which wasn't adopted) is to stop the game when the score gap gets too large. Another is to split the league into divisions in each of which the teams would be more closely matched, though that might not work well for a small league. There are other reasonable alternatives as well.

But the solution of requiring the winning team to essentially stop competing effectively strikes me as worse than the problem. As the Laissez Faire Books blog points out,

[I]f the players of a team, after having gotten 50 points ahead in a game, suddenly begin moping about the field, carefully abstaining from scoring a single further point, the players on the losing team are going to know why.

They are going to know, first, that they are playing lousy compared to the other team. They're going to know, second, that the official rules of the game now declare that beyond a certain point they must be deemed to be playing so lousy that their opponents must be officially hobbled lest the members of the lousy team be humiliated further. And it is an elementary law of psychology that the knowledge that you are being officially declared irremediably lousy by the very rules of the game is not going to cheer you up. "We're such lousy losers that we can't even be allowed to play an honest game in the fourth quarter," is what all the players on the losing team will be thinking.

Some of the same persons on the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference proposing the penalty for too-success coaching have also opposed a "run out the clock" rule (i.e., a rule that would finish the game faster if one team is being pulverized by outlawing any more time-outs). According to the AP, "Mosa [an assistant executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference] said committee members believed the clock rule would be unfair to junior varsity players who likely would be on the field during lopsided games." But why is it unfair to impair players under a run-out-the-clock cure for the agony of defeat but not under a cure in which a winning coach will be punished if his players continue to play their best? Whether or not such a clock rule is justified, it would, obviously, at least allow all players on both sides to continue doing their best, under the same rules, and without arbitrarily penalizing coaches....

UPDATE: Some commenters defend the new rule on the theory that a coach who's winning by 50 points ought to send in his second- or third-string players, which will make the contest more even and give his weaker players some game time. That's a sensible approach, and one of the "other reasonable alternatives" I mention. Among other things, it would at least involve each player trying to do his best, though it would now be weaker players doing that.

But that's not what the rule calls for; according to the article, the rule generally prohibits "run[ing] up the score." If team A is losing by 50 points to team B's first string, it's eminently possible that team B's second or third string will still keep scoring touchdown after touchdown against A. (Some commenters in fact reported such experiences from their own lives.) Are B's second string players now supposed to spend their rare game time playing deliberately weakly, for fear that if they play their best they'll be "run[ing] up the score"?

Others suggested that the winning team ought not be allowed to use onside kicks or to throw "forward passes of more than 30 yards." That I just don't buy, for the reasons mentioned above. But even beyond this, if A is losing by 50 points, it's probably not because of onside kicks (though maybe because of forward passes). Ban onside kicks, and the other side will still score a lot -- unless they are indeed required to basically just not try to score.