Commonwealth Journal

November 29, 2011

Don’t Penalize for Being Good

CNHI News Service

— Sports are intrinsically amoral.

Not immoral, as in evil. Amoral, as in indifferent to right or wrong.

That is not to say that you can’t do something immoral — something that flies in the face of conventionally accepted ideas of good and bad behavior — while playing sports. Look at Ndamukong Suh, the Detroit Lions defensive tackle who’s expected to be suspended for a game or two for stomping, apparently on purpose, another player during a Thanksgiving game with the Green Bay Packers.

Most Kentucky basketball fans would recall Duke forward Christian Laettner’s infamous stomp on UK’s Aminu Timberlake during the 1992 NCAA College Basketball Tournament, and think he probably deserved a fate similar to Suh’s.

But in and of themselves, there’s nothing morally good or bad about throwing a ball, or kicking a ball, or hitting a puck with a stick, or anything of that nature.

There are only the rules of the game. Break the rules, and the game has a system built in to penalize you for it.

Step out of bounds, and you’ll lose possession. Foul another player, and they’ll shoot free throws. Leap from the line of scrimmage before the snap, and you’ll go back five yards. Commit a recruiting infraction, and you’ll be hit with NCAA sanctions (unless you play football in the SEC and your name isn’t Kentucky, of course).

All that the game itself demands is that you follow the rules and attempt to execute the purpose of the sport — scoring points while preventing the opponent from doing likewise — as faithfully and genuinely as possible.

To score, or to defend, is neither moral nor immoral. It is simply what is expected of you once the game begins, until it ends.

Which is why the situation facing a Kentucky middle school is so patently absurd that it’s frightening.

According to RivalsHigh, a prep-focused extension of the Rivals sports network, in an online article titled “100-2 middle school hoops blowout may have repercussions,” the superintendent and school board of the Pikeville Independent School District are considering canceling the remainder of Pikeville Independent Middle School’s boys basketball season.

The team did not hurt anyone. They did not cheat. They didn’t make throat-slashing motions at the other team to taunt them.

All the Pikeville team did was play according to the rules of the game.

To be more precise, what Pikeville did was utterly destroy Kimper Elementary and Middle School in the Pike County Preseason Tournament in early November to the score of — and no, this is not a typo — 100-2.

Two points. That’s all the other team scored.

Apparently, the school system has received criticism for Pikeville Middle running up the score.

It’s a baseless criticism when logic is applied. The first purpose of the game to is to score, is it not? And the other purpose is to prevent the other team from scoring.

Nowhere in the rules of basketball does it say, “Score only so much that it doesn’t seem gaudy,” or “Let your opponent have an easy shot once in a while.”

No, the rules are to score and defend. If you do anything else, you disrespect the game. When you hold back from scoring because you’re point-shaving, you’ve bet on a game, that’s disrespecting it. You should always play as hard as possible, as truly as possible, all the time.

So why would anybody act like Pikeville Middle did something wrong?

It’s not Pikeville’s fault that Kimper was so completely inferior that the score was 25 to nothing less than two minutes into the game, or that the score was 70-0 at halftime. That’s Kimper’s fault for allowing it to get to that point, for not playing as well as Pikeville did.

It’s not Pikeville’s fault for allowing the beating to get worse. Once the lead hit 25-0 only minutes into the game, Pikeville stopped pressing and the coach removed the starters. In the second half, the coach reportedly told his team to stop playing defense ... and Kimper could still only manage two measly points.

I might have a problem with Pikeville’s coach telling his team to essentially drop one fundamental aspect of the game. I don’t have a problem with the fact that it didn’t help Kimper at all.

It’s not the Pikeville team’s fault that they should probably have never been playing Kimper in the first place. According to the RivalsHigh piece, Pikeville boasts “one of the nation's most talented squads of eighth-graders. ... (It) consists of the best members of the school's sixth- and seventh-grade teams from the past two seasons.”

Kimper, meanwhile, has only 180 students and must cobble together players from what little potential talent exists at the remote Pike County school; the RivalsHigh article noted that there are players as young as 11 years old on the team.

So you can blame whomever it was that scheduled the tournament and created such a mismatch if you’d like.

But you can’t blame Pikeville and Kimper for playing the game they were assigned to play, to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately for Kimper, Pikeville’s abilities are apparently much greater than their own.

That’s nobody’s fault. Just a fact of the scoreboard.

Running up the score isn’t a bad thing, it’s fulfilling the obligations of the game. You can take out players and play a different style — which Pikeville did — but you should never stop competing just because you’re objectively better than the other guy. That’s unfair to yourselves, your opponent, and to the spirit of the game itself.

That’s true at any age. It’s true if you’re 11. It’s true if you’re an NBA player in your 20s or 30s. Heck, it’s true if you’re in the Senior Citizen League. The value of competition shouldn’t change at any level. If it does for you, then you have no business playing the sport, period.

The fallout of all this — the talk that the school system could cancel the season and deprive Pikeville Middle’s young men from playing the sport they want to play — suggests that Pikeville did something wrong. That they shouldn’t have played hard. Shouldn’t have tried to score, or to defend. That somehow, the lit-up numbers on the scoreboard are indicative of good or poor sportsmanship.

The implications of this mindset are scary.

First of all, it assumes to change the nature of the game. If the worry is that the other team might get its feelings hurt — who cares? Sports are not about feelings. As the old movie line goes, “There’s no crying in baseball.” The same holds true for basketball, and football, and everything else. There’s nothing in the rulebook about tailoring your playing style to the other team’s emotional vulnerability. There’s a reason we show games on ESPN, not Lifetime.

If you sign up to play a sport, whatever your age, you should accept everything that comes along with it. If you’re not good enough, you take your lumps and accept it. You can use that as fuel to improve yourself, or accept the reality that someone was simply better than you at something. But it shouldn’t matter if your feelings get hurt by the numbers on the scoreboard. Nobody cares. Nobody should care, anyway. Except for the players and coaches who want to get better.

Furthermore, to penalize Pikeville for succeeding — especially for succeeding in spectacular fashion — is to send the message that success isn’t welcome. That you shouldn’t strive to become awesome at what you do. That, at best, you should only be slightly better than the next guy. If the school board would cancel the season because Pikeville did so well, but would not have done so had they lost, that essentially says that failure is valued more highly than success. It’s more moral to be bad at what you do than to be exceptional at it.

Imagine what that teaches our youth. Imagine this country’s future if the next generation thinks that way.

We see this idea elsewhere in our culture. Look at the “Occupy” movement, which blames successful Wall Street types for somehow hurting the “little guy.” The fact that anyone would agree with, or even sympathize with, the ideas that the “Occupy” people are putting forth shows that doing well for yourself is becoming dangerous. The complaint that 1 percent of the population controls the majority of the wealth in this country is the perfect example. That fact should make the other 99 percent want to become part of the 1 percent. Instead, say the “Occupy” folks, it’s wrong that the 1 percent should have so much and everything should be more even.

Had humans not embraced the spoils of success, we’d all be living in trees and grass huts right now. It is only because we strive to achieve more, to be our best, that we’ve gotten where we are today, with iPads and airplanes and, you know, civilization.

Pikeville’s school district leadership should be ashamed for even suggesting that the basketball team could be penalized for being so good. To suggest such a thing undercuts the concept of education itself, to better yourself and never stop trying to get better still.

What are we teaching our children? That success is worth pursuing, or to be afraid of offending someone who might not be as successful? If the answer is the latter, then we’ve failed our children — and our society itself.

You want to talk about right and wrong, good and bad? The only immoral behavior here is coming from Pikeville’s superintendent and school board.