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Of records and respect, excellence and ethics

Dr. Amy Bass
Courtesy of Dr. Amy Bass
Dr. Amy Bass

Soccer isn’t known for its high scoring games. Indeed, of all the stupid reasons many Americans use to still hate on the beautiful game – ties are okay, the clock goes up instead of down, flopping – the low score of many matches tends to top the list.

A high school soccer player in Michigan might change their minds, but few are applauding his efforts. A few weeks ago, Kevin Hubbell, one of the best in his state, broke the record for the most goals in a game – 16, in fact, leading his team, Benzie Central, to a 17-0 thrashing of Kingsley High School.

The coach of Kingsley claimed that soccer was a “gentleman’s sport,” and that Hubbell’s quest for a record at the expense of his winless team had no place on the pitch.

The game stopped at halftime, with the Michigan High School Athletic Association rulebook dictating that a mercy rule must go into effect if a team is ahead by eight goals or more. But the debate about whether or not a high school team should run up the score on an opponent is ongoing, and not just in Michigan.

Lopsided scores are part of sport. Some coaches pull their starters when the numbers begin to pile up, while others use the time to try new strategies, taking a goalkeeper out or putting their fullbacks up top. But for Hubbell, and his coach, the real purpose that day was to break an individual record – to hit a number that no one ever had before.

This is not an unusual quest in sport. No one ever told Usain Bolt to slow down, or asked Michael Phelps to stop winning so many gold medals so that someone else might have a chance.

But, some might counter, soccer is a team sport. Was this the case in 2019, when the U.S. women handed Thailand the heaviest defeat in World Cup history, a 13-0 blowout? Many criticized the team for embarrassing its opponent, for celebrating each goal even as the score veered into double digits, even though Alex Morgan likely had the right to celebrate her historic five-goal performance, and 21-year-old Mallory Pugh likely earned a moment to dance when she got one in for the first time on the grand stage.

Would it have been better for the Americans to hold back, to toy with their opponent, to acknowledge that they were overmatched?

What of Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in worlds’ history, whose work continues to be underrated and undervalued by FIG – the international body that governs the sport, and refuses to grant her vaults and beam dismounts the degrees of difficulty they deserve, claiming concern that others might try what she does and land in the hospital.

There is forever a tension in sport between winning and excellence, as athletes chase victory while respecting the rules of the game and the opponents they face, perhaps especially in youth sports. Sportsmanship dictates that an athlete pursues victory ethically in a manner that demonstrates respect for the competition and the fundamental values of the game. Sports ethicists debate what is called the “anti-blowout thesis,” which argues that it is a violation of the spirit of the game to amplify the margin of victory when the win is all but inevitable.

But can a win be inevitable? What is the right action for an athlete, a team, a coach, to take in an uneven contest? While running up the score might humiliate opponents, would it be better for the superior team to ease up, to conceal their power? When jockey Ron Turcotte rode Secretariat toward the finish line in the Belmont Stakes in 1973 some 31 lengths ahead of the rest of the field, should he have pulled the horse up because his lead was insurmountable?

Not if the story of Australia’s Stephen Bradbury tells us anything. In 2002 at the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games, I sat with my jaw to the floor as I watched Bradbury take gold in the men’s short track 1000 meters. Slower and older than the rest of the field, Bradbury was dead last with 50-meters to go, and avoided the crash that took out his four competitors, including U.S. favorite Apolo Ohno.

One of the most beautiful phrases in sports might be “play again,” uttered at the end of a match in hopes that redemption might be found in the next game. As the owner of “worst to first” Red Sox shirt, I can attest that no game should ever be the final game, and while the mercy rule might have ended Kingsley High School’s humiliation on the field, the humiliation off the field has continued.

But there is hope. The Kingsley school board demanded an apology on behalf of their struggling team, and they got it, with both the Benzie Central board and coach offering words of regret about what went down on the field that day. Hopefully that dialogue will continue, perhaps with a friendly scrimmage, a no-score pickup game, or some mentoring by the powerhouse to the fledging squad still looking for its first win.

Winning might be everything. But it cannot be the only thing.

Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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