Sports writers and analysts have been highly critical of the Wisconsin Badgers football team for outscoring the Indiana Hoosiers by 63 points this past Saturday, of which 24 points were scored in the 4th quarter, once the game had already been decided. The media have taken the Badgers coach Bret Bielema to task for running up the score, thereby showing and teaching a lack of sportsmanship and professionalism.
People have downplayed the unsportsmanlike conduct of the Badgers coach by arguing that fans pay big bucks to be entertained at football games and they expect to get their money’s worth at each event. If the teams basically ignore the 4th quarter because the game is out of reach, then the fans are being shortchanged. While understandable, I don’t agree with that point of view. As a fan myself, I strongly believe that sportsmanship is important, particularly in college athletics. If we don’t teach our “scholar athletes” the concept of sportsmanship while they are in school, where can we reasonably expect them to learn it?
Others may claim, as Tom Brady of the New England Patriots once did, that blowouts afford the winning team some free time to experiment with new plays and different schemes to help improve for the future. This, too, is a valid claim, but one I also disagree with. A team probably has a better chance of improving and honing their plays and skills while facing their second unit during practice than by experimenting against a team that has already given up. In fact, the second unit would be the ideal group to experiment with since they are familiar with the first unit’s tendencies and know the playbook and routes better than any other team. It would be that much more difficult to execute plays against the practice squad than by abusing a team that has thrown in the towel.
As a general rule, no team is ethically permitted to run up the score intentionally, because it demeans and belittles their opponents. In fact, the Bible provides numerous examples of legislation that promotes compassion for others that can be applied to this situation. My favorite example is the obligation to assist a person in unloading a burden off of their animal. The animal is in pain and the Bible requires us to lift the burden off its back. Our sages point out that if we are required to act compassionately towards animals, then certainly we are required to show great compassion to humans; to pick them up when they fall down and lift the burdens off their backs.
That being said, I believe that there are times when running up the score may be justified, and the situation with the Badgers last week is one of them. Let me explain.
In the BCS world of College Football winning games by a decisive margin makes a difference. While the BCS computers don’t factor in margin of victory, the voters for the Coaches and Harris polls, do take notice of them and rank teams ahead of others as a result. Had the Badgers packed it in after 3 quarters, their victory may not have looked as overpowering as it did and consequently, they may have suffered in the rankings.
The Badgers are trying to maintain their ranking ahead of Ohio St. and Michigan St. One of those three teams will earn a trip to the Rose bowl. If all 3 end the season with identical records, (and it looks like that will be the case) the highest BCS ranked team of the three will be awarded an invitation to Pasadena. As of now, the Badgers have the highest BCS ranking, and beating a team by a wide margin helped solidify their standing. So, yes, there was plenty of incentive to win; and win big. Winning games by making a statement does influence the BCS standings.
For those who are skeptical of my claim, let me remind you that the #3 ranked TCU Horned Frogs (what a great name) lost some ground to the #4 Boise St Broncos last week because they beat their opponent on Saturday by only 5 points.
Of course, one could argue that teaching sportsmanship is more important than the Rose Bowl. While I understand the sentiment, I believe that sportsmanship can be taught in other ways without costing a team the chance to fulfill its athletic dream. The students who play football for Wisconsin dream of going to the Rose Bowl and work towards that goal every day. Even their opponents from Indiana share that dream and thus should fully understand why the Badgers ran up the score. They did it so they could improve their chances to make the Rose Bowl. The Hoosiers would have done the same thing were the situation reversed
You can’t compare what the Badgers did to what Derek Jeter did (And I was critical of him). Jeter didn’t deserve to be awarded first base. He got there by the grace of the umpire (and a little acting). The Badgers played the game to win, and did so in three quarters. They played the last quarter to help make their case to play in a bowl game, not to embarrass their opponent.
Therefore, I believe that teams in serious contention for a bowl game can ethically run up the score; teams that are out of contention should not.
In closing, I couldn’t say it any better than how Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell summed it up following their game against Wisconsin, on Saturday: “This day and age, with the B.C.S., it’s on us to stop them.” Correct. Teams in contention for bowl games should not be required to stop themselves, and risk damaging their ultimate goal.