The Sportsmanship Paradox

I’ve been getting quite a few comments about my recent citation in Tuesday Morning Quarterback (TMQ). For those unfamiliar with TMQ, it is a weekly analysis of the previous week’s football games written by Gregg Easterbrook whom you may recall was involved in an overblown kerfuffle some time ago over some comments he made on his blog. Thankfully, NFL.com saw past the stupidity and now hosts on its website one of the most thoughtful, articulate, and entertaining football analysts in the media.


A recurring theme in TMQ is the criticism of teams who engage in the unsportsmanlike conduct of running up the score when the outcome of the game has been fairly settled. For example, in the September 6th column, TMQ admonished Texas for calling plays while leading 60-3 with 2:07 remaining whereas the sportsmanlike thing to do would be to sit on the ball and simply let time expire.
While TMQ will be harsher on colleges and high-schools who engage in score inflation, Easterbrook isn’t exactly thrilled with the professionals either:

    The balance is different in the pros, where the first reason for the games is the entertainment of the audience, and where the players are well-paid grownups. There is no doubt the Lambeau Field crowd was better entertained because Favre stayed in and the Packers padded their point total; and while it is wrong for poor-sport high-school or college coaches to hurt the feelings of players on lesser teams by running up the score, the New Orleans Saints are professionals who know their private feelings are irrelevant to a professional event. Still, yours truly was uncomfortable when Favre threw two consecutive passes from the Saints’ 8-yard line with Green Bay ahead 42-3; this was an obvious attempt to humiliate an opponent.

The question I had asked TMQ was regarding an item in the October 18th edition:

    At the end of the first quarter, the host Colts trailed 17-0 — what good luck! When a team is way behind in the second half, obviously that’s bad news; to be way behind in the first half is not necessarily fatal since plenty of time remains, while the opponent may grow complacent. Football’s great comebacks have happened when Team A jumps far ahead so fast there is time for Team B to recover.

The obvious solution to not letting a team get back in the game would be to – wait for it – run up the score. I had also cited a few examples of significant comebacks which could have been avoided had the winning team continued to play on all cylinders. Furthermore, a team who does blow a huge lead would rightly be mocked the following day as having choked a game away and not having played for the full four quarters.
Thus as I am wont to do, I asked for some objective criteria/metric for determining at which point in a game can we consider a team to be trying to run up the score. Based on a history of comebacks, TMQ concluded:

    The greatest comeback in NFL history was from a 32-point deficit, the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I from a 31-point deficit… So here’s my rule. A team can never be accused of running up the score in the first half. But once into the third quarter, teams above the 31-32 point margin that are still passing, faking kicks, calling time-outs and so on are running up the score.

And so I was satisfied.
There was another point I had made in the e-mail regarding the general ethical question of score inflation. The assumption is that when a team runs up the score of a game, they do so for the purposes of either inflating their ego or defeating their opponents. My understanding of the underlying logic is that a Win is the only reward for a victory and the primary goal for any team playing in a game. Thus once the Win is assured anything else would be superfluous to the core of the game and thus only serving the ego.
However, there are times when score inflation does help a team beyond the Win. TMQ noted in its second criticism of Texas Tech that its 80-21 win over Sam Houston State helped bump them from 19th to 16th in the USAToday poll of college football rankings. Thus I argued that if there is an extra-contest benefit to score inflation, then there is “team oriented” purpose to running up the score and it need not be simply for statistics padding or ego. Meaning, if a team runs up a score to improve its standing in the rankings – or remember the antiquated PA/PF tiebreaker in the pros – then score inflation need not necessarily be synonymous with poor sportsmanship.
TMQ didn’t answer this, but I’m not losing any sleep either. Any thoughts?

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One Response

  1. Danny
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