The Mercy Rule

Most football fans remember the Buffalo Bills’ historic 32-point, come-from-behind victory against the Houston Oilers in the 1993 playoffs.

How about several years ago when the Cleveland Indians dug themselves out of a 12-0 hole in the fourth inning against the Seattle Mariners to swipe a 15-14 victory?

And what basketball fan can forget the University of Kentucky overcoming a 31-point deficit in the final 16 minutes to defeat Louisiana State University in an NCAA basketball game?

These were great games with memorable efforts and athletes who refused to quit--no matter the score.

Yet, when it comes to youth sports, I often wonder if young athletes are missing out on these same opportunities. Now keep in mind that I’m not talking about the tykes that play T-Ball and those under 7or 8 years old. I’m talking about competitive sports for kids. It’s about the same time they are whisked off the field when the deficit is deemed too large to come back from; they’re shielded from the adversity of dealing with a double-digit margin on the scoreboard.

I’m talking about the mercy rule.

Perhaps your program has struggled with this issue and what is really best for young athletes. And I’m sure that final decision on whether or not to put the rule in place proved to be a difficult one.

It’s easy to see why.

Daunting Deficits

In youth sports, the mercy rule is most often used in baseball and softball programs. It states that if a team falls behind by a set number of runs at a particular point, the game is stopped.

So, in your program, if Team A takes an 11-0 lead over Team B in the third inning of a scheduled five-inning game, a mercy rule halts the contest so there is no risk of the scoreboard lighting up even larger numbers for the dominating team.

Does a mercy rule save the team getting trampled that day from further embarrassment? Are kids thankful for getting off the field without having to endure an endless parade of runs scored against them?

Or, more importantly, are we teaching children that when things don’t go their way and they encounter difficulties, it’s OK to give up and pack it in? Are we sending the message that simply doing your best--regardless of what the scoreboard reads--isn’t good enough to warrant playing one more inning in a 15-0 ballgame?

If kids were polled on this issue, I guess they would be divided.

Let’s face it, some kids--especially those who are forced to sign up by their parents--take setbacks really hard, or aren’t all that interested to begin with, and would rather head home and do something else with their friends than tolerate another inning or two during a blowout.

Meanwhile, those highly competitive youngsters who crave competition and view no score as insurmountable despise the mercy rule more than weekend homework assignments. As far as these kids are concerned, they love playing sports and don’t want the game they have looked forward to playing in all week cut short simply because the opponent happens to be much better.

Your Program’s Stance

I constantly write about how youth sports have the ability to teach life skills. If you’ve been reading this column over the years, you probably know that I refer to youth sports as the “outdoor classroom of life” because I truly believe that many of the values learned on fields, courts and rinks can’t be learned anywhere else.

As a high-school and college wrestler, I have been putting some of the values I learned on the mat to use in my life for many years. You can learn a lot about yourself in both victories and defeats. You can apply many lessons from the close wins and blowout losses to handling what occurs in your professional and personal life.

Does the mercy rule deprive children of learning valuable life skills, or does it safeguard children from unnecessary humiliation?

Recreation professionals have dealt with this issue for years, and parents of young athletes have been in programs both in favor as well as opposed to the rule.

It’s a tough call, indeed.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, which is available on He can be reached via e-mail at