When Granville Central bolted to a 48-0 lead on Durham Kestrel Heights in the first quarter of a high school football game earlier this season, there was no provision to stop the action, although there was little doubt who would win.
The score was 64-0 at the half and 80-0 entering the fourth quarter. Central, mercifully, didn't score again.
But there is little mercy built into the state’s high school football rules, and that’s the way some coaches like it.
Baseball, softball (10-run differential after five innings in both sports) and soccer (nine-goal differential by halftime or after) have statewide rules in place to stop lopsided high school games, but football does not have a so-called mercy rule, which sometimes less tactfully is called the slaughter rule.
Today’s prolific offenses, which are producing unprecedented scoring totals, have made blowouts common. Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas said recently that a four-touchdown lead is no longer safe because teams can score points so quickly. There have been 13 area football games decided by 50 or more points so far this season.
State high school football coaches have the option under N.C. High School Athletic Association rules to use a continuously running clock – keeping the clock going on out of bounds plays, incomplete passes and possession changes – if they feel a game has gotten out of hand. There is no state rule that mandates a running clock or that a game be stopped in a blowout.
Enloe, which has not won a game this season, has had losses of 61-19 (to Garner, Sept. 20), 51-0 (to Sanderson, Oct. 25) and 56-13 (to Millbrook, Sept. 27), but football coach Mike Massey has no desire for a mercy rule.
Massey doesn’t want a running clock, even when his team is far behind, and he is opposed to making a rule change that would mandate a running clock or halt lopsided games early.
“We just lost to Sanderson 51-0, and I would not have appreciated terminating the game early due to a mercy rule,” Massey said. “In fact, we were offered a running clock, and I declined it because our team (players and coaches) needs to learn how to handle adversity and continue to fight even when winning may be out of reach. I declined a running clock against Garner for the same reason.
“I think there is value in building character in players in games in which the score is lopsided. There is a tremendous opportunity to teach players how to finish and reiterate the importance of perseverance in life and sports.”
‘We want to play’
Enloe junior cornerback Freddie Brown rejected the idea that the players want the game to be over early in lopsided games.
“We want to play and compete until the end,” he said. “Don’t stop the game. We want to play.”
Area coaches are divided over whether the state’s high school sports association should establish a rule to deal with lopsided scores. Mandating a running clock or stopping a game has received limited support, according to NCHSAA officials.
“It has been mentioned in the past, but we really haven’t heard from our football coaches about the need for a mercy rule,” said Mark Dreibelbis, an assistant commissioner of the NCHSAA, who works with the national football rules committee.
“I honestly don’t believe the coaches see a need for it. We’ve had a few games this year when the score got out of hand, but I think our coaches generally do a very good job using a balanced approach. They don’t want to rub it in, but they want to get some of their reserves into game.”
East Wake coach John Poulnott says the mercy rule can cost young athletes a chance to deal with setbacks.
“Life is full of adversity, and teaching our kids to walk away from them won’t help them learn well-needed life lessons,” Poulnott said.
But other coaches – such as Holly Springs’ Will Orbin, who played under a mercy rule while in Georgia – and Southeast Raleigh coach Marvin Burke believe the NCHSAA should consider a way to stop blowout games.
Understanding both sides
Riverside coach David Hackney supports a rule to shorten or speed up games.
“I think the NCHSAA should consider a version of it such as shortening quarters and/or having a running clock after a score reaches a certain threshold,” Hackney said. “Many coaches already practice this when a game is out of hand, but if this is a state rule it saves them the embarrassment (of asking).”
Smithfield-Selma coach David Lawhon, whose club is 0-10, has asked that the clock be run in some lopsided games, but said he isn’t sure whether he’d want a rule to be written.
“I like having a gentleman’s agreement,” Lawhon said. “We’ve had a few games where I’ve asked to run the clock, but for the most part, the other coaches have put in their twos, threes and fours. There have been a couple of exceptions, but for the most part coaches understand your situation. Most coaches have been on both sides of blowouts.”
Athens Drive coach Chris Martin can envision the rule being optional and being applied if the coaches agree before the game starts. That would be similar to the current rule on playing overtime in nonconference games.
Leesville Road coach Chad Smothers said a 35-point margin could trigger a running clock, but the game would return to normal rules if the margin was reduced.
Many coaches say that because teams play a relatively few games, stopping games would limit the opportunity for some players to ever play.
Franklinton ran only four plays in the second half in a 59-8 win over Northwest Halifax because a running clock was used. Rams coach Jeremy Buck wanted a chance to use more reserves, but couldn’t.
‘Responsibility’ to team
The National Federation of State High School Association writes the high school football rule book, but doesn’t provide for a mercy rule except to say each state association can set its own parameters on whether to stop lopsided games or use a running clock.
Twenty states have provisions to stop football games if the point differential reaches a predetermined point. Thirty-four states require a running clock when the point differential reaches a certain point.
Tim Buchanan, the coach at Aledo, Texas, who faced a bullying complaint after his team beat Western Hills High 91-0, reportedly had pulled his starters in the first half.
Buchanan, whose 9-0 club averages 66.6 points and has a 60.0 point scoring differential, told reporters that he wasn’t going to tell his reserves to not score.
“I’m not gonna tell a kid that comes out here and practices six to seven hours a week trying to get ready for football games, ‘Hey, you can’t score a touchdown if you get in, you’re gonna have to take a knee,’ because that may be the only touchdown that kid gets to score in his high school career,” Buchanan said.
Broughton coach Billy Lane said Broughton has been on the wrong side of some lopsided games, but he doesn’t think games should be stopped.
“A running clock is sufficient. That does a great deal to speed the game along and end it quickly,” he said.
“I read about the 91-0 game and I think it’s absurd that the coach was accused of bullying. ...While the coach shouldn’t intentionally embarrass his opponent, his first responsibility is to his own team – to prepare them for the playoffs.”