Lopsided scores fuel sportsmanship debate

As the game deteriorated into a one-sided, fast break dunk-fest and the score became even more embarrassingly lopsided against his team, Tim Collins stood on the sideline in front of his bench in sheer disbelief, pleading for the trouncing to stop.

Collins, the varsity boys basketball coach at Big Foot High School in Walworth, Wis., couldn’t believe the bizarre series of events taking place on the court. East Troy, the No. 1 team in the state in Division 3, was full-court pressing despite holding a 78-point lead against Big Foot in the fourth quarter of the teams’ Feb. 2 contest.

“I thought maybe at first all they wanted to do was hit 100 points,” Collins said. “Then it appeared that they wanted to beat us by 100. I yelled down once to their coach, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ when they continued to press after they went up by 78 points. I called a timeout then, and they continued to press. They just continued to do it.”

East Troy finally pulled its press and some of its starters with less than three minutes remaining and went on to pummel Big Foot, 116-40 — an outcome that quickly made the rounds on websites and Internet message boards across the country.

Big Foot trailed, 62-11, at halftime in a game Collins described as over within the first few minutes.

“They had more dunks in the first half than we had points,” Collins said. “And I don’t think you need backdoor alley-oops and full-court pressure and fast-break drills and two-hand dunks once you’re ahead by 51 at halftime.”

While Collins admitted that Big Foot, which is just 3-16 this season, wasn’t particularly good against East Troy, he said alternatives existed to avoid humiliating his team late in the game.

In the aftermath of the blowout, East Troy coach Darryl Rayfield did not back down from the way he coached. He said his players needed to compete in a full game to prepare for the postseason. He also said his team did not have much depth and used a rotation of six players, which is why there were few substitutions taking place. Rayfield did, however, have two freshmen reserves who remained on the bench almost the entire game.

Had Rayfield known the level of attention his East Troy team would receive for such a monstrous victory, he said he would have made things even worse for Big Foot High School.

“I don’t apologize for anything,” Rayfield said this week. “I’d do it again. Only this time, I’d probably score 130, 140.”

The result of the East Troy-Big Foot basketball game is another example in a long line of lopsided high school sporting events that calls into question ethics in sports. Where is the line drawn between a team competing to its fullest and displaying the correct level of sportsmanship when a game becomes out of hand?

It’s an answer that isn’t necessarily always so clear-cut.

A fine line

Collins is the first to admit East Troy is one of the most talented teams in the 34-year history of the Rock Valley Conference.

The Trojans are 17-2 and possess a starting frontcourt consisting of players who stand 6-foot-9, 6-9 and 6-8. They have won 11 games by more than 30 points, including the last six in a row, and very well could win a state championship. Though the 76-point victory against Big Foot was the most lopsided this season, East Troy has also won games by margins of 59, 48, 48 and 45 points.

But Collins, who has coached both girls and boys basketball at the varsity level, said a measure of compassion needs to be displayed against inferior opponents at some point.

“In the first half, anything is game,” he said. “You’ve got to let kids play for the first half. Any time it was 20 points in girls, I figured that was it. In boys, I would say it would be 30 points.”

Sportsmanship, in its most basic definition, is fairness in following the rules of the game. And Rayfield pointed out that, technically, his team did nothing against those rules. Rather, he claimed Collins exhibited poor sportsmanship by paying too much attention to East Troy’s team.

“It’s poor sportsmanship to get caught up in anything the other team is doing,” Rayfield said. “I’m not saying to his team, ‘How come you gave up coaching?’ That’s a form of poor sportsmanship. Or to yell down at the other team’s bench or rile the crowd up that basically you’re giving up. That’s poor sportsmanship.”

Steve Showalter is the head coach of Germantown High School, the No. 1-ranked team in Division I, the biggest classification of Wisconsin high school sports. Showalter’s Germantown team has seen East Troy up close, beating the Trojans, 74-52, in a game earlier this season.

Although he wasn’t present for the East Troy-Big Foot game, Showalter can understand the perilous position between competition and compassion.

“I don’t know that you can define a line,” Showalter said. “I don’t know that there is any written definition of that line. I don’t want the other team to take it easy on me if we’re behind. It would be more embarrassing to me to have the other team standing there with the ball or refusing to play the way the game is meant to be played.”

Jeffrey Anders, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, is involved in sports psychology. He, too, said the line in varsity athletics is difficult to define.

“If that particular team plays their game playing full court the whole game and that’s how they’re coached and keep their edge,” Anders said, “I think they should continue to play their game.”

Whether East Troy truly crossed the line is up for debate. Collins believed he received at least a modicum of resolution, saying that East Troy’s athletic director, principal and superintendent each sent him an email of apology in the days following the Feb. 2 game.

Blowouts and routs

This is not the first instance of a high school sporting event becoming out of hand between two unevenly matched teams, although it seemingly occurs far less frequently in boys basketball. Examples take place on an annual basis, but some remain etched into national lore years after the final score is recorded.

A recent example came in April 2011, when Richardson Lake Highlands High School defeated Dallas Samuell either 53-0 or 57-0 — there were too many runs to accurately keep track — during a varsity baseball game in Texas. It was the most lopsided prep baseball game in state history, even though Highlands coach Jay Higgins used three pitchers who had never pitched and had players stop at first base on every hit.

The result prompted a change in the mercy rules in the local school district, allowing blowouts to be stopped after three or four innings instead of five.

“It was something that we weren’t proud of,” Higgins said, “which is kind of unreal that you win a ballgame and you feel bad about it, but that’s the kind of game it was.”

Higgins, who is in the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame and coached for 44 years before retiring last season, said he had never seen a game quite like it. He faulted media members for bringing attention to some games, while others fade into the backdrop of the sporting culture.

“They’re always looking for sensational headlines that can capture a reader’s interest,” Higgins said. “Since that game we’ve played, I’ve seen worse scores than that in basketball.”

Higgins’ outcome was similar to one that took place in girls basketball in the Dallas area in 2009, when The Covenant School infamously defeated Dallas Academy, 100-0. The halftime score was 59-0.

Covenant coach Micah Grimes was fired in the fallout from the victory on the same day he sent an email to the Dallas Morning News in which he refused to apologize “for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”

Sometimes, a blowout victory is simply unavoidable, no matter what strategy the winning coach employs.

In October 2008, Naples High School in Florida defeated Estero, 91-0, in football, even though Naples ran just 31 plays and the coach kept most of his best players on the sideline for the entire game. Naples coach Bill Kramer soon received angry emails from Estero parents upset with the margin of victory. He also received some from angry Naples parents who wanted to see their kids play more to pad their stats.

Of course, not every team allows itself to be embarrassed until the game ends.

In 1990, high school basketball standout Lisa Leslie, a future WNBA all-star, scored 101 points in the first half as her Morningside High School team in Inglewood, Calif., took a 102-24 halftime lead against South Florence High. Leslie was just four points shy of tying Cheryl Miller’s eight-year-old national single-game record of 105 points, but South Florence, down to just four players, refused to come out for the second half and forfeited the game, nullifying Leslie’s point total. The forfeit resulted in a 2-0 victory in the official scorebook.

Miller’s record eventually was broken in 2006, when Epiphanny Prince scored 113 points in Murry Bergtraum High School’s 137-32 victory against Brandeis High School in Manhattan, N.Y.

Oddly enough, Anders said that from a psychological perspective, these kinds of outcomes can actually have more adverse effects on the team that wins.

“I think that a beatdown really produces a sense of false superiority and false security and really thinking that you’re quite good when you may not be,” Anders said. “The team that’s on the low side bounces back pretty quickly.

“Like all things in life, a beatdown in a sports contest is not permanent and it’s how people cope with it. I think that kids of all levels come back.”

Bitter feelings persist

The adults are the ones who hold a much longer memory about such a contentious contest.

Rayfield isn’t sure why his team has been singled out nationally among the countless blowouts that take place every year, although he blames Collins for making a spectacle of the game.

“It’s really kind of funny that it just blew up for no reason at all,” Rayfield said, “other than another coach from somewhere spending half of his game worrying about what our team was doing instead of what his own team was doing.”

Collins insists he wasn’t trying to garner national attention by questioning the other team’s motives. And he makes it clear that he does not fault the East Troy players in any way. They were merely acting as their coach had instructed them to do.

He said people should have left the gym that night commenting on how talented East Troy’s team was this season. Instead, the talk was about the way in which East Troy won.

“At some point we have to put a competitive team on the floor. I fully understand that,” Collins said. “I’ve been around the sport my whole life. We realize we don’t have a great team this year. We didn’t need it to be emphasized to us to that degree. And that’s our beef.”

Rayfield, who has coached off and on for 25 years at the junior high, assistant varsity and varsity levels, said his teams actually had been on the other end of the scoreboard in the past. He once coached his daughter’s Lake Geneva Badger High School team in a girls summer league game and lost, 110-14, to a school from Milwaukee.

“I’ve never been in this thing to ever hurt kids in any way or any families in any way,” Rayfield said. “It’s not about that. Hey, in the real world, there’s going to be times when things don’t go well for you.”

East Troy may go on to win a state championship this season. But what many around the state and even the country likely will remember is an otherwise meaningless game in February in which the blurred lines between competition and sportsmanship once again clashed with controversial results.

“And actually,” Rayfield said, “it could have been a lot worse.”

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