In the world of sports it is common to hear people complain about teams “running up the score”—playing hard to score additional points or runs even after the outcome of the game has been decided. Some cases of running up the score in professional football and baseball are legendary. It is supposedly an “unwritten rule” that such superfluous scoring is unsportsmanlike, impolite, or even immoral. I have never been moved by this complaint, which, as a huge sports fan, I have heard hundreds of times over the years—about athletic competitions at all levels, from pee-wee soccer to NFL football.
To those who make such complaints I have often asked why they take offense at teams who run up the score. What exactly is wrong with playing your hardest even when your winning the game is no longer in doubt? The standard response is that this humiliates the losing team or that scoring “needless” points makes the other “look bad.” Some even appeal to the Golden Rule—would you want the team you’re playing to run up the score on you?
None of these arguments have ever moved me, and I’ve often wondered why. I was prompted to reflect a bit more deeply on the question after my son’s high school soccer team was on both ends of blowouts in consecutive games, losing 9-0 and then a few days later winning 8-1. In each case I was made aware that some parents were bothered by the winning team’s piling up the points long after the game’s outcome was decided. But in neither case was I personally bothered by this. Why not?
First, to address the standard arguments, it could be said that any outplaying of one’s opponent “humiliates” them or makes them “look bad.” After all, by defeating your opponent you literally make them a loser. Isn’t that humiliating in itself? So if avoiding humiliating situations is so important, then one should avoid competitions entirely. But, of course, that would be silly. And as for the Golden Rule, at least speaking for myself, this doesn’t enjoin me to stop playing my hardest because I have never wanted my opponent in any sport to stop doing their best. In fact, I would find it patronizing if my opponent decided to “take it easy” on me because they were beating me so badly. I would feel insulted and, yes, offended by this. So, for me, the Golden Rule dictates that I always try my hardest against my opponent. (Though I must admit that I have sometimes failed at this, such as when playing a vastly inferior racquetball player.) Of course, I am referring to contexts of serious competition, as opposed to when, say, playing a sport in an instructional context, when bowling or playing a board game on a date, or when teaching one’s kid how to play certain sport.
There are several positive reasons to keep doing your best even when winning big. First, to not try your hardest is to give your opponent a false sense of their own ability and level of achievement. To return to the Golden Rule, when I play someone in racquetball, among other things, since I am a serious player, I want to improve my sense of my own ability when playing them. If they take a big lead and then “let up” when a comeback is virtually out of the question, this invites me to think I am better than I really am, and this does me a disservice. It is not merciful to give me an inflated sense of my own ability. It is a deceit dressed in compassion’s clothes.
Second, there is the matter of discipline and self-control. When the win/loss outcome of a game is no longer in question, this tempts both teams to get lazy. If teams are only playing to win, then I suppose it might make sense for players to relax and not try so hard in such cases. But, as the old adage goes, it isn’t just about whether you win or lose. It is how you play the game. Even when losing by six touchdowns in the fourth quarter you can and should still strive to play the game well. And so it goes for the team who is on the winning end of such a blowout. In other words, no matter the score and no matter whether one is winning or losing, you should always do your best. This is to honor the game as well as your opponent. Playing your best is always the most dignified thing. But I would hasten to add that dignity and athletic virtue also demands that players not “rub it in” when winning big. Mockery or otherwise belittling one’s opponent when beating them badly is always wrong. And here is yet another way in which lopsided games provide opportunities for self-control. Such games challenge winning players to restrain impulses to be haughty or arrogant, and this is an important moral skill.
This leads me to my final point in defense of playing your hardest even when winning by a large margin. A severe trouncing provides the losing team with an opportunity to display poise even under adverse circumstances. Athletic competitions are a powerful and important training context for real life. They are most important as means to ends, not ends in themselves. The achievements of putting a rubber ball through a metal ring or hitting a cowhide sphere with a maple wood stick are essentially meaningless in themselves. But we contrive the games of basketball and baseball in order to develop character and provide entertainment for those who observe. This means that sports are most valuable as preparations for real life challenges, difficulties, triumphs, and failures. And among the many real life situations that we all experience are humiliating and failures. To have experienced humiliating losses in athletic contexts provides us with helpful, if painful, practice at maintaining our poise and dignity in such situations. And that is a moral good.
So there are good reasons to think that there is nothing wrong with “running up the score” in contexts of serious athletic competition, notwithstanding the common appeal to the “unwritten rule” that this is a bad thing to do. Indeed, perhaps there is a reason that this supposed unwritten rule is unwritten.