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.

3 Responses to “Running up the Score”

  1. Trent Mays


    I appreciate the insight and challenging look into this aspect of our lives that has morphed from what some have referred to as a pastime into a full fledged contributor to culture change and societal norms. The reminder that character growth is a desired outcome of sports holds for neighborhood pickup contests and local league competitions, even to observing ones child or grandchild as a fan in the stands. Thanks for highlighting that being a ‘good sport’ requires more thought and instruction than coach calling a play to take a knee at the opponents five yard line with a minute left in the game.

  2. Where is the line


    Interesting to have read your article and then ran across this one:

    Does your comment about leading by 6 touchdowns apply when you are winning by 10 touchdowns…or 17!?

    It appears that blowout scores are not entirely uncommon from the early 1900s:

    Kudos on crafting an article with unexpected relevance from someone that pays little attention at sports.

    I don’t have especially insightful thoughts about the matter, but here’s my layman’s reaction.
    I feel like in circumstances such as these there should be a graceful forfeit like in chess or boxing (or chess boxing). If the morale of the losing team is too low to continue and the winning team is at risk of dying from too much pride and machismo it would be nice if there was an escape valve. There is an imagined risk in contact sports that people in these circumstances could experience a greater risk of physical injury from distraction, malaise, and just not trying as hard when your opponent didn’t get the memo and proceeds to tackle or sack you just as hard regardless of the circumstances.

    I appreciate your argument about how it is not immoral or cruel to continue trying as hard as you can as the winning team. I often have empathy for the losing teams (or individuals) of the world and once victory is assured I am inclined to switch goals and want the opposing team to have a chance to accomplish their goals. I may take the opportunity to try strategies that are suboptimal but rarely explored. If I’m winning regardless, I’ll stop trying to take advantage of naïve mistakes and point out suggestions for stronger plays and act as an encourager to my opponent(s).

    If you’re already guaranteed to win, why not find an additional way to win that happens to allow your opponent to feel better as well?

    It is critically important how you treat your opponent both verbally and (especially in contact sports) physically. Taunting and rougher-than-necessary conduct which varies by activity both seem particularly out of place in these circumstances from the winning side which you merely mention as an aside: “[virtue demands] players not ‘rub it in’ when winning big. Mockery or otherwise belittling one’s opponent when beating them badly is always wrong”. Well-said! But giant wins don’t exist in a vacuum and, in my experience, I have seen a lot of people fail this moral test. Even people I admire and look up to have shown truly abhorrent colors in excessive victory.

    From my perspective, human nature is bent and there’s an excessive chance of unseemly winning behavior ushered in by mammoth wins (which doesn’t mean they can’t be done well). The score in the history book doesn’t and won’t reflect the way that the winning team conducted themselves. History in a final score can’t address the sideways comments whispered or yelled at the line of scrimmage. You’ll hopefully forgive me for thinking less of my fellow man during times of great division and civil strife and contentious, contemptuous behavior on full display.

    Thanks for expanding my perception of the possibly moral-rightness of scoring as highly as possible in competition. As the player in the winning and losing seat, I know how much conduct matters and I hope that isn’t lost on the person taking the main theme of your article as a license for winning AND cruel behavior while they do it.

    • Jim Spiegel


      These are some interesting observations and questions. Thank you. I grant that one context where restraint might be appropriate is in certain one-sided football contests, at least on defense, since football is an essentially contact sport. But, of course, there are rules in football to avoid “unnecessary roughness,” so worries about injury to players is actually a separate issue from running up the score. After all, players on an inferior team can be severely injured even in a close game. Similarly for abhorrent behavior in “excessive victory.” Such bad behavior may accompany a lopsided win, but it is not essential to it. After all, again, abhorrent behavior in athletic competition is quite common even in close games.


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