By Susan Elizabeth Shepard
The quality of mercy is so strained that bullying accusations falleth like a Texas thunderstorm, flash flooding the place beneath. Last Friday, the Fort Worth-area Aledo Bearcats blew out the Western Hills Cougars 91-0, the kind of thing that will happen when a team that is giving up an average of 47 points per game meets one that scores an average of 66. It was probably demoralizing for Western Hills to get beaten by nearly a hundred to zero, but it wasn't national news until a parent of one of the Cougars filed an anti-bullying complaint against Aledo. With a click on the school's website, the parent alleged that, yes, beating another team very badly constituted bullying. As all bullying complaints, Aledo High's principal had to investigate and report on it.
The charges were cleared on Tuesday. Any other result would have been surprising, given that football doesn't seem to qualify as a method of bullying under the Texas Education Code ("… conduct must exploit an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim through written or verbal expression or physical conduct; and interferes with a student's education ..."), nor did the complaint have support from the purported bullying victims. The losing coach, John Naylor, didn't have any issues with how the game was played. Tim Buchanan, Aledo's coach, took no joy in the blowout. So far, no one is going on the record to say that was an appropriate parental response, although few have mentioned the single biggest reason: It trivializes the problem of bullying.
When bullying is involved in high school football, it likely takes place within teams, not on the field. And I don't doubt that it does. High schools are sadistic places. They isolate teenagers in a group of nothing but other teenagers, who can be vicious. Their executive functioning isn't yet fully-developed. They do cruel things to each other and sometimes drive classmates to suicide. But losing a football game is not the same as being a bullying victim. Equating the two is a kind of hyperbole that makes it easier to dismiss the severity of the latter with a "man up!"
Many Texans commenting on a Texas Monthly Facebook thread called the Texan-ness of the reporting parent into question. "Parents transplants from Cali or NY?" "if I was a gambler, I would bet they are NOT TEXANS~" "I'd be curious if the dad is a native Texan or a transplant from some wussyfied state." And my personal favorite, "They must have moved there from Commiefornia," because I bet you could get that guy going on how mercy rules = redistribution of wealth.
Texas does actually play high school football by its own set of rules, those of NCAA football. Save for Massachusetts, every other state uses the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations. Each state sets (or declines to set) its own mercy rules in accordance with the NFSHSA guidelines, but NCAA football makes no provisions for stopping a blowout aside from letting the clock run (see: Oklahoma vs. Texas A&M, 77-0, 2003). And that's what Buchanan did.
It didn't help. Buchanan told the Forth Worth Star-Telegram that after the game, "You'd have thought we got beat. I looked around and asked, 'Is there anyone here that feels good?'" What an Eric Taylor moment! No one wants to win too easily or handily. It's a conflict -- losers need to take a beating, but the winner shouldn't feel too good about doling one out. Think more, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you," less, "Stop hitting yourself!"
So if a blowout isn't bullying, is it bad in some other way? Do high school football players need to be protected from crushing athletic defeat? There is precious little mercy in Texas and none on the football field, but the rules are the same for everyone on the field. Even if competitors come from unequal ground, common due to how our public schools are funded, a 6-0 team and a 0-6 team put the same number of players on the field and play a game that has set rules, scoring and time constraints.
Limiting the severity of failure or the margin of victory does smack of the kind of regulatory interference that is so unpopular in Texas. There's no restriction on how bad you can lose at anything else in high school. If a kid is getting crushed in Lincoln-Douglas debate, he or she just has to stay at the podium and keep sucking until her time is up. If the students in the One-Act Play competition are stumbling on their lines or knocking over props, they don't get to call it early. They just lose. And losing really badly is a possibility for any competitor.
Which is fine, really. Blowouts are good training for being a Texan. Some people get 91 points and some get nothing and pretty often that's just a function of being born in the right neighborhood. If you want to ease the sting, don't embarrass kids by ending games early, just change the scoring. Next time there's a 50-point differential, stop adding points to the winning team's score and start taking them from the losing team. 50 to -41 at least looks a little better than 91-0, and might stop parents from trivializing real problems because of an ugly but honest score.
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Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a writer in Austin.