The current scandal of the week in the NFL is the “poor sportsmanship” shown by New England Patriots when they continued to play aggressively against the Washington Redskins long after the result of the game was beyond doubt (a Google news search on “running up the score” this afternoon yielded over 600 hits).
Sportsmanship aside, there are practical reasons for taking your foot off the gas in these situations. Taking key players out of the game eliminates the risk of injury to those players and also allows their backups to gain valuable game experience. While this is a perfectly valid argument, there are several equally practical considerations that may have led Bill Bellicheck to keep the starters on:
- It is difficult for the starters to prepare for a 60 minute grudge match against a good team, like for example the Colts (their next opponent), sitting on the sideline. As bad as the Redskins proved to be, there is no substitute for game time.
- It appears that Bellicheck is trying to foster a play full throttle for 60 minutes mentality, which is just the kind of mindset that you would want a team with superbowl aspirations to have.
- Absolutely walloping the Redskins, who were considered to have a solid defense, is the kind of thing that puts fear in the minds of the Patriots future opposition and gives them an advantage every time they step on the field.
- It was a home game and the home fans did not buy their expensive tickets to see the second string come on in the third quarter and run out the clock. They came to see Tom Brady score touchdowns, which is exactly what they got.
Considering the sportsmanship aspect, it seems incredible that playing hard play hard till the final whistle could possibly be considered incompatible with sporting values. This attitude is certainly not prevalent in other sports. In soccer it is considered insulting to the opposition to substitute in second string players regardless of the score. While in rugby, kicking for points (rather than attempting to score tries) while sitting on a big lead is liable to get a team vigorously booed.
From my own experience of being on the short end of sporting blowouts, there is nothing worse than a team that lets up on you. There is a particularly hollow feeling that comes from not being worthy of an opponent’s best effort and little to no satisfaction in consolation points scored against a team that isn’t really trying to stop you.
Regardless of what you believe to be sporting, calling the game early is not what fans pay to see and is definitely not what professional athletes are very well paid to do.