AUSTIN, Texas — No one likes a bully. So when a recent Texas high school football game ended in a score of 91-0, one angry parent filed a complaint alleging the contest had crossed the line from tough loss to unlawful torment.
In a state where football is king, school investigators found no bullying. But the blowout has spurred deep discussion among coaches, parents and politicians over sportsmanship and whether it’s time to enact a "mercy rule" in Texas to put a stop to games when the score gets out of hand.
High school football is a merciless business in Texas, where state championships are played in the Dallas Cowboys’ 80,000-seat stadium and the state spends $1.5 million steroid-testing high school athletes. Texas high schools play mostly by college rules, while most other states employ national prep guidelines. Like many other states, it has no mercy rule for 11-man football.
The conversation has changed following Aledo High School’s crushing victory last week over Fort Worth Western Hills — the game that led to the unusual bullying complaint against Aledo’s coaches.
"Losing is an important lesson that needs to be learned by all kids. But the lesson ceases to be much of a lesson where someone is likely to get hurt because of the substantial mismatch," said state Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Texas-tough politician who wears two guns to his office and says America would be better off without states like California and New York.
In California, one youth football league for kids 7 to 13 years old suspends coaches when a team wins by 35 or more points On the high school level, California doesn’t "mercy-rule" blowouts with abrupt endings but does keep the clock running to hasten the game.
Texas employs similar running-clock measures in blowouts — something that was done during the Aledo game at the suggestion of the winning coach, Tim Buchanan. He also benched his starters late in the game. But even he said the fallout has left him in favor of mercy rules.
Buchanan said his team takes no pleasure in piling on easy touchdowns and humiliating the other side.
Still, he acknowledged a mercy rule isn’t an easy sell in Texas: "If they voted on it, I’m not sure how many coaches in our membership would be in favor of it."
The state’s infatuation with high school football was celebrated on the TV series "Friday Night Lights," including an episode in which the coach of the pitiful East Dillon Lions forfeited a game at halftime because they were being beaten so badly. The Lions’ prideful players fumed.
In real life, the person most offended by Aledo’s 13-touchdown victory was a Western Hills father. In a complaint with the Aledo school district, the parent, whose name has been withheld by the district, cited "everyone in the football stadium" as witnesses to the bullying.
"Picking up my son from the fieldhouse after the game and taking him home was tough," the complaint read. "I did not know what to say to my son on the ride home to explain the behavior of the Aledo coaches for not easing up when the game was in hand."
Under state law, school districts must investigate all bullying complaints. Buchanan said he was told the district found no grounds to support the allegations.
Three years ago, New Mexico imposed a mercy rule that ends 11-man games when one team is up by more than 50 points at halftime or later.
"When a team is up by 70 points, is it really good for a team to be out there?" said Dusty Young, associate director for the New Mexico Activities Association, which oversees high school sports. "We wanted to hopefully avoid some unsportsmanlike situations where a team might be becoming frustrated. Really, just trying to protect the kids."
Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, said he is unaware of any research on the effects of one-sided games and humiliating losses on young athletes, "but if you were getting beat 90-0 repeatedly, I can’t see it building your self-esteem." He said the biggest risk is the potential for injury.
Proposals for mercy rules in 11-man football in Texas have been submitted in the past but not in recent years, said Kate Hector, spokeswoman for the state’s University Interscholastic League. Texas does have mercy rules for six-man football, which is popular in small towns that can’t field a full team.
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley, who played high school and college football in Texas, said the state doesn’t need mercy rules. "Just go to work, get better and don’t get beat that bad," he said. "It may sound harsh, but it’s football, man. It’s a competitive game."
Buchanan’s Aledo Bearcats are undefeated through seven games and are a state championship contender, but with 45 seniors on the roster, next year might not be so easy for the suburban Fort Worth powerhouse.
"Odds are," Buchanan said, "it may be us getting mercy-ruled next year."