Is running up the score a problem?

Larry Johnson for ESPN.com

A series of lopsided scores -- Wisconsin 83, Indiana 20; Broncos 49, Chiefs 29; UConn women 117, Holy Cross 37 -- has reignited periodic debate about running up the score.

We polled writers who contribute to Page 2 and Commentary for their thoughts about whether such scores are just part of sports, whether there is morality or ethics regarding mismatches, whether sportsmanship comes into play, whether the unwritten rules are different between college and pro sports.

Gene Wojciechowski: Heisman's historic precedent

This isn't anything new. In 1916, John Heisman and his Georgia Tech team ran up the score against Cumberland College, 222-0. He was angry that Cumberland had stuck it to the George Tech baseball team (coached by Heisman) and had used some pro players to do so.

Sportsmanship exists, but you need a Geiger Counter to find it. Watch a football game, pro or college. Count the number of times a player helps an opposing player up from the ground. You won't need many fingers. For some reason, sportsmanship is considered a sign of weakness when, in fact, it's the ultimate sign of strength.

Codes are codes. Protocol is protocol. These things evolve, often for the worse. But winning with class never changes. Though you wouldn't know it these days.

LZ Granderson: Please, no pity points

I'm a fairly competitive guy, so after about a month of beginner's tennis lessons I decided to enter a tournament to gauge my progress. I didn't expect to win -- just make the semis. Needless to say, my ego wrote a check my skills couldn't cash and I got blasted in the first round 6-0, 6-1.

The worse part wasn't the score. It was the fact the guy gave me my one game by purposefully missing shots. During the changeover, he said he did it because blanking me would've been impolite. He doesn't know it, but I was thisclose from being impolite myself. I was an overmatched opponent, not some charity case.

In some circles it might be in poor taste to run up the score, but where I'm from, point shaving to spare feelings is far more disrespectful to the losing party. If you step out there, you should be prepared to be stepped on. Real competitors understand this. That's why we don't ask our opponents for mercy, we ask them for a rematch. And we ask the gods for revenge.

Paul Lukas: Musicians know the score

In the fall of 1969, Lou Reed and his band, the Velvet Underground, got ready to play a set in Texas. "We saw your Cowboys today, and they never let Philadelphia even have the ball for a minute," Reed told the audience. "You know, it was 42 to 7 by the half. It was ridiculous. I mean, you should give the other guy just a little chance. In football, anyway."

If a proto-punk band best known for its songs about heroin and sado-masochism could grasp the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play, I can't really see why anyone else should have any problem doing so.

Jeff MacGregor: Business as usual

History can be hard on those who run up the score without thought to mercy or love or human sympathy. Look at Ghengis Khan or Josef Stalin. Mao Tse Tung. Martha Stewart.

But running up the score is also the "greed is good" promise of the American economy. The founding premise of the bonus baby culture on Wall Street might make for a modest dividend in Grandma's portfolio, sure, but at the price of a worldwide subprime mortgage panic and the collapse of the global economy.

Think twice. Then take Goldman Sachs and the points.

Johnette Howard: Good and bad

I love a good rout -- sometimes. But not all routs are created equal.

There's the Righteous Rout, like Joe Louis' trouncing of Max Schmeling in 1938 (or think Cavs versus LeBron). And what's wrong with a little In-The-Zone rout, like the Philadelphia Eagles' totally unexpected 59-point spontaneous combustion against the Redskins on Monday night? Release the doves!

But who needs the Bully Rout, which is what the UConn women's basketball team did to Holy Cross in a 117-37 trouncing Monday night in another tedious expression of its remorseless quest for excellence that treats opponents like nameless, faceless foes rather than -- you know -- real human beings. We get it. You're good. Now run the four corners.

Patrick Hruby: Just playing games

Suppose you're buying groceries. You have coupons. Only you don't use them, because the supermarket's prices already are low.

Suppose you're taking a math test. You know all the answers. But you leave a half-dozen problems blank and don't attempt the extra credit because you'd hate to humiliate your less studious classmates.

Suppose you're the Republican Party. You dominate the midterm elections. As the results roll in, you withdraw winning candidates from a handful of races, because the Democrats already are hurting and it's classless to rub it in.

Does all of the above sound absurd? Yes?

Then why are sports any different?

Here's the thing about running up the score: It's only a problem if you believe hitting a ball with a stick or throwing a ball through a hoop has moral significance, that courts and ballfields are places for doing right and good. I don't. I don't hold sports quasi-sacred, and I don't think they teach any particular life lessons that can't be learned by, well, living. I think sports are just games, crossed with performance art.

I don't begrudge my friends for pummeling me at pop-a-shot; I don't expect them to resent me for piling on in "Madden NFL"; I'm not aghast when a ballet dancer is vastly superior to her peers and unafraid to show it. No one is cheating, lying, stealing or causing harm. No one is doing wrong. They're just playing games -- nothing more, nothing less -- in which the whole point of the exercise is to perform as proficiently as possible.

In sports, proficient performance generally means scoring points. Football isn't civil society. I say run it up.

Mark Kreidler: Blame BCS

As long as college football uses a beauty pageant as one of its championship formula components, why should anyone be surprised at a contending team running up the score? If you're Wisconsin and trying to inject yourself into the BCS conversation, then every uptick in the polls is critical, perhaps even decisive -- and an offensive outburst might sway a voter.

If the prospect of dubious sportsmanship is too much to bear, install a playoff system. It won't rid the world of lopsided final scores, but it might render those scores less meaningful.

Greg Hardy: Rattling chains

Are you furious when college football's lions feast on underdogs? Telling a big-time program's backups to avoid the end zone when the score is 60-6 runs counter to the promises made to high school recruits in their living rooms.

When a coach taps an 18-year-old's passion and asks an athlete to play his heart out for free tuition, he can't then tell that kid at game time, "Whoa! Slow down! The saps on the other bench aren't as good as you!"

Sorry to sound as though I'm rationalizing individual success at the expense of team unity. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If coaches allow slack in the chains due to unwritten rules about when an outcome is out of reach, they're shortchanging the agreement with each link, who wants to prove how strong he can be when it's his turn to pull the load.