Is it time for the Mercy Rule in Class AA High School sports?

On Oct. 31 the Spearfish High School football team headed to Pierre for the opening round of Class 11AA state playoffs. Pierre boasted a 9-0 record in the regular season and attained a national ranking in high school football, while Spearfish struggled this season with a 0-9 record.

In the opening kickoff, Pierre returned the ball for a touchdown, which foreshadowed the rest of the game, that unceremoniously ended in a blowout.

Spearfish fumbled thrice in the first quarter, and each time Pierre recovered the ball and ultimately scored. By the end of the first half Pierre led 72-0.

The final score was a 103-0 shellacking.

This wasn’t the only blowout game of the year in South Dakota High School football. There were 74 games that were won by 50 points or more. However, the vast majority games that were won by such a wide margin were in classes lower than 11AA. Only two classes in the state do not have a mercy rule — Class 11AA and Class AAA. In all other classes, once the score reaches a 35-point margin, there is a running clock. This spurs the issue, should there be a mercy rule for all classes of football.

We asked two of our reporters to take a pro and con stance regarding the implementation of a Mercy Rule across the board in football. Then you the reader can decide for yourself, what you think is the best solution going forward.


There needs to be a mercy rule in 11AA and 11AAA football

No one wins a football game when the score ends 103-0.

The team that scored the most points knows they will face public scrutiny for such a lopsided victory, and the team that scored no points will feel the sting of such a loss for some time to come.

The solution to preventing such an outcome in 11AA football in South Dakota in the future could be a mercy rule or even a running clock.

A mercy rule is when the game is stopped because one team is ahead by a certain number of points at a certain time in the game -- say 50 points in the second half.

A running clock is implemented when a team takes a 35-point lead in the second half.  The clock is only stopped during an official’s timeout, a charged timeout, the end of a period or after a score.

The South Dakota High School Activities Association does have a mercy rule and running clock rule in 11A, 11B and 9-man, but not in the larger 11AA and 11AAA classifications.

Black Hills State University football coach John Reiners, whose son played at Spearfish High School, has been on both sides of the dilemma. 

“It puts both teams in a tough situation,” he said.

Reiners said he would rather see a running clock than halting the game early.

“We talk about wanting to give opportunities for kids, but we don’t want these kids to get discouraged to the point that there is no way for them to improve,” he said.

His advice: “If you don’t like the situation you are in, you need to find a way to change it.”

SDSU football coach John Stiegelmeier knows about being on the winning end of a lopsided victory. His Jackrabbits beat Arkansas Pine Bluff 90-6 last year.

“One of the foundational principles of sport is to build individuals up and create memories. A rout surely doesn’t do any of those things,” he said.

Stiegelmeier reminds us that there is no mercy rule in college and there never will be, but after their win over Pine Bluff he implemented what he calls the Pine Bluff Postulate.

“If we find ourselves ahead by a wide margin, we run the same plays over and over. If you do that, they are going to figure it out,” he said.

For that reason, Stiegelmeier believes in some sort of mercy rule at the high school level.

Dan Swartos, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, said it is his hope that the association gets something in place concerning wide margin wins in football.

“If that looks like a running clock, it’s better than nothing,” he said.

Swartos believes that sometimes the perfect storms happen and a bad situation comes about such as the Pierre vs. Spearfish game. 

“Not Pierre, or Spearfish, or us wanted something like this to happen. This is not something anyone is happy about, and I hope that we can put something in place to prevent it from happening again,” he said.

So put a mercy rule in place. Have a running clock once the score goes beyond a recoverable place. 


There should not be a running clock or mercy rule in Class 11AA and Class 11AAA

In this everyone-gets-a-trophy era, we should not be implementing mercy rules in the largest classes of South Dakota High School football.

What message does that send to players?

The players on the winning side may wonder if they are being punished because their effort is better than that of the opposing teams’ players.

Smaller schools voted for the mercy rule and running clock several years ago, but large schools did not want it due mostly to travel concerns.

“It’s tough for, say Spearfish, to go all the way to Yankton and play one half of football and then the game is over,” said Dan Swartos, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. “If they played the whole game, it would give them an opportunity to get the younger players time on the field and get them experience under the lights.”

Sturgis Brown High School Activities Director Todd Palmer agrees about the travel issue, and how that plays into a mercy rule.

“I don’t know if that is a fiscally responsible choice to end a game at half time when you’re traveling that distance,” he said. “It’s a little different when we are here in the Black Hills Conference.”

Sturgis has traveled to Yankton and next year will play at Brookings, both approximately 400 miles away.

For the most part, coaches do a great job of slowing the pace and rotating players if their team is significantly ahead in the contest.

Black Hills State University football coach John Reiners said only playing one half of a game ends up hurting both teams in the long run.

“Players need reps and game time. If they end the game at half, it is not preparing them for a game of four quarters,” Reiners said.

And that has been evident in smaller classes in western South Dakota. A football team runs through the season and dominates the competition, but may have only played two or three full games because of the mercy rule.

“When they go East River they get beat because the kids aren’t ready for a four-quarter game,” Reiners said.

Chris Koletzky, the head coach for the Sturgis Brown Scoopers, which play in Class AA, said he did not favor a mercy rule.

“Regardless of your current position in a game, (we have been on both sides), you still want reps in game for your younger kids. Picture this. We drive to Yankton (six hours) and the mercy rule goes into effect by half time. We drove six hours to play for an hour? Not a good look,” Koletzky said.

Perhaps no other football tam in South Dakota knows this better than the Scoopers.

In 2006, they broke a 79-game losing streaking, recording their first win since 1997.

Mercy rules foster a “give-up” mentality. 

You are basically bailing them out of a bad situation, and that’s not a life lesson we want our kids to learn. In life when you are in a bad situation there is no mercy rule. 

Lopsided games are a fact of life in high school and college sports, and young athletes should be prepared for them. Whether you are on the losing side or the winning side of lopsided games, both experiences are valuable.

Things happen in life that you can’t control. No matter how hard we prepare, things don’t always go our way, and sometimes things end badly. How are kids going to learn how to deal with real life situations if we keep trying to protect them from it. 

Character isn’t built when you are ahead by 50 points, it is built when you are behind and you keep fighting to try and dig yourself out of a hole.

While a running clock/mercy rule may prevent another 103-0 score, teams will still get blown out by margins of 50-75 points.

For these reasons, and more, there should be no mercy rule or running clock in 11AA or 11AAA football.

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(1) comment


I know cartoons are meant to poke fun at real issues, but this week's was pretty insensitive comparing a sports mercy rule to historic events that contributed to cultural trauma.

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