Shaming the Winners

Ashley Thorne

My high school graduating class (2004) at The Covenant School of Dallas had six students. Covenant’s upper school had been formed a year and a half earlier by a split that divided Logos Academy, an already tiny grades 7-12 school, into two smaller ones (Covenant and Cambridge). This month, I was astonished that my little high school made national news. I heard about it first on the radio, then CNN, Good Morning America, the Dallas Morning News, and at last, from a Covenant student.

Two weeks ago, the Covenant girls’ basketball team beat Dallas Academy 100-0. Dallas Academy subsequently removed its girls’ team from the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) league. Dallas Academy is a school that offers a “multisensory program” for students who have been diagnosed with “dyslexia, dysgraphia, and other learning differences.” Its girls’ basketball team has not won a game in four seasons.  

Barry Horn, a sports media columnist at the Dallas Morning News, wrote an article about the game, in tone praising the Dallas Academy girls for their fortitude against a team for whom the game had been “a lay-up drill.” Quickly after the article appeared, The Covenant School notified TAPPS that it would forfeit the game and issued a public apology saying that the score did not reflect “a Christ-like and honorable approach to competition” and was “a win without honor.”

But the Covenant coach, Micah Grimes, did not share the school’s contrition. On Sunday, Grimes wrote on a basketball blog that after the team had a 25-0 lead in the first three minutes of play, he had immediately halted his team’s full-court press and subbed in their three bench players. He defended the sportsmanship of the Covenant team, who he said should not feel “embarrassed” or “ashamed”:

We played the game as it was meant to be played and would not intentionally run up the score on any opponent. Although a wide-margin victory is never evidence of compassion, my girls played with honor and integrity and showed respect to Dallas Academy…I do not wish to forfeit the game. What kind of example does it set for our children? Do we really want to punish Covenant School girls?  Does forfeiting really help Dallas Academy girls? We experienced a blowout almost 4 years ago and it was painful, but it made us who we are today. I believe in the lessons that sports teach us.  Competition builds character, and teaches us to value selflessness, hard work, and perseverance. As a coach, I have instilled in my girls these values. So if I lose my job over these statements, I will walk away with my integrity.

Grimes did lose his job—the same day he posted his statement online (and Dallas Morning News cited Grimes’ statement in its 6th article about the incident). In his next article, Barry Horn quoted Covenant headmaster Kyle Queal saying that Grimes "now only represents himself."

The TAPPS league has a “mercy” rule for six-man football that if a team has a 45-point-lead at the end of the first half or at any time during the second half, the game ends immediately. There is no corresponding mercy rule for TAPPS basketball.

Dallas Academy is not upset about the game. On the contrary, when the press coverage began, the team members and their coach repeatedly expressed an attitude of cheerful perseverance. “I didn’t feel too bad, and I was just happy that we tried,” said the team’s guard Lauren Click in a Dallas Morning News video. “We don’t play to win; we play to like, learn things and get better and bond with the team.”

The Bulldogs, wrote Horn, “have emerged as America's sweethearts.” The team that never wins but doesn’t mind—so unheard of in our über-competitive age—captured everyone’s compassion. Mark Cuban invited the girls to a Mavericks game and to meet the players. Diane Sawyer cheered after a televised report, “And go Bulldogs.” 

Meanwhile, the Knights have ended up stigmatized as coldhearted crusaders. The ill-will toward Covenant has become so bad that students are afraid to wear their school sweatshirts off campus. One Covenant student, a senior who was cheerleading at the game, said that “with our school so small it has affected all of us almost as much as our girls,” and that since the news mania about the game, “Every day the media stands outside our gate trying to get in and trying to get someone to talk.” She told Covenant’s side of the story:

So many people have been emailing in and calling in and saying how un-Christian it was to beat down on those "disabled" girls. You see the media wants everyone to think that Dallas Academy is for disabled students when it is only a learning disability school, like Shelton or Winston. And we have plenty of students at our school and team with ADD or ADHD, etc. People from all over America and even France, Australia, and China have emailed in. People hate us because they claim we purposefully ran up the score on a weak team. Although I do think 100-0 is a crazy score, I was at the game and our girls were not at all pushing to get to 100, nor were they even playing aggressively. Dallas Academy hasn’t won a game in four seasons, so this isn't the first time something like this has happened. Our boys were beat recently 98-2 but no one seemed to care.These poor girls and our school are having to enduring so much flak from the media, it’s awful, and now it has resulted in the firing of their coach. When the story first came out we made a public apology to Dallas Academy but then on Saturday, Coach Grimes emailed the Dallas Morning News about how he didn't agree with the apology and his girls did nothing wrong. I support him in that statement but when he went behind the school's back to say this it resulted in them feeling the need to let him go.

The student concluded, “If you could just please pray for our school and for the basketball girls, that would be wonderful because we are all feeling really beaten down.”

Ultimately, this is not a story about the 100-0 score, but about the manipulative power of the media. That one game between two very small schools would rise to such attention is baffling. No one seemed to have a problem until the front page article in the newspaper came out, a week after the game. And Dallas Academy “told its side of the story only after it was asked.” Even Horn, the instigator of the news coverage, expressed surprise that the story made national headlines and created such a huge sensation. Another Dallas Morning News writer published an article entitled, “Here’s Hoping the Hoopla Over 100-0 Basketball Game is at an End” and called the hype “the freak, over-the-top media typhoon that blew up around this story, aggravated and exaggerated by angry bloggers and spite-crazed Internet posters.” Both authors referred to opinion emails that have “flooded in.”

As for us at NAS, we embrace the open exchange of ideas. We encourage debate. This case, however, is an interesting example of how the blogosphere and media can turn a single story line into a mass phenomenon that crowds out all contravening details and every bit of nuance. The media emphasis on Dallas Academy as a school for kids with disabilities, added to the scandal of the public clash between the headmaster and the coach at Covenant, prompts the question, “What constitutes a win with honor?” Canada’s National Post puts it, “What would Jesus do, if faced with a far inferior basketball team?”

Luke Yarbrough, the athletic director at the Cambridge School of Dallas, which played against Dallas Academy before it withdrew from the league, seems to have an answer. Cambridge beat the Bulldogs 41-8. Of the score, Yarbrough said, “it is possible to beat a team without attempting to demoralize it.”

But what about demoralizing the winning team? The Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web Today entry was entitled, “In Texas, They Hate Winners.” The outrage (not from Dallas Academy) directed against Covenant reminds me of many trends NAS has tracked in higher education. One good example is racial and gender preferences, which authorize membership in an identity group to trump merit in hiring and admissions. Preferences call for the “privileged” to give way to the “underprivileged,” to let them score some points, to go easy on them, and to aim more at “experience” than actual success.

My guess is that, whether the issue was about learning disabilities or athletic inability, the public saw an opportunity to extol ineptitude and beat on the winner, pretty much in the same way that the politically correct lords of the university like to vilify people who are white, male, Christian, heterosexual, or conservative. To its credit, Dallas Academy did not get swept away in the demonizing. The Covenant School, however, will now have to walk on eggshells in its sporting events. I can imagine the next basketball coach worrying, “We’re up by 20—is that too much? Should we try running in slow mo? Or should we shoot free throws standing on one leg?”

It is a shame that this school, which has long been an underdog in sports (especially while I played volleyball there), has been robbed of the right to savor victory. I suggest a match of the Lady Knights against the Dallas Mavericks. Maybe if the Mavericks win 500-0, Covenant can regain its pride. Clearly Covenant needs to do more than just lose to redeem itself. The 98-2 loss by the Covenant boys counted for nothing in the humility sweepstakes. What is needed is something like a victim trifecta: girls (because they are always oppressed), disability (an oppression extra), and huge disparities in achievement (because “we are all winners”). 

The most disturbing aspect of this story is that it had such popularity. It demonstrates an appetite for a kind of moralistic grandstanding. It may not be entirely coincidental that the story sprung to life just two days after the presidential inaugural or that it involved Texas schools. This is a zeitgeist story. It is about the longing of a great many people to project a certain kind of resentment onto those they see as unfairly privileged, and to turn the tables. In that light, the mass effort to stigmatize Covenant might be warning us of the menacing side of populism and the appearance of a newly invigorated anti-meritocratic impulse in our culture.

 

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