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Is There a Mercy Rule in High School Football?

At football’s highest level, the NFL, the league’s worst team can beat the league’s best team on any given Sunday.  The reason for such parity is the talent disparity between teams is minimal; after all, all players are professionals.

However, at the lower levels of football, for example, high school football, the size, strength, and talent differential between the two teams may be extremely substantial.

As a result, some high school football games become lopsided in a hurry, demoralizing youngsters just learning to play the game. To prevent this, many states, though not all, allow a mercy rule to minimize how out-of-hand a high school football blowout can get.

In this article, I will define the mercy rule, how and when it is implemented, and weigh the benefits and shortcomings of the rule. 

Key Takeaways

  • Yes, there is a mercy rule in high school, but whether a team can invoke the rule and when and how the mercy rule is implemented vary from state to state.
  • A mercy rule is a method to either end the game or speed the game up when one team builds a seemingly insurmountable lead against another team. 
  • For a mercy rule to take effect, one team must lead another by a certain number of points at a certain point in the game, such as a 40-point lead in the second half.

What is a Mercy Rule?

A mercy rule is a method to either end the game or speed the game up when one team builds a seemingly insurmountable lead against another team. [1]

Mercy rules do not take effect until two conditions are satisfied:

  1. The score differential between the two teams exceeds a certain threshold AND
  2. The game is at or past a certain point.

For example, a mercy rule may not take effect unless one team leads another team by 40 points, AND the game is in its second half.

Read more:

How is Mercy Rule Implemented?

High school football rules are governed at the state level, and the existence of a mercy rule and what that mercy rule looks like vary from state to state.

For example, only some states allow for a mercy rule. There are no mercy rules in Texas or Maine.

In addition, for those states that allow mercy rules, the conditions that must be met to invoke the mercy rule (score differential and point in the game) vary from state to state. 

Lastly, the implementation of the mercy rule varies from state to state.

For example, the mercy rule in New Mexico is, “A game is ended at halftime or during the second half if a team is 50 or more points behind.” [2]

While the rule in Connecticut reads,A running clock is used when a team is ahead by a margin of 35 points in the second half.” [3]

Most mercy rules in high school football do not end the game but instead, call for a running clock for the remainder of the game once a team is up by a certain number of points at any point in the second half.

What is a Running Clock?

A running clock dramatically speeds up the game, as the game clock only stops for injuries, timeouts, and between quarters.

Typically, the game clock stops on all incomplete passes, change of possessions, and when a player runs out-of-bounds.

A running clock allows for the completion of the entire game but in a much smaller amount of time, enabling significantly fewer plays to occur.

For instance, one-quarter of a high school football game lasts twelve minutes of game time but over thirty minutes of real-time.

With a running clock, those twelve minutes of game time might pass in twelve minutes of real-time. [4

Arguments for Mercy Rule:

Some support the mercy rule in high school football, while others do not.

Those who support the mercy rule espouse the following benefits:

  1. Prevents embarrassment and demoralization – no life lesson is learned when your rear end is handed to you by a team against whom you have no chance.
  2. It discourages coaches from running up the score (that is, scoring a lot of points, often with the intent of satisfying his ego or humiliating the opponent).
  3. The rule encourages a coach to remove his starting players from the contest and play the reserves – usually, less-experienced and junior varsity players who would benefit significantly from experience.
  4. It reduces unnecessary injuries and allows the players to rest up and prepare for games against better, upcoming opponents. [5, 6]

Arguments Against Mercy Rule:

While some strong arguments support the mercy rule, others prefer eliminating it.

Usually, those who are against the mercy rule argue one semi-valid point: It cuts down playing time for junior varsity team members. 

The junior varsity players do not play in close, competitive games, as the coach needs his better varsity players to play when the outcome is in doubt.

The only time junior varsity players are on the field is during blowouts, and with the mercy rule, there is a running clock. And, as noted above, far fewer plays are run when a running clock is in use.

While this point is valid, in no way do the drawbacks of the mercy rule outweigh its benefits. [7]


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