Losing to Win Dishonors Youth Sports

A Corrosive Effect on Character

Two basketball teams kicked out of the high school playoffs.

Two coaches suspended for all of next season, their coaching future in doubt.

$1,500 fines for each school, their programs on probation.

All because adult egos got in the way of competing honorably.

On Saturday, a Tennessee high school girls basketball game featured Smyrna vs. Riverdale in a district playoff consolation game. Both teams already were assured of moving on to the state regional. Because of the state regional playoff bracket, the winner of the Smyrna-Riverdale game would have to beat powerhouse Blackman to reach the state sectionals. Blackman is the defending national and state champion, and is one of the best teams in the nation this year. The loser of the game would be placed on the other side of the bracket, and could advance to the state sectionals without having to defeat Blackman.

So, instead of competing to win, the two teams competed to lose.

According to The Tennessean, the referee noted in the game report that free throws were missed intentionally, and the teams purposely committed violations to give the ball to the other team (see video below). One player intentionally tried to shoot at the wrong basket, but was prevented from scoring by a 10-second violation.

The Seeds of Disgrace

Bernard Childress, the executive director of TSSAA, the governing body overseeing Tennessee’s high school sports, told The Tennessean that a Riverdale administrator claimed that its coach, Cory Barrett, did not instruct his players to lose the game. “He said he talked to them about bracketology,” “He told them, ‘This is where we will be if we win, this is where we will be if we lose.”

What a joke.

You have two coaches either allowing or encouraging their players to try to lose, in order to avoid possibly playing a tough opponent.

What a lesson to teach your players about how to face adversity.


And what was the reaction from the school principals?

Riverdale principal Tom Nolan seemed to get it. He was quoted by The Tennessean saying,

It’s a total embarrassment. In my 35 years at Riverdale, I’ve never had that happen. It sends a bad message to everyone. Bottom line is you play the game to win.
Riverdale principal Tom Nolan

But the punishment didn’t seem to support his words. Nolan reportedly said he would suspend Barrett for the first two games of next season. And, Nolan lobbied the Tennessee Secondary School Atlantic Association (TSSAA) to allow both teams to continue in the regional playoffs.

Smyrna Principal Rick Powell also called for the two teams to continue playing, minus the head coaches. He told The Tennessean “I hate it for the kids because of the actions of the coaches. We pleaded with the TSSAA. We hated that they were penalized.”

The TSSAA removed both teams from the playoffs, and the next day, the County Director of Schools suspended Smyrna coach Shawn Middleton and Riverdale coach Cory Barrett for next season. The director noted that Smyrna principal Rick Powell had already chosen to remove Middleton as coach.

The editorial board of The Tennessean also weighed in on the impact of trying to manipulate the competition. Writing on behalf of the Board, Opinion Engagement Editor David Plazas said Middleton and Barrett “humiliated their teams as athletes and as young women. They humiliated their schools. They humiliated their communities”. Plazas termed the penalties as “harsh”, and said “What’s worse, the girls were punished for the sins of their coaches. If all was fair, TSSAA would give the teams another chance to play each other, without their coaches.”

Obviously, this all started with the coaches. They brought dishonor to their schools, the athletes they mentor, and the sport they both love. They placed winning ahead of winning with integrity. They forgot that The Way You Win Matters™.

That said, I respectfully disagree with the efforts of the two school principals to have the teams continue their season, and The Tennessean’s editorial board, when it comes to the athletes.

This wouldn’t have happened without the coaches putting it in motion. But, the players who failed to compete responsibility have to be accountable, too. They displayed an appalling lack of integrity. As TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress told the Tennessean, “The student athletes bought into it. They were the ones asking to call three seconds. They were the ones stepping back over (midcourt). They were the ones not attempting to shoot at the basket.”

I understand the argument that coaches have an enormous influence on players, and that the coaches bear the responsibility for how the game was played. However, removing from the players any accountability for what happened, short-changes them. High school student-athletes deserve more respect from us than that. They can and should take responsibility for their own actions.

I find it hard to believe that the players thought that what they were doing was ethical. That it felt right to them. Trying to lose in order to avoid potentially playing a tough opponent isn’t the way a student-athlete thinks. It goes against everything you learn as a competitor.

Learning From Mistakes

Choices have consequences. Sometimes, the mistakes we make hurt. As adults, we have to help young people learn to be accountable for their behavior. That means having them suffer the consequences of their decisions.

That’s why I think the TSSAA’a decision was fair.

No doubt, this is a tough lesson for the players. Both teams were having very good seasons. Perhaps the publicity this story engendered will open a door for conversation for parents and children everywhere to discuss what happened, and how the situation could have been handled differently. Doing what you think is right isn’t always easy.

We often associate courage and bravery in the context of war or in response to emergencies. But, standing up to an authority figure, or to your teammates, on a matter of principle knowing there is a risk to doing it, takes a lot of moral courage.

An Extreme Case

The issue involved in this Tennessee girls basketball game is not at all uncommon. The only reason that it became a national story is because the two teams made such a travesty of the game. And, because there was video of it. The two coaches didn’t just pull their starters early and play passively with reserve players. These coaches allowed the game to become a farce.

Sadly, efforts to manipulate a team’s path through a tournament bracket happen a lot, especially in soccer and hockey. Coaches will determine that a loss or tie (draw) may result in a better opponent match-up. Coaches justify gaming the system by arguing that it’s simply a strategy that leads to the overall goal of winning the tournament. That finding the easiest path to win the tournament trumps any individual game. It’s an “ends justify the means” argument used by those who circumvent rules, laws, or regulations in order to gain an advantage.

The Way You Win Matters

Coaching brings with it, an enormous responsibility to model and reinforce character and integrity. Winning with integrity means competing fairly and responsibly, not through questionable means. Purposely losing a game, or forging a tie, in order to gain a favorable pairing or bracket position, distorts the meaning of competition. You risk losing the trust of those who play and watch a sport, if the competition no longer is viewed as authentic.

No doubt, the TSSAA will try to solve its problem by changing the rules. But, as I’ve suggested in We Need to Re-Define Winning, someone will find a way around almost any rule or regulation you come up with. People can’t be forced to act fairly and responsibly. They have to want to do it.

It is up to each of us to set the right example, and consider the lessons our kids are learning, through their team sports experience.

Let’s help young people develop the desire and the courage to be honorable and trustworthy on and off the field.

Photo Credit: Screenshot from @CousinTrevvv‘s Video on Twitter


  1. Little League and Adult Egos - Evenfield.org on December 5, 2016 at 3:54 PM

    […] February, I wrote a commentary titled Losing to Win Dishonors Youth Sports. It involved a girls high school basketball, district playoff consolation game in which both teams […]

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