When I first heard about the Dallas high school girls’ basketball controversy, I assumed it was nothing more than a one-day story. It was mildly amusing and mildly disheartening—but I could not imagine it lasting past the 24-hour news cycle.
Um, wrong again.
Surely by now you know what I’m talking about. On January 13, the girls’ team for the Covenant School of Dallas, an elite private Christian school in upscale North Dallas, demolished its opponents from the Dallas Academy, a lesser known East Dallas school that focuses on students who face a variety of learning problems. The game was played at Covenant’s field house, and from the opening tip-off the Covenant Knights were in control. They scored 35 points in the first quarter before building a 59–0 lead at the half. The score after three quarters was 88–0. Covenant kept the pressure on throughout the fourth quarter, the girls firing off three- pointers and maintaining a full-court press on defense. The final score: 100–0.
On January 23, the Dallas Morning News’s Barry Horn, one of the paper’s best sportswriters, wrote a story about the game under the headline, “Academy basketball coach sees a win in 100–0 loss.” In the story, Dallas Academy athletic director Jeremy Civello said about his girls—who, by the way, haven’t won a game in his four seasons there—“They never quit. They played as hard as they could to the very end. They played with all their hearts at 70–nothing, 80–nothing and 100–nothing. I was really proud of them. That’s what I told them after the game.” Civello then took a poke at the Covenant team and its coaches: “I’m sure they could have won by thirty points and still had just as good a time.” The Covenant coach Micah Grimes sent Horn a blunt e-mail about the victory, simply saying, “It just happened.”
The Morning News editors put the story on the front page, and boom—the public reaction was fast and furious. Letters and e-mails began pouring in—more than 300 in the first day alone. When posted on dallasnews.com, Horn’s story attracted 665,000 page views, the most since a controversy over who should be the valedictorian of a suburban high school in 2008 attracted 853,000 page views. The Morning News, realizing it had touched a massive civic nerve, had Horn write three more front-page stories about the game, including one in which Covenant School officials issued a statement apologizing for the lopsided victory. “This clearly does not reflect a Christlike and honorable approach to competition,” the statement said. “The school and its representatives in no way support or condone the running up of a score against any team in any sport for any reason.”
The apology didn’t come close to putting the brakes on the controversy. The newspaper’s Web site continued to be inundated with postings from everyone from churchgoers discussing the theological implications of Covenant’s victory to academicians weighing in on the importance (or lack of importance) of competitive high school sports. Esoteric debates broke out on what it means to be a winner, what is the true psychological impact of losing, and everything in between.
Most of the comments, predictably, lambasted Covenant for doing everything it could to humiliate Dallas Academy. Here’s a sampling: “It breaks my heart to see this story about a bunch of ‘Christians’ acting in this manner … This was an evil act … The Christians at Covenant say in their mission statement that their goal is ‘to glorify God.’ Yeah, right. These so-called Christians only care about glorifying themselves … Someone over at the school needs to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” (Let’s be honest—is there anything more fun than knocking down Christians when they screw up?)
Covenant’s coach Grimes, of course, got his butt chewed out. One blogger described him as a “punk” who “wanted to scar children.” Another asked Grimes, “Who do you play next, girls in wheelchairs?” All of the Covenant parents who cheered throughout the game—and yes, they did cheer—also got their share of potshots. One blogger went so far as to ask whether Covenant parents “tied up small animals for their kids to shoot.” And the female players did not escape criticism either. Someone wrote, “One day those girls may have something equally dramatic happen to them, and when they stop to wonder why and how people can be so cruel, perhaps they will remember their day of ultimate cruelty.”
Yet at the same time, there were plenty of people defending Covenant for its victory. Was it Covenant’s fault, people asked, that the Dallas Academy players didn’t really know how to play basketball? Among the various comments: “One cannot blame the Covenant girls for simply doing what the rules suggest … The girls played to their potential. Teaching them to not do so is immoral and irresponsible … What was Covenant supposed to do, shoot the ball at the other hoop? … These Dallas Academy girls are losers … I bet they barely practice more than one hour a week. Well, guess what, the other team probably practices much more. That’s why they lost!”
And if that wasn’t enough, Grimes himself issued a statement declaring that the school’s administrators who apologized for the 100–0 victory had made a grave mistake. “I do not agree with the apology or the notion that the Covenant School girls’ basketball team should feel embarrassed or ashamed,” he wrote. “We played the game as it was meant to be played. My values and my beliefs would not allow me to run up the score on any opponent, and it will not allow me to apologize for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”
Perhaps in this sports-crazed state, we should expect that plenty of people would define sport as simply a case of winning versus losing. As one blogger wrote, “The Covenant School simply played as hard as it could for as long as it could. Dallas Academy knew the rules going in.