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. If it couldn’t stand the heat of playing superior talent, it shouldn’t play the game. If players can earn a 100–point victory, they deserve it.”

And as others pointed out, all kids who play sports should be taught to crush the competition. If they don’t develop that attitude, they will not be as successful as they could be. When the news broke that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had invited the girls from Dallas Academy to watch a Mavericks game from his suite, someone wrote into the News that Cuban shouldn’t salute losers. “Do you think Cuban would think for more than ten seconds to buy out a struggling business? Basketball is just like life. WIN! Everyone does it. We need to pull our heads out and move on!”

Several letter writers even noted that the University of Texas football team could very well have missed out on the chance to play for the 2008 national title because Mack Brown did not run up scores on weaker opponents. “I bet ol’ Mack doesn’t ever do that again,” someone declared.

In one of his front-page stories, Horn suggested that all high school sports should institute the same sort of rule that exists in six-man football. It’s known as “the 45 rule:” when one team gains a 45-point lead in a game, the game is immediately ended by the referees. It’s like a mercy rule. “Arbitrary decision-making is removed from coaches,” Horn wrote.

But even that idea set off a barrage of complaints. If the rule was adapted, bloggers said, a lot of games would end early, meaning that younger, more inexperienced players would not get the chance to play in a game’s late stages. Some bloggers said a “45 rule” wouldn’t help anyway: coaches would just see how fast they could get to the 45-point difference as a barometer of their team’s success. Other bloggers were simply disgusted with the idea of ending a game early. It was un-American, they said. “A game is 60 minutes long,” wrote someone who called himself Wreck Em. “Play the entire 60 minutes. If you want to play a sport with mercy rules, go play golf. Suck it up. Too many pansies in the world today afraid of getting their feelings hurt.”

There’s a good argument to be made that Dallas Academy should find teams to play that are closer to its own level of athletic competence. Throughout this season, they have lost by wildly lopsided scores to just about everyone. (Several Covenant defenders have wondered why the media didn’t jump on other private schools for whuppin’ up on Dallas Academy by scores like 67–10. “If we had allowed them a couple of layups like the other teams did,” one Covenant supporter wrote, “would we be getting all the bad publicity we are getting now?”) On the other hand, if Dallas Academy did such a thing, they’d probably have to get out of the state’s private school league, meaning they’d have to go through the nearly impossible task of lining up smaller public school opponents outside of Dallas for an entire season.

But even if the girls from Dallas Academy continue to get creamed—and let’s face it, they will—they have come out of all of this with some sort of, well, retribution. The girls have become, in Horn’s words, “America’s sweethearts”—at least for fifteen minutes. They’ve made headlines worldwide and they’ve appeared on the network morning shows at ABC, NBC, and CBS, all of which have portrayed them as loveable losers on the court but genuine winners in life—graceful, poised, determined, always trying, and damned cute.

Dallas Covenant has certainly learned some lessons out of this as well. No doubt the powers that be at the school have learned the value of good public relations. The apology they released came a disastrous ten days after the game and obviously was done only because the story had gone public. Then, it wasn’t until this past Sunday, January 25, that they finally fired Coach Grimes. What took them so long? The score just didn’t “happen,” as the coach put it. He obviously was pushing his girls to pile on. And anyone who believes his statement really needs to reevaluate what they believe fair play and the value of competition is all about.

Anyway, the debate is hardly over. Even after all the hoopla, no one seems to have any idea how to answer the questions that Horn posed in one of his stories: “When is enough, enough? How many points? How large a victory must a high school team achieve to prove it has imposed its will? And where does sportsmanship stand in all of this?”

At least we know one thing. There will be no more girls’ basketball games between Covenant and Dallas Academy. The headmaster of Dallas Academy canceled the school’s January 30 re-match with Covenant. “We just said, The hell with it,” the headmaster told Horn.