Columns » Warwick Sabin

The mercy rule

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Watching the Class AAAAA state high school championship game at War Memorial Stadium last Saturday night, it was hard not to see stark metaphors in the competition.

The Bulldogs of increasingly prosperous, mostly-white Springdale crushed the Blue Devils of decidedly poor, majority-black West Memphis, 54-20. On one side of the field, the team from Northwest Arkansas looked like a Division I college program, with crisp, white uniforms, nice equipment and a corps of about 15 assistant coaches. Facing them was a squad from the Delta that looked like, well, a rag-tag high school team.

It wasn’t really a fair fight because these days football dominance costs money and Springdale has plenty of it. Still, no one should begrudge Springdale’s many advantages or challenge the school’s right to employ them. There are inequalities in every matchup. More telling — and more useful as metaphor — is the breadth of inequality and how it is exploited.

Any sports fan knows that it’s fun to watch a rout until it’s not. I’m always reminded of the final scene of the film “Braveheart,” when William Wallace is being tortured to death. The crowd revels in the brutality until some inexplicable moment when it discovers its humanity and begs for Wallace to ask for mercy, just to end his pain.

“Springdale was trying to become the first team to apply the mercy rule on all its opponents since the rule was adopted in 2002,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote of the game. More than one person in the stands commented that Springdale’s conduct crossed a line of indecorousness, such as when they ran through a banner that read “Want some more?” to start the second half, and when their quarterback threw for the end zone on a 4th-and-5 in the fourth quarter.

Among Americans there exists a similar sense of where the line of propriety is drawn when it comes to public policy. We celebrate ambition and hard work and the success that results from both. By no means does anyone think there should be guaranteed equality of outcomes.

But the country does believe in an equality of opportunity, and when it comes to something as basic as education, powerful interests should not be able to close the doors of opportunity behind them.

Often overlooked amid the debate surrounding the Lake View case and the issue of adequate school funding is the fact that the very idea of public education is under assault by some of the most influential forces in the state. With entities like the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation — founded by Murphy Oil President and CEO Claiborne Deming, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman Jr., financier Jackson T. “Steve” Stephens Jr., and Arvest Bank Chairman Jim Walton — demanding “accountability” in exchange for their tax dollars, does a school like West Memphis really stand a chance against a school like Springdale?

We all want schools to meet basic standards, but some areas are inherently more disadvantaged than others. If West Memphis gets its funding cut further because it can’t keep up with better-funded Springdale, the students there will have even less opportunity to improve their station in life. And so the rout continues, fueled by people who resent spending even a small portion of their wealth where it does not benefit them. They want to apply the mercy rule on all of their opponents.

Meanwhile the chasm between the haves and have-nots continues to grow. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman this week examined why most Americans think the economy is getting worse even when certain indicators show it is getting better. The reason, he wrote, is that as corporate profits have soared more than 50 percent since 2001, real median household income has fallen for five years straight and real wage and salary income only rose by less than 7 percent.

And last month a panel appointed by President George W. Bush recommended tax reforms that The New Republic said are “tilted toward taxing work and rewarding wealth.”

That is an excellent description of what is happening in this country. The big lie being perpetrated by modern-day “conservatives” is that they are against taxing and spending. In reality, they merely want to disproportionately shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the working class and spend the proceeds on corporate subsidies and contracts instead of public education and basic social services. And they are willing to use their considerable resources and influence to fund the private foundations and elect the people who will do their bidding.

To which we can only respond, “Mercy.”


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