A mercy rule—also known by the terms slaughter rule, knockout rule and skunk rule—brings a sports event to an early end when one team has a very large and presumably insurmountable lead over the other team. It is called the mercy rule because it spares the losing team the humiliation of suffering a more formal loss, and denies the winning team the satisfaction thereof, and prevents running up the score, a generally discouraged practice in which the opponent continues to score beyond the point when the game has become out of hand. The mercy rule is most common in North America and primarily in North American sports such as baseball or softball, where there is no game clock and play could theoretically continue forever, although it is also used in sports such as ice hockey and American football. It is very rare in competitive sports beyond the high school level.
The rules vary widely, depending on the level of competition, but nearly all youth leagues and high school sports associations, and many college sports associations have mercy rules for sports including baseball, softball, American football (though not college) and association football.
However, mercy rules usually do not take effect until a prescribed point in the game (e.g., the second half of an Association football game). That means one team, particularly if they are decidedly better than a weaker opponent, can still "run up the score" before the rule takes effect. For instance, in American football, one team could be ahead by 70 points with three minutes left in the first half; in baseball, the better team could have a 20-run lead in the second inning, but the game would continue.
Baseball and softball
International competitions are sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), formed by the 2013 merger of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) and International Softball Federation (ISF).
In baseball competitions, including Olympic competitions (discontinued after 2008) and the World Baseball Classic (WBC), games are currently ended when one team is ahead by 10 runs, once at least seven completed innings are played by the trailing team. In women's competition, the same applies after five innings.
The inaugural WBC in 2006 followed the IBAF mercy rule, with an additional rule stopping a game after five innings when a team is ahead by at least 15 runs. The mercy rules applied to the round-robin (now double-elimination) matches only, and not to the Semi-Finals or Final.
In Little League Baseball and Softball, rules call for the game to end if the winning team is ahead by 10 runs after four innings (3½ innings if the home team is ahead).
Softball rules are different for fast/modified fast pitch and slow pitch. In WBSC-sanctioned competitions, the run ahead rule (the WBSC terminology) is, for fast or modified fast pitch, 20 runs after three innings, 15 after four, or 7 after 5. In slow pitch, the margin is 20 runs after four innings or 15 after five. The NCAA has also adopted this rule.
In NCAA and NAIA college baseball, the game will end if a team is ahead by at least 10 runs after seven innings in a scheduled 9-inning game. Most NCAA conferences only apply the rule on the final day of a series for travel reasons or during conference tournaments in order to allow the next game to start. The rule is not allowed in NCAA tournament play where all games must be at least nine innings.
In NCAA softball, the rule is invoked if one team is ahead by at least eight runs after five innings and, unlike with college baseball, applies in the NCAA tournament as well with the exception of the championship series. In American high school softball, most states use a mercy rule of 20 runs ahead in three innings or 10 in five innings. (In either case, if the home team is ahead by the requisite number of runs, the game will end after the top half of the inning.)
Most state high school associations (where games are seven innings) have rules where a baseball game ends after the winning team has built a 10-run lead and at least five innings have been played; some associations further this rule ending a game after either three or four innings if the lead is at least 15 runs. For softball, the rule is 12 after three innings, and 10 after five. However, since the home team has the last at-bat, the rules usually allow visiting teams to score an unlimited number of runs in the top half of an inning. This can be prevented by only invoking the rule after the home team has completed their half of the inning.
Due to the untimed nature of innings, some leagues impose caps on the number of runs that can be scored in one inning, usually in the 4-8 range. This ensures that games will complete in a reasonable length of time, but it can also mean that a lead of a certain size becomes insurmountable due to the cap, however, this can be prevented by not invoking the rule in this or similar circumstances.
At the middle or high school level, 34 states use a mercy rule that may involve a "continuous clock" – that is, the clock continues to operate on most plays when the clock would normally stop, such as an incomplete pass – once a team has a certain lead (e.g., 35 points) during the second half. This greatly decreases the amount of time taken for a game to complete which reduces the leading team's chances to score more and time that the trailing team must spend facing an insurmountable deficit. In most states, the clock would stop only for scores, time outs (officials', injury or charged) or the end of the quarter. Plays that would normally stop the clock, such as penalties, incomplete passes, going out of bounds or change of possession, would not stop the clock. The rule varies by state – for example, the clock does not stop upon a score in Colorado or Kansas (regular season games only) unless the score difference is reduced to below the rule-invoking amount.
In most states, once the point differential is reduced to below the mercy rule-invoking amount, normal timing procedures resume until either the end of the game or the mercy rule-invoking point differential is re-established. Most states that have mercy rules waive this rule for the championship game.
In some states, coaches and game officials may choose to end a game at their own discretion at any time during the second half if the continuous clock rule is in effect; this usually happens if a lopsided margin continues to increase or if threatening weather is imminent. Although rare, some states or high school conferences have rules where the team with a very large lead can't run a certain play for the rest of the game, such as a deep pass or outside run.
At the college level, there is no NCAA mercy rule. However, a continuous clock was used on September 5, 2013 beginning in the 4th quarter when the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets had a 63-0 lead against the Elon Phoenix. This was at the request of the Elon coach Jason Swepsona and agreed upon by Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. The Yellow Jackets won the game 70-0.
A continuous clock was used on November 8, 2003 beginning in the 3rd quarter when the Oklahoma Sooners opened up with a 49-0 halftime lead against the Texas A&M Aggies. This was agreed upon by the two coaches and the game ended with the Sooners winning 77-0.
In a 1988 game, Kansas Jayhawks coach Glen Mason asked if a running clock could be used after his team trailed 49-0 at halftime to Auburn. Tigers coach Pat Dye and the officials agreed, and Auburn ended up a 56-7 winner.
In some states (where 8-man and 6-man football is widely used), the rules for 8-man and 6-man football call for a game to end when one team is ahead by a certain score (e.g., 45 or 50 points) at half time or any time thereafter. In other states with 6- or 8-man football, continuous clock rules are used, and the rule may be modified; for instance, in Iowa, the rule goes into effect if the 35-point differential is reached at any time after the first quarter.
If a boxer trails by more than 20 points, the referee stops the fight and the boxer that is leading automatically wins; bouts which end this way may be noted as "RSC" (referee stopped contest) with notations for an outclassed opponent (RSCO), outscored opponent (RSCOS), injury (RSCI) or head injury (RSCH).
While a boxer who loses on the mercy rule is scored RSCOS, and would be similar to a technical knockout in professional boxing, it is not scored a loss by knockout, and the 28-day suspension for losing on a knockout does not apply.
Association Football (Soccer)
IBSA rules require that any time during a game that one team has scored ten (10) more goals than the other team that game is deemed completed. In United States high school soccer, most states use a mercy rule that ends the game whenever one team is ahead by 10 or more goals at any point from halftime onward. Youth soccer leagues use variations on this rule.
In woodsball, if you were within 10 feet (3.0 m) of an opposing player and he was unaware of your presence, it is an etiquette to offer the opposing player a "mercy", that is to offer him a chance to surrender and call himself out of the game, instead of shooting him at close range. The opposing player, however, does not have to accept this "mercy" and can attempt to return fire. This rule, however, is not universal and different fields have different variation and interpretation of the mercy rule.
In high school basketball, many states have a "continuous clock" rule, similar to American football, which takes effect in the second half after a lead grows to a prescribed point (e.g., in Iowa, 35 points or more). The clock stops only for charged, officials' or injury time-outs; or at the end of the third quarter. The clock would not stop in situations where timing would normally stop, such as for fouls, free throws, out-of-bounds plays or substitutions.
The rules vary when normal timing procedures take effect after a lead is diminished (such as due to the trailing team's rally); for instance, in Iowa, normal timing procedures are enforced when the lead is lowered to 25 points, but re-instituted once the lead grows back to 35 or more points. As with other sports, some states offer provisions to allow a team to end the game early by mutual decision of the coaches (for instance, if a large lead continues to grow and the talent disparity is obvious).
- Follow-on (Cricket)
- International Baseball Federation (2008). IBAF Official Competitions Technical/Organisational Norms - Valid only for 2008. Rule C7.8, "Run difference Rule". Accessed on 2008-03-13.
- World Baseball Classic, Inc. 2006 World Baseball Classic: FAQ. Accessed on 2008-03-13.
- International Softball Federation Playing Rules Committee. "Official Rules of Softball (Revised 2005) Rule 5, Sec. 5, "Run Ahead Rule"" (PDF). International Softball Federation. Retrieved 2008-08-14.
- Sugiura, Ken. "Johnson on Duke, Elon, no-huddle". The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Retrieved 5 September 2013.
- Running up the score#Oklahoma
- "Look, Toto!". CNN. 1992-11-02.
- International Blind Sports Federation: Goalball Rules Section 17.7