Atomic City Update: District tiebreakers seem unfair for high school athletes

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By Phil Scherer

One of the most confusing aspects of high school sports are the tiebreakers in postseason play, which are often hard for anyone to understand, and don’t always seem completely fair.

This is especially concerning as the winter sports season draws to a close, with the regular season in basketball set to end next week. With district races as close as ever around New Mexico, many of the tiebreaker scenarios could come into play, and could end up having a significant impact on the state tournament.

One of the oddest things about this tiebreaker system is that the rules are different if the tie occurs between the No. 1 and No. 2 seed than if the tie occurs between any other seeds.

In the event that the top two seeds are tied, a winner-take-all playoff game determines the No. 1 seed, which gets a pass directly to the district championship game.

However, if the tie occurs between lower seeds, or if more than two teams are tied, then an entirely different system is used: point differential.

For argument’s sake, let’s say there is a tie for the No. 2 seed in District 2-5A between Capital High School and Del Norte High School. If the teams finish with the same district record and split a pair of games, then point differential becomes the deciding factor. If Capital won the first game by 7 points and Del Norte won the second game by 8 points, Del Norte would earn the No. 2 seed in the district.

On paper, this system seems fine. But there are so many factors that could go into these games that are not accounted for.

What if the star player was missing on one of the teams for one of the matchups? What if the referees in the first game called more fouls than the referees in the second? These factors don’t make the victories any less valid, but could have major impacts on the point totals.

Why would it be so difficult to hold that winner-take-all game to determine seeds, regardless of what place they are in?

And if the schedule does not allow for that, why not consider looking at records against common opponents? That way everything is still based on whether a team won or lost.

There are many possible scenarios that would seem better.

The whole idea of using margin of victory to break ties seems to go against the idea of sports.

You don’t see margin of victory used at any other level of competition to break a tie. When all else fails, college and professional leagues use winner-take-all games to decide a winner. This is seen all the time in Major League Baseball. It would be crazy to use run differential to determine a division champion in baseball, because the league recognizes how different every game is.

Some teams just aren’t built to earn high margins of victory. Teams with a more slow, deliberate approach on offense are likely to earn more close victories, while teams that prefer to run up and down the floor are more likely to earn wide margins of victory when at the top of their games. 

It also changes the way a game can play out. For example, both basketball teams at Los Alamos High School had matchups this week against Albuquerque Academy that could have had ramifications for the district tournament.

The boys needed to beat Albuquerque Academy by at least 10 points to force a tie in the point differential, while the girls needed to beat the Chargers by 8 points to earn the tiebreaker.

Watching the games from the stands, I was trying to figure out what it would take to get to those numbers, and realized that’s not what sports should be about. It should be about winning or losing, not winning by a certain amount.

I realize the rules are similar in other high school sports, like football and soccer, and that things have been done this way for years. I just feel like there has to be a better way to do it.