Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Not exactly sure how losing on purpose got associated with the word "Tanking," but it is and most people understand it when it's used in a sports context. Thinking back through all my years of US sports watching, I seem to remember it always being sort of around. Maybe more of a wink and a nod, but it was there - but it was also rare.

"Back in the old days" it was seen as a shameful act, that tanking. The thought of going into a competition to purposefully lose was once seen as a commandment brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses himself. THOU SHALT NOT LAY PURPOSEFULLY UNDER THE FEET OF THINE ENEMY, it says. Well, almost says.

There is a biblical connection to not losing on purpose that permeates U.S. sporting culture that is sold, repackaged, sold and sold and sold again. In the US it comes in the form of the Great Underdog. And who was one of the first and most famous of all underdogs? Why it was David and his victory over Goliath.

I consider the "never say die, always try your hardest" approach one of the greatest attributes of the United States sporting culture. No matter the odds, no matter the opponent, Americans always believe they can win. It's brought us things like The Miracle on Ice, 1982-83 NC State, Gene Hackman, Rocky and (some might say) saving the day in WWII.

What of this approach now though?

Out in Tennessee a few days ago two high school girls basketball teams played a scheduled match in which they both tried to lose in order to avoid a superior opponent in an upcoming tournament, and thus extend their season. What ended up happening was down right biblical. Reports out of the district have girls time killing, missing shots on purpose and even one side trying to score on themselves. Unconfirmed reports say that after the game there the match there were rivers turning to blood and many locusts.

It's more than fitting (and I kid you not) that one of schools is from Smyrna. A place likely named after biblical city that is mentioned in the Book of Revelations.

In a story from The Tennessean today, fired up columnist David Plazas felt robbed of a potential match up that faced the winner:
"It’s that David-and-Goliath moment when you can test your mettle even if your rival is bigger and better armed than you."
The punishment for the two schools was severe. Each school ended up getting fined (in high school?) as well as kicked out of the tournament all together. I can't get over that. Applying a fine to a high school for trying to gain an advantage in a system they didn't create reminds me of one of my favorite Charles Frazier lines from Cold Mountain;
"Every piece of this is man's bullshit. They call this war "a cloud over the land" but they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say "Shit, it's rainin'!"


Last place wins
Great rewards await anyone who tries their hardest. No question. But in the realm of athletic competition in this country, where the spoils of losing at our highest levels greatly benefit and reward failure, it's hardly surprising that we see teams at the high school level mimic pro teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or (dare we say) Columbus Blue Jackets.

Tanking in the major sports in the US is rewarded via high draft picks and extra money usually (in the case of MLS, not making the playoffs gets you just about as much as making it). Player movement in domestic sport is so restrictive that sometimes tanking has become a necessity.

As close as a few years ago, you would rarely hear of fans and columnists and even analysts openly approving of teams tanking it. There's been a shift in that approach recently though. Complete shift. So much so that we see "star" players dropping out of season all together towards the end to help get a jump on the next year (Kyrie Irving last couple years before LeBron and I'll put Kobe in that mix this year, moving surgery up). I know plenty Cleveland Browns' fans that regularly route for losing after the first few games so they can get better picks.

Tanking-It is now seen as a prudent competitive approach. "Gamesmanship," is what some are calling it. It's hard to disagree with it, really. But herein lies the issue. Teams breaking one of the commandments of sports is merely a bi-product of the ridiculousness of league set ups. Losing is rewarded, so why not lose.

There are those out there, like Plazas, that will always condemn the idea of losing on purpose but never quite understand why they think that way. Which is unfortunate.

Effort in the face of long odds use to be what we structured our leagues around in the US. Now the scales have tipped way too far in favor of not even trying. What we are left with is rewarding people trying to gain at failure instead of actually punishing poor performance. It's all mixed up.


Sixers are still in it!!
Not doing well in your conference? Well you still within striking distance in your division, right? No? What about taking down that regional rival?  Hmmm. US leagues are bloated. So many teams but only one winner. The remedy for that is breaking it up into smaller groups so that you (FAN) don't ever really feel that far away from winning SOMETHING, but if you are too far away from even any of that? Tank it and reap the rewards of failure.

Actual competition in this country has gotten so convoluted, it's hard to tell that most of it is a charade to keep you tuned in. We have gotten so far away from actual, honest competition that we think have a four team playoff is a "fair" way to determine a National Champion when most of the 100 + D1 schools haven't, don't and probably never will, play each other.

The competitive models in our major leagues need to be re-examined, re-thought and re-booted. Otherwise we are forever doomed to watching half the teams in any league engage in a rat race to the bottom - celebrating them all along the way while wondering what the hell happened to the American Way.

1 comment:

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