A few weeks ago I wrote an editorial decrying the boring and pointless nature of All-Star games as undermining the true spirit of sports: competition. And yet now I am about to defend something which many pundits view as a far more pressing threat to the integrity of sports, a practice that they say turns off fans and actually incentivises the negative aspect of sports, losing. I speak of course of tanking.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, tanking refers to the idea of a team intentionally losing—or more accurately, placing itself in a position to lose—with the intention of reaping long-term benefits, usually in the form of acquiring of new player through the draft. In the 21st century sports world where stuffy traditions and “unwritten rules” are becoming increasingly unpopular, the supposedly dishonorable tactic of tanking is becoming more and more prevalent. Famous recent examples include the Indianapolis Colts’ “Suck for Luck” campaign to secure the draft rights to Stanford QB Andrew Luck, the Houston Astros’ four year run as one of the worst teams in baseball in an effort to stockpile talent and the Philadelphia 76ers’ ongoing attempt to escape the doldrums of the middle ground of the NBA by drafting young talent in the hopes of uncovering a superstar.
As someone who loves watching competitive games even when my own team loses, tanking definitely leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t like the idea of tuning into a matchup only to realize that the ownership of one (or worse, both!) of the franchises secretly wants their team to lose. It feels like something out of a cheesy 80s movie. But as long as sports continue to award the worst teams in the league with the highest picks in the draft, a system that is actually intended to increase parity and competitiveness, there are teams that will try to take advantage.
And can you really blame them? Look at the Colts, who have thrived since they drafted Luck, a Hall of Fame talent off to one of the best starts to a career in NFL history. Fans of the team were actually mostly onboard with the losing strategy in 2011 because they saw it as the quickest way towards relevance again and four years later, they were right; nobody is complaining about having Luck! Still, the perceived success of tanking is divergent from sport to sport and one could argue that the strategy is different in football—where a single impactful QB could change the trajectory of a franchise—than a sport like baseball, where success is more contingent on the sum of parts making up the team and the draft is so much more mercurial.
Yet look at the Astros and the Kansas City Royals. Both have been hailed as among the most ambitious tanking jobs in baseball history, trading away established stars in order to acquire a plethora of draft picks, and both had to deal with long runs of sustained losing seasons. But in 2015, both made the playoffs with the latter emerging as World Series champions and the former boasting a roster stocked full of young superstars that projects to be successful for years to come. Win just once and the long years of suffering for a franchise are all but forgotten, just ask fans of the Boston Red Sox or Golden State Warriors. So does there exist a logical counter argument to tanking?
If there is one, it’s in the trainwreck that is the Philadelphia 76ers. Currently sitting at 8–46 and boasting a roster of glorified D-Leaguers, the 76ers are the worst team in the NBA by a significant margin. It’s been three years since they blew up their roster, tired of being stuck in the quagmire of 30–40 win NBA teams and there is hardly a light at the end of the tunnel. One can see the logic behind 76ers GM Sam Hinkie’s strategy: his team was not good enough to make the playoffs and too talented to get one of the highest picks. Basketball, more than any other major American team sport, can be dominated by a single transcendent superstar and Hinkie wanted to try his hand at acquiring the next Kareem, Jordan or LeBron. The only problem is that he hasn’t even come close to succeeding. But it’s not like he hasn’t drafted talent! Michael Carter-Williams was the Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, Jahlil Okafor is in the mix this year and Joel Embiid—yet to play an NBA game due to injury—is one of the most imposing physical specimens in league history. But for whatever reason you want to ascribe it to, be it bad coaching, poor chemistry or just a serious case of the injury bug, the team appears no closer to returning to relevance than when it started. There is a lingering fear amongst many fans and league insiders that the team’s efforts might all be for naught.
So with all that, why do I support tanking? Two years from now, perhaps after the 76ers draft the next big “sure-thing” superstar Ben Simmons and become a force, we’ll be able to disregard that entire last paragraph. We are forced to examine their lack of success through the prism of the moment and that’s just not fair when we can see how other tanking teams had the strategy ultimately work in their favor. The bottom line is that a team’s ownership has the right to do whatever it takes within the rules to get better, and as long as the players they do put out there aren’t trying to lose (which nobody would, since every individual is always playing for their future in the league), how can we sit here and fault a team for simply having a weak roster?