Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Tanking Culture

Zach Lowe writes about the rule changes the NBA is considering to confront tanking.

And, yes it is a serious problem.

The NBA sells competition.  But, if say, 25% of the teams are not trying to win, that means that on any game has about a 50% chance of involving at least one team that is not terribly interested in winning the game.  This does not make for a very compelling product, as a look at the ABC Sunday schedule demonstrates( though, to be fair, the Lakers, Bulls and Knicks are less attractive teams for reasons that have little to do with tanking).

This is a bad deal for fans of the teams that are tanking, but also for fans of the teams that are trying.  A quarter of their season is basically glorified exhibition games.  Add in the random way tanking teams are dumping their available players, and the disease spreads everywhere.

So, I am glad the 76ers historic losing streak received national attention, and not being waved off as part of the grand plan.  The people architecting this (not the players, who aren't very good NBA players, but it's not their fault they've been thrown into water over their heads) should be ashamed of themselves and embarrassed.  If I were ESPN, I would run the name of the owners and general manager along with every 76er score and mention of the losing streak.

Professional sports are based on three basic assumptions:
  1. Executives are making a reasonable effort to put a team capable of winning the most games on the field/court/rink.
  2. Coaches coach , as Herm Edwards said, to "win the game" today.
  3. Players, on every given play, are doing their best to win the individual battles on that play.
Violations of these have been severely punished, particularly on the lowest levels.  It is why the Black Sox were banned from the game.  I've never been a big Pete Rose apologist, but something does seem deeply wrong that he is a pariah from the game for betting on his own team to win, while the 76ers management can blow an entire season with little consequence.

Now, there are some exceptions.  Baseball managers don't use their best pitcher in every game until he gets hurt; they plan their usage.  Players may not go all-out once the outcome of a game is no longer in reasonable doubt.  Teams may decide it is better to get a look at some younger players and get some experience rather than squeeze and extra couple of wins in a season.  Batters may sacrifice bunt to try to score 1 run rather than try for a hit.  

At a point past this, we get to the "aren't I clever!" non-competitive tactics, with the intentional walk serving as the barrier.  Here's where we have things like calling time-out while falling out of bounds, fouling when up by 3, taking an intentional safety, letting the other team score to keep time on the clock, taking a knee rather than scoring when ahead, resting players once a playoff position is known, etc.  I've written what I think about these things before.

What the 76ers are doing is an error on the Level 1 scale.  As Lowe mentions, there have been other teams that have done fishy things, but the scale is unprecedented.  David Silver covers it up by noting that there are no apparent Level 2 or 3 violations, which seems to be true, but that's irrelevant.  They are not being given the tools to be successful.

So, why is this happening now, when the rules haven't changed?

Well, the culture has changed.

It used to be, that a GM who ran his team into the ground like this would be the subject of derision and ridicule and be fearing for his job.  Not any more.  The ridicule is reserved for GMs like, say, Joe Dumars, who are inept in their attempts to win.  Fans of teams that aren't even trying to win are lectured to see the big picture.

What we are witnessing is a sports culture that has its roots in video games rather than the playgrounds.  Nobody would "tank" a pick-up game.  But you might blow a season in a "franchise" video game to land a star for next year.

The difference is, nobody expected anyone else to pay to watch the tanked video games, and no player's career is wasted playing in them.

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