Should losing on purpose in sports be considered morally corrupt?
March 26, 2015 10:34 AM   Subscribe

The NHL instituted a draft lottery system after the Ottawa Senators flopped to select Alexandre Daigle first overall in 1993. The gambit backfired. Daigle is considered among hockey’s biggest draft busts. Former Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson admitted this month – without providing all the details – his general manager, George McPhee, ordered him to lose down the 1998-99 homestretch to improve draft position. The NBA changed its postseason seeding rules when the 2005-06 Los Angeles Clippers seemingly tanked games to dodge Cuban’s Mavericks in the first round. The 2006 Swedish hockey team lost a game to avoid playing Canada or Russia in the Olympic quarterfinals. Four women’s badminton doubles teams were ejected from the 2012 Olympics for throwing round-robin matches to manipulate their seedings. Last month, two Tennessee high school girls’ basketball teams were banned from their postseason. They tried to lose to each other and avoid playing the defending state champ in the regional tournament. They committed blatant fouls and even shot into the wrong basket. The Ethics of Tanking
posted by everybody had matching towels (77 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes.

Next question?
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:37 AM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


Heh, Senators.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:38 AM on March 26, 2015


yes, losing on purpose is certainly the most significant ethical issue in sports today.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:39 AM on March 26, 2015 [11 favorites]


Losing games, means losing money, which doesn't appease their corporate masters.

Sport is nothing if not short sighted.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:46 AM on March 26, 2015


Any time there's incentive to lose rather than win, it means the league/tournament structure is wrong. Players and teams should not be penalized for doing what they believe is best. Make a note of what went wrong, and fix the rules for the next season/event.

I know it's more of a game than a spectator sport, but the tournament rules of Magic: the Gathering have this right. Intentional draws are allowed, and you may concede at any point, for any reason.

Forcing teams or players to pretend they're playing to win when a loss benefits them is a farce.
posted by explosion at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2015 [24 favorites]


" Advocates and detractors naturally have visceral reactions to the idea of repetitive defeat being an organizational mission. From a moral standpoint, however, gut feelings aren’t enough to determine what’s right or wrong."

Well, they would be sufficient for an expressivist, but boo expressivism.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2015


Ages ago I was playing Total Annihilation (a computer Real Time Strategy game) against a young teenager. He employed one strategy, I employed another.

It looked until very late in the game like he was winning, when I unleashed my overwhelmingly superior forces all at once and wiped him off the map.

He said "wait, that feels like cheating!"

Also: Ever play Scrabble with non-Scrabble players? "But... but... za isn't a word!" / "That's why we agreed on a dictionary first."

Games have mechanics. Mechanics are set by rules. If you want to play by some other set of rules, that's fine, go do that, but don't whine when people who've taken the time to learn what the rules are choose to play by them. That's just bad sportsmanship.
posted by straw at 10:50 AM on March 26, 2015 [24 favorites]


Any time there's incentive to lose rather than win, it means the league/tournament structure is wrong. Players and teams should not be penalized for doing what they believe is best. Make a note of what went wrong, and fix the rules for the next season/event.

I know it's more of a game than a spectator sport, but the tournament rules of Magic: the Gathering have this right. Intentional draws are allowed, and you may concede at any point, for any reason.

Forcing teams or players to pretend they're playing to win when a loss benefits them is a farce.


Congratulations, you just justified red in tooth capitalism!
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:51 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Any time there's incentive to lose rather than win, it means the league/tournament structure is wrong. Players and teams should not be penalized for doing what they believe is best. Make a note of what went wrong, and fix the rules for the next season/event.

A thousand times this. People's natural impulse is to win and to succeed; athletes 10 times so. If a team is conspiring to lose on purpose, you've screwed up the incentives so terribly that people find themselves compelled to act against their own natural tendencies. That's on you, not on them. If you want good sportsmanship so much, stop punishing it.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:52 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


There are lots of situations where the whole "give 110%" for every game just simply doesn't make any sense. There are a bunch of examples in Football that I can think of off hand where a team started a late season game without most of their usual starting lineup because they wanted to rest them or hedge against injuries in a game that didn't matter anyway... and noone seems to speak ill of that.

But yeah it looks bad and is definitely against the spirit of the game to Tank on purpose. I don't think any rules need to be changed or anyone needs to spend time shaming the Sabres here but it's definitely not treating their fans or their players in a respectful manner.
posted by cirhosis at 10:52 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


The further we get from bedrock right-and-wrong arguments about happiness or death or whatnot, the less useful I find it to debate over whether something is “morally” right or wrong.

It’s true that a tanking GM is not just losing for losing’s sake; he’s following what he thinks is the best path to an eventual championship. Lord knows that in the 76ers’ case they’ve tried the other thing for quite a while; the closest they’ve been to a championship since 1983 was in 2001, when Allen Iverson dragged them into the finals almost single-handedly only to get swept by the Lakers.

It’s also true that tanking is only a legitimate strategy in leagues that have a draft and that give the top draft picks to the worst teams from the season before. That is a noble idea, and on balance I think said leagues are better off with that system than without it. But this doesn’t happen in leagues that don’t have drafts, or in leagues where the worst teams get relegated to a lower league.

Thus to me it’s not worth arguing whether tanking is morally corrupt; whether it is or isn’t, it’ll still be employed as long as GMs think it’s a viable strategy. So I agree that it’s up to the NHL to discourage tanking by tweaking the incentive structure. (Though the NBA has been trying that for years and it doesn’t seem to have dissuaded tanking in that league.)

More generally, if someone is doing something that we think is shady or underhanded or against the spirit of something-or-other… well, we’re free to express our moral disapproval, but I wish we devoted an equal amount of energy toward changing the environment that enables the behavior. Hence changing filibuster rules instead of trying to shame senators into not filibustering. Hence making sure the last two group games in the World Cup are played simultaneously instead of expecting teams not to act in their obvious best interest.
posted by savetheclocktower at 10:56 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


What?

So let's imagine I'm a business owner, and for some reason I produce a ton of toxic waste.

I have two options: dump in the river behind my shop (cheap), or safely dispose/recycle it (more expensive).

Somehow, the government f'ed up their laws and nothing is there to force me not to dump the toxic waste in the river.

The question that is asked by this article is: "Is it ethical for me to dump toxic waste in the river, since in doing so I make more money?". Note that the question is not "Should I...?" but "Is it ethical...?" - two very different questions!

Same reasoning can be applied to bankers taking excessive risk with big bonuses, cheating on girlfriends cause it locally makes you more happy, torturing maybe terrorists, etc, etc...

I know, these are all more "drastic" examples than the NHL, but the reasoning still applies!
posted by Riton at 11:04 AM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


More generally, if someone is doing something that we think is shady or underhanded or against the spirit of something-or-other… well, we’re free to express our moral disapproval, but I wish we devoted an equal amount of energy toward changing the environment that enables the behavior. Hence changing filibuster rules instead of trying to shame senators into not filibustering. Hence making sure the last two group games in the World Cup are played simultaneously instead of expecting teams not to act in their obvious best interest.

The problem with this argument is that you're giving the green light to the rules lawyer, who is always going to be one step ahead of you. It's basically throwing in the towel, and saying that by expecting people to act in their own interests, we lose any right to hold them accountable for those decisions. Which is why I pointed out that you justify the brutal capitalism of "got mine, fuck you" - because you don't get to leave these ethics on the field of play.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:09 AM on March 26, 2015


This is a huge problem for the Leafs right now.


Yeah...that's it...
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:10 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, you can wrap this around high-minded philosophy all you want, the fact is, if there is a system in place that actively rewards taking a particular action, it seems rather pie in the sky to expect people to refrain from taking that action due to some higher sense of morals. As others have said, the solution is to fix the underlying problem that rewards tanking, not expecting people not to do it just because "it's the right thing to do".
posted by The Gooch at 11:10 AM on March 26, 2015


I know, these are all more "drastic" examples than the NHL, but the reasoning still applies!

There's a difference in kind, not in scale. Sports games are games -- actions are morally neutral as long as you follow the rules. It's not assault to hit someone with a dodgeball, it's not corruption to make deals in Monopoly, and it's not wrong to lose one game as part of winning an overall tournament. Dumping toxic waste in a river is not the equivalent of playing to win while still following the rules, it's the equivalent of injuring the other players.
posted by Rangi at 11:11 AM on March 26, 2015 [17 favorites]


> The problem with this argument is that you're giving the green light to the rules lawyer, who is always going to be one step ahead of you. It's basically throwing in the towel, and saying that by expecting people to act in their own interests, we lose any right to hold them accountable for those decisions. Which is why I pointed out that you justify the brutal capitalism of "got mine, fuck you" - because you don't get to leave these ethics on the field of play.

I’m not saying that we have no right to be mad at the rules lawyers. I’m saying that changing the rules is, in my experience, far more effective than hoping that our disapproval will shame them into the behavior we want from them. Fight on both fronts.

And I know that I intentionally broadened the topic, but I should point out that I also distinguish between rules-lawyering in sporting events (whose outcomes typically result in no deaths and, in the grand scheme, a very shallow kind of pleasure/suffering) and rules-lawyering in a context where exploiting loopholes can result in true human suffering.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:17 AM on March 26, 2015


Except that in many tournaments, an intentional loss is, in fact, against the rules (hence why the two badminton teams were disqualified at the Olympics.) And much of the damage that you saw during the Great Financial Meltdown was not against the law, yet had massive deleterious effects for many.

The actual underlying question is can an actor be held ethically/morally responsible for the deleterious effects of acting in their own interest, which I would hope would have a resounding yes response.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:19 AM on March 26, 2015


And the "deleterious effects" in a sporting competition is...?
posted by smidgen at 11:22 AM on March 26, 2015


And I know that I intentionally broadened the topic, but I should point out that I also distinguish between rules-lawyering in sporting events (whose outcomes typically result in no deaths and, in the grand scheme, a very shallow kind of pleasure/suffering) and rules-lawyering in a context where exploiting loopholes can result in true human suffering.

I don't, because while the stakes may differ, the argument remains the same. To say "it's sort of okay in A, but definitely not okay in B" strikes me as a form of moral cherry picking.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:23 AM on March 26, 2015


To me, the issue is with short term (winning every game) and long term (winning championships). Also, I think part of the decision is based on fan reaction. THe Yankees have sold their fans a bill of goods that says you pay up to see us and we will make every effort to win every game and be in the playoffs. So they spend money on free agents (or used to) like a drunken lottery winner. Is that ethical knowing that some of the small market teams cannot compete? In baseball, where the draft is much more of a crapshoot, tanking makes little to no sense. In basketball where 2 or 3 players can make a material difference, the 76ers and the Knickerbockers are acting rationally, we all just don't agree on ethically.

I think another factor that plays into this is the betting lines. The leagues can try to ignore it or even embrace them, but the sense of fairness to the bettors that are betting legally (or not) says that both teams will be trying their best to win. If I were Vegas odds makers, I would not even take book on some teams or some games. That is not to say they are shaving points, but you just never know what level will come out for both teams. Up by 25 with 7 minutes to go, I can see the game ends up a 15 point game because the leading team put in their subs to rest their starters.

I personally fall into the virtue theory.
posted by 724A at 11:23 AM on March 26, 2015


And the "deleterious effects" in a sporting competition is...?

It undermines the legitimacy of the result of the competition.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:26 AM on March 26, 2015


Allen Iverson dragged them into the finals almost single-handedly only to get swept by the Lakers.

Hey, they won the first game in LA!
posted by grog at 11:30 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


> Except that in many tournaments, an intentional loss is, in fact, against the rules (hence why the two badminton teams were disqualified at the Olympics.)

Yes, and a tournament has every right to put in a “don’t tank” rule, but that won’t change the incentives. A tournament in which it is ever beneficial to lose is poorly designed. It’s not the athletes’ fault if they get put into such a situation. A rule against tanking would only have the effect of making athletes practice harder at making their tanking subtler.

> I don't, because while the stakes may differ, the argument remains the same. To say "it's sort of okay in A, but definitely not okay in B" strikes me as a form of moral cherry picking.

I don’t consider it cherry-picking to treat two situations differently when those situations differ vastly in their consequences. I’m not trying to distill morality into a small number of rules with broad applicability.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:31 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


> Hey, they won the first game in LA!

Whoops! Sorry. Was working from my faulty memory.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:31 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


"I'm glad I got drafted first, because no one remembers number two." - Alexander Daigle.
posted by dances with hamsters at 11:35 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


Forcing teams or players to pretend they're playing to win when a loss benefits them is a farce.

Hardly. It's the perfect time to let your backup goalie get a shot, to shuffle your lines or to bring up a prospect from the minors. You don't lose on purpose, you just increase the level of risk and the odds adjust accordingly.
posted by furtive at 11:36 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's interesting.

In cycling, there are situations in which losing on purpose isn't seen as inethical - rather, just a sensible, self-interested short-term strategy.

A common situation is in a multi-stage race when there are two (or more) riders who have escaped from the field. One may be riding for a stage win and the other may be riding for the overall win (and thus simply trying to maximize the time gap over the pursuing field). Therefor it's quite common for a pair in this situation to split the spoils, so to speak. One, content with gaining time over rivals, lets the other one ride away for the stage win.

Of course, professional cycling is different than most sports because you have 18 teams all competing against each other. It's never simply about doing the best you can - there are always alliances and situations where it appears that you're working for the benefit of another team instead of yourself.
posted by entropone at 11:41 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Forcing teams or players to pretend they're playing to win when a loss benefits them is a farce.

Hardly. It's the perfect time to let your backup goalie get a shot, to shuffle your lines or to bring up a prospect from the minors. You don't lose on purpose, you just increase the level of risk and the odds adjust accordingly.


Which brings up another issue. Isn't it morally justified to lose a baseball game in April if it means finding out if your rookie pitcher can get out of a no-outs, bases loaded situation rather than discovering it in September, or worse, October?
posted by dances with hamsters at 11:46 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would think changing the incentive structure here would be relatively simple (famous last words, I know). Change the draft rules do the period of time for which wins:losses are used to calculate draft positions doesn't coincide with the season.

So if the draft evaluation interval ran from 2 months into one season to two months into the next, then teams who wanted to tank would have to do it well before they were out of the running for the current season. They wouldn't be accepting the inevitable this-isnt-our-year, they'd be sacrificing any possibility that it might be.

Major sports leagues: memail me for an address you can send my consulting fees cheque to. You're welcome.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:48 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


It undermines the legitimacy of the result of the competition.


Does it? Or was the legitimacy already in question because the seeding or incentives were screwed up?

I don't, because while the stakes may differ, the argument remains the same. To say "it's sort of okay in A, but definitely not okay in B" strikes me as a form of moral cherry picking.

Oh, come on, are we going to adopt this silly religious argument now? We all cherry pick. IMO, pretending that you can boil moral rules down like this, without consideration of any context, to me, is the source of far more misery in the world than throwing games or even "red-toothed capitalism". At least you know the rules these people are following (and can change them).

Adopting a generic moral code, and pretending that every situation is exactly the same -- well, that is just avoiding having to think, for the most part. There is a reason that sometimes the law is rather complex and we have Jury trials, etc, and it's not always because people are intentionally gaming the system.
posted by smidgen at 11:56 AM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, and a tournament has every right to put in a “don’t tank” rule, but that won’t change the incentives. A tournament in which it is ever beneficial to lose is poorly designed. It’s not the athletes’ fault if they get put into such a situation. A rule against tanking would only have the effect of making athletes practice harder at making their tanking subtler.

And I think this is where our fundamental disconnect is - you're trying to remove any culpability from the athletes not following the rules as presented to them because violating them is incentivized, whereas I have no problem holding them accountable for their conduct.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:02 PM on March 26, 2015


Disclosure: Senators fan

The Senators did not tank in 1992. They were legitimately horrible. It was an expansion team set up by people who did not know how to run a hockey team. At the expansion draft, they selected 3 or 4 ineligible players. At one point they had not won a road game in 39 consecutive tries (a season in 82 games long, so basically all year). They didn't win one until the end of the year, and the players celebrated like they had just won the Stanley Cup. During the preseason camp, the team's leader in stats was an embedded reporter who had volunteered to cover the early days of the new team! They finished with 10 wins and 70 losses, understandably.

The race for first pick actually came down to the last game of the season, and the expansion Senators had to play the 2nd best team in the league, featuring contemporary greats like Adam Oates, Joe Juneau, Ray Bourque, and Cam Neely. The Senators best guys? Tell me you honestly remember Norm McIver and Jamie Baker. Neither was benched. They lost, because they were really bad at hockey.

What this comes down to was Bruce Firestone drunkenly ranting "off the record" to reporters after a disastrous season. He was asked what would happen if the teams they were scheduled to face decided to rest their best players on an "easy night" against a team like the Senators. He said he'd have a contingency plan of bringing up a bunch of youngsters without experience to play. But it didn't happen. It was Firestone trying to save face and show he was going to AT LEAST salvage a first overall pick out of it.

On to Daigle. The Senators were dumb to hype him as much as they did, like he was the second coming. But he was not a bad player by any means. He had multiple 50+ point seasons, and there have been worse producing first overall picks since then (Patrik Stefan, Nail Yakupov). But you don't hear about that, because?....well my theory because most of Canada's sports media is centered around Toronto and they kinda hate Ottawa.
posted by Hoopo at 12:02 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


I do think a team should be held culpable if they threw the game and throwing the game is against the rules, but not if it isn't, just to be clear. If the rules are fucked up such that a team is in conflict, they should consider lobbying to change them in some way, not throwing the game illegally (within the context of the sport).
posted by smidgen at 12:06 PM on March 26, 2015


And I think this is where our fundamental disconnect is - you're trying to remove any culpability from the athletes not following the rules as presented to them because violating them is incentivized, whereas I have no problem holding them accountable for their conduct.

You're arguing that they should be playing as hard as they can, because the rules say so. Even though a loss would be much better for their future prospects.

We're arguing that a rule that demand a team play to win every time is dumb. Fix the draft/tournament structure, and teams will be incentivized to win, rather than to lose.

It's so easy to set up structures to make it so that a win is never effectively a penalty. Don't let lazy league officials hide behind "it's the rules."
posted by explosion at 12:07 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Simple example: if 4 teams are qualifying for a playoff, instead of seeding 1v4, and 2v3, let the #1 seed choose whether they'd like to play against #3 or #4.
posted by explosion at 12:09 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Actually, that's a neat idea, does anyone do that now?
posted by smidgen at 12:11 PM on March 26, 2015


The actual underlying question is can an actor be held ethically/morally responsible for the deleterious effects of acting in their own interest, which I would hope would have a resounding yes response.

Obviously they can, but the more interesting question is whether that's the most effective way to fix the problem at hand. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.

In this case, the effort required to determine whether a team lost intentionally is pretty high relative to the harm caused. It's also not very reliable. Fixing the rules so that's not even necessary seems more effective in the long run.
posted by ripley_ at 12:14 PM on March 26, 2015


I mean, reductio ad absurdum works both ways here.

Say the NHL had an even more ridiculous rule incentivizing teams to lose - for example, the winner of the Stanley Cup is forced to trade all their players in order to balance out the league. It's not hard to see that changing the rules would be a better solution than holding teams accountable for tanking.
posted by ripley_ at 12:21 PM on March 26, 2015


Isn't this question covered by Don't Hate The Playa, Hate The Game?

Do not fault the successful participant in a flawed system; try instead to discern and rebuke that aspect of its organization which allows or encourages the behavior that has provoked your displeasure.
posted by Walleye at 12:21 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Obviously they can, but the more interesting question is whether that's the most effective way to fix the problem at hand. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.

In this case, the effort required to determine whether a team lost intentionally is pretty high relative to the harm caused. It's also not very reliable. Fixing the rules so that's not even necessary seems more effective in the long run.


And what happens when you can't fix the rules, because the fix introduces its own problems? Not to mention the arms race mentality that develops when you argue that bending the rules to the breaking point is legitimate. At a certain point, arguing that the problem with bad behavior is improper incentivization is arguing that a person has no culpability for their conduct.

That's not to say that improper incentivization cannot be an issue, or bad culture can influence the actions of an individual to a large degree, and that needs to be factored in. But without letting people own the full weight of their actions, you deny them morality.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:23 PM on March 26, 2015


you're trying to remove any culpability from the athletes not following the rules

One thing about how the Sabres, and probably also the 'yotes and Oilers, are tanking is that the athletes are not controlling the tank. Why would they? There's no benefit to the individual athletes, who don't stand to benefit. Playing poorly now means, more likely than not, that they won't be on the team post-tank. Management is doing the tanking by trading away better players in exchange for draft picks* and prospects, and letting a less competitive/more hapless team take the ice each game. Which is nterestingi as a fan - watching the team these past two years (and, like many Sabres fans, embracing the tank) has been an entirely different approach to watching hockey. It's fascinating. Tonight the last place Sabres takes on the second last place Coyotes and I have to be honest, I cannot wait to see what happens.

*"In the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres select the following 30 players...." is a legit running joke
posted by everybody had matching towels at 12:38 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


And what happens when you can't fix the rules, because the fix introduces its own problems?

You fall back on strong social mores, because they happen to be a better fit for that particular problem.

Rulemaking and mores are both useful tools, and it's easy to come up with examples where one is better than the other. Nobody in this thread is arguing that better rules are the solution to every problem (I hope) - they just seem to be the best solution to the very specific problem of tanking in sports leagues.
posted by ripley_ at 12:41 PM on March 26, 2015


Also worth pointing out: the NHL's draft lottery was actually changed for this upcoming draft, too. The worst team in the league still has the best chance at 1st pick overall, but it's only a 20% chance they get it regardless. I believe they're guaranteed at least the second (and Jack Eichel looks like a pretty good consolation prize), but I don't think what Buffalo has been doing is unethical. They had a team that was not working. They made moves geared towards long-term success. They moved some of their best assets, that weren't winning them games anyway, for prospects and picks. Frankly I would take Bogosian and Kane over Stafford and Myers anyway, and if it helps them get a better draft position this year anyway, that's just icing on the cake.

At the end of the day, the players are going to play their best. If they don't, they jeopardize their careers and their earning potential for upcoming contracts. The coach also wants to win. If he doesn't, he gets fired and likely goes into hockey limbo for a while. The "tank", if you want to call it that, in Buffalo is at the general manager level in not ensuring they have a quality team on the ice right now. I don't think teams are morally obligated to strive for the best on-ice product right now at the expense of upcoming years. A lot of teams have financial concerns and players' salaries are going to factor in to who they can actually put out there anyway. If you wanted to stop that, I suppose you'd have to create a very low salary cap and not allow trading draft picks for players?
posted by Hoopo at 12:50 PM on March 26, 2015


Another tanking incident: NASCAR's 2013 "Spingate". The tl;dr is that a driver spun out intentionally in order to help a teammate make the post-season. Why a racing series even has a post-season is a whole separate matter.

Another incident of sports rules having unexpected consequences: a soccer team advanced in a cup match by deliberately scoring a goal against their own side.
posted by mhum at 12:59 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Rulemaking and mores are both useful tools, and it's easy to come up with examples where one is better than the other. Nobody in this thread is arguing that better rules are the solution to every problem (I hope) - they just seem to be the best solution to the very specific problem of tanking in sports leagues.

Except that the argument that I keep seeing is "if they're incentivized to lose, then it's the fault of the incentives alone if the player chooses to, even if doing so is against the rules." And that is what I have an issue with, because it strikes me as an argument that the players need to be pushed to follow the rules, and that they have no agency.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:00 PM on March 26, 2015


Bill James had an article years ago on the simplicity of tank-proofing your league. If you finish in last place, you are out of the major leagues next year and the top minor league team replaces you. This isn't possible in big-time American sports where the big leagues are monopoly powered cartels, though.
posted by bukvich at 1:01 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Part of the ethos of "sports" as a category of activity is "sportsmanship", which is about following a whole set of unwritten "fair play" rules. That's one of the things that allows sports to be thought of as morally edifying, one of the things that gives sports activities extra privilege. People want their children to learn to be good citizens, and one thing that good citizens do is follow the unwritten rules even though it's not to their immediate advantage. That's why sports starts are - or are supposed to be - role models; lots of people are willing to pay to let their children watch and learn from people who are following - or are supposed to be following - the unwritten rules of fair play.
posted by clawsoon at 1:19 PM on March 26, 2015


tournament rules of Magic: the Gathering have this right. Intentional draws are allowed, and you may concede at any point, for any reason. - explosion

No, so very much no. Magic: The Gathering's tournament rules still encourage intentional losses. The player rankings are determined by opponent game win percentage, meaning players who give their opponent an extra game win during the three round match (going 2-1 in the best of three vs 2-0) will rank higher than those who sweep.

There are reasons they do this, and it's mostly to allow for a "big finish" top 8 bracket. I'd recommend reading some of David Sirlin's work to anyone interested in tournament structure.
posted by LiteS at 1:28 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


> And I think this is where our fundamental disconnect is - you're trying to remove any culpability from the athletes not following the rules as presented to them because violating them is incentivized, whereas I have no problem holding them accountable for their conduct.

Earlier I said that the tournament structure is “not the athletes’ fault.” That was not my way of “remov[ing] any culpability” from the athletes; that was just ambiguous phrasing. Otherwise I’m not sure where you get the idea that I’m trying to make the athletes blameless.

> And what happens when you can't fix the rules, because the fix introduces its own problems?

In these hypotheticals we seem to be talking more about the tournament scenario than the season-long tanking scenario, so let me set aside the latter for a moment. (Tanking is typically something that a GM does through personnel selection and isn’t an explicit “try to lose this game” edict given to the athletes.)

It’s my belief that any tournament structure that rewards a team for losing is ill-conceived, and can always be avoided. If a team is losing their last group game so they don’t face the tournament favorite at the beginning of the elimination round, then you can discourage that through random draws in the elimination round. And so on. I’m not saying your hypothetical is impossible, but I’d be surprised if we can come up with a concrete, plausible example.

Now, I’ll meet you halfway here: the badminton teams at the 2012 Olympics were pathetic, and those athletes should be ashamed. If you’ve seen the footage (which is impossible to track down because Olympics) then you’ll understand. They were being blatant about it. They were serving straight into the net. They barely moved. The spectators were booing every single point. Partway through the game, the referee called them aside and told them, in no uncertain terms, to play for real, and nothing changed.

Still, I believe it is cruel for tournament organizers ever to present athletes with this sort of dilemma. Even if every athlete decided to Play Their Hearts Out, consequences be damned, I’d still be mad at the tournament organizers, because they have no right to put the players in that situation.

Pretend that West Germany and Austria, needing a specific result to advance, hadn’t made it completely obvious what they were doing. Pretend that it was a match that, by outward appearances, was hotly contested, and pretend the outcome was the same, and both teams advanced. How could we be sure the match was legitimate?

My point is not that the athletes aren’t culpable in this situation. My point is that if we make it mainly about shaming the athletes, we may just be training them to be less blatant about tanking their games, and we’ll never know for sure. Whereas if tournaments are structured such that a loss is never advantageous, we’ll have proven that any team that genuinely wants to win the tournament is playing to win each individual game.
posted by savetheclocktower at 1:45 PM on March 26, 2015


No. Absolutely not.

Players of any game seek to maximize their success. Within a tournament, the structure of the tournament becomes an extension of the game itself, because of how important bracket placement becomes in subsequent rounds.

I have a hard time with any position that suggests players should do their best to succeed within the smaller game and ignore the implications of doing so in the larger game of the tournament itself -- which is AT LEAST as important as in-game perf.

As has been noted, it should be self-evident that, if you find yourself in a position of needing a rule that forbids tanking, you've already fucked up the structure of the tournament. IMO, it was bullshit that the badminton players were DQ'd, regardless of how blatant they were, because the organizers put them in an impossible position. IMO, Austria and West Germany behaved honorably and rationally (and, apparently, within the rules).
posted by uberchet at 2:11 PM on March 26, 2015


If a team is losing their last group game so they don’t face the tournament favorite at the beginning of the elimination round, then you can discourage that through random draws in the elimination round. And so on. I’m not saying your hypothetical is impossible, but I’d be surprised if we can come up with a concrete, plausible example.

You just gave one. By removing the seeding of the elimination round, you've removed a core incentive for teams to play hard throughout the group phase, as they need only get over the bar that gets them into the elimination bracket. Worse, you open the door for even more toxic manipulations, such as having a team that's secured a slot in the elimination round potentially using their remaining matchups to warp the field in their favor. So while you could do that to solve that one issue, you don't want to, because the cure is worse than the disease.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:18 PM on March 26, 2015


Huh. I feel like a minority by being 100% in favor of strategizing wins and losses as long as it is justifiable for the overall season strategy. The team's job is to execute the plays. The coach and general manager are responsible for delivering a trophy. If losing improves the chances of you getting a trophy at the end of the season for more than just participation that is a good thing.

It's why the last game for the Patriots this season Tom Brady finished early so he was ready and rested and less accessible for injury. This is a common occurrence - you plan and reserve for success of the season.

Watch the Tour de France (that bastion of ethics). Each rider has a strategy and a section that they are stronger in. They don't all ride batshit fast and burn themselves out. They plan where they make their move.
There's a bigger game here and yes, it may not be the one all the fans like at face value - but generally it's the game they want played.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:22 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


No, so very much no. Magic: The Gathering's tournament rules still encourage intentional losses. The player rankings are determined by opponent game win percentage, meaning players who give their opponent an extra game win during the three round match (going 2-1 in the best of three vs 2-0) will rank higher than those who sweep.

I'm sorry, you've got that wrong. The first tiebreaker is opponents' match win percentage, which estimates how tough your opponents were. The second tiebreaker is your own game win percentage, which incentivizes sweeping your opponents. The third tiebreaker is that opponent game win percentage.

I'm a Level 2 judge, and I've played on the Pro Tour. I'm far too deep down that rabbit hole.
posted by explosion at 2:25 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


Professional sports games are ... games. Don't like tanking? Change the rules of the game.

If you hear of someone intentionally losing at checkers by making legal moves when they play against a young child, do you get upset?

I don't follow pro or collegiate sports, so if I hear about tanking, it doesn't upset me much. Millionaires put the ball in the wrong net? Or didn't try hard enough to put the ball in the right net? That sounds very serious.
posted by etherist at 2:42 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Except that the argument that I keep seeing is "if they're incentivized to lose, then it's the fault of the incentives alone if the player chooses to, even if doing so is against the rules." And that is what I have an issue with, because it strikes me as an argument that the players need to be pushed to follow the rules, and that they have no agency."

You seem to be replacing understanding with dudgeon in a lot of this thread.

This may help you rethink the actual situation: Players still have an incentive to perform well. In fact, most of them have performance incentives in their contracts, and barring that would still be more attractive in their next period of free agency if they have better stats. The general mechanism of "tanking" is putting out lines that are weighted with inexperienced players, seeking to develop them and create trade-bait, and pulling stars to avoid unnecessary injuries. At the same time that the manager and coach recognize that the team doesn't stand to gain anything from any more wins. It's incredibly rare that players actively seek to lose the games; generally they're just not given a very good chance at winning.

The moral apoplexy around this becomes even more inane when you think about how sporting seasons work for pretty much all team sports, with baseball being probably the best example due to the size of the team and number of games played. Managers are constantly trying to balance getting the number of wins required to secure a playoff spot, then a seeding, versus the toll put on the players — there's a reason why the best pitcher on a team will still only start every fifth game. And it's expected that after a team has secured a playoff berth, they'll generally field a team full of rookies and minor league call-ups because winning doesn't matter as much as protecting the players from injury and developing the next generation of players.

From that perspective, the comparisons here to dumping toxic waste or rapacious capitalism are absurd (and the capitalism bit is particularly hypocritical from first world people on electronic devices with serious environmental costs) and the moral sturm und drang is unjustified.
posted by klangklangston at 2:58 PM on March 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Professional sports games are ... games. Don't like tanking? Change the rules of the game.

That's easy - as long as you only care about fixing tanking. But once you have to start balancing other issues, it suddenly becomes not so simple. For example, in our tournament example, there's an easy way to completely disincentivize it - use a single elimination format. But the thing is that the single elimination format has a few big issues, like how it can overemphasize luck. Any system is going to have flaws and weaknesses - you have to pick the ones you want to live with.

If you hear of someone intentionally losing at checkers by making legal moves when they play against a young child, do you get upset?

Yes, actually - because they're actually hindering the child's development of learning the game. The opponent should hold back (absolutely destroying them is no good either), but needs to play to win as well.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:58 PM on March 26, 2015


(I say this all as a Piston's fan, whom I would prefer didn't tank, but have been on the tank bubble all season.)
posted by klangklangston at 2:58 PM on March 26, 2015


This may help you rethink the actual situation: Players still have an incentive to perform well. In fact, most of them have performance incentives in their contracts, and barring that would still be more attractive in their next period of free agency if they have better stats. The general mechanism of "tanking" is putting out lines that are weighted with inexperienced players, seeking to develop them and create trade-bait, and pulling stars to avoid unnecessary injuries. At the same time that the manager and coach recognize that the team doesn't stand to gain anything from any more wins. It's incredibly rare that players actively seek to lose the games; generally they're just not given a very good chance at winning.

I would posit that is a fundamentally different scenario from the question asked in the thread title, and one that is significantly more ethically defensible in my opinion. That said, it's one that I would find a bit troublesome, if only for the white flag it symbolizes.

The problem for me comes when you are talking about players intentionally throwing games in order to secure better position in an overarching structure. That's where I see an ethical line crossed, and the argument that "the tournament structure made me do it" rings a bit hollow.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:10 PM on March 26, 2015


I would posit that is a fundamentally different scenario from the question asked in the thread title

Just to be clear, the question in the thread title is a line from the linked article.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 3:34 PM on March 26, 2015


Participants in any tournament have a moral imperative to give their all to every single game

Participants in a marathon have a moral imperative to sprint with all their might at every single moment of the race

Participants in a workplace have a moral imperative to be working or on call 24/7

Participants in an economy have a moral imperative to be spending money at all ti
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:35 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think we just need to be realistic - there's no "perfect" tournament structure if you consider all metrics.

On one extreme we have single elimination style tournaments (if you lose, you're out) which are perfect from a competitive point of view in that the audience knows for sure every team is playing their absolute best in each game, because a single loss eliminates them from the tournament. Downside: large influence of luck: a team with a single "off" match could easily eliminate themselves from the tournament.

On the other extreme there is round robin (play every other team exactly once, highest points wins) which is perfect from a fairness point of view in trying to determine who really is the best team in the field. Every team plays each other, so only truly the best team will prevail. Downside: the "winner" of the tournament may well be determined way in advance of the final few matches as one team accumulates an unassailable lead so the finish is unexciting.

And then we have all kinds of bastardized systems in between which are a compromise between the two. In fact, the hybrid systems expose even worse flaws than the extremes - where there is a sort of round robin stage which then sets seedings for future elimination matches, which most clearly create incentives to deliberately lose in the early stages to influence seedings later. It feels like the more complexity we build into the system the worse it performs. At least in a pure round robin or pure single elimination tournament style there is never an incentive to deliberately lose a match.
posted by xdvesper at 3:51 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Btw, the game that brought about the article is on now and it is GREAT (if you like sloppy, weird hockey with occasional flashes of normalcy).
posted by everybody had matching towels at 4:28 PM on March 26, 2015


Agree that the Senators did not lose on purpose, they just lost because they were terrible. The Quebec Nordiques, on the other hand, did lose on purpose for several seasons in order to grab Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros (not to mention Adam Foote and a few notable, and not so notable, others). I mean the Nordiques lost games despite the fact they had one of the best players in the league in Joe Sakic. However even despite these draft picks they didn't win the cup until 1996 (as the Colorado Avalanche) and none of those 3 first overall picks were on the team (although along the way they did acquire Patrick Roy from Montreal in exchange for an old pair of skates and a broken stick, so that helped).

Losing in order to better position one in the draft has not worked out very well, so I don't have any problems with it, it's a neat part of sports that this kind of thing can happen. The Oilers will now have their third consecutive first overall pick, I am curious to see how that will turn out for them.
posted by Vindaloo at 4:34 PM on March 26, 2015


This is like arguing that in a game of Chess, you must put the king in check if possible, because the point of the game is to capture the king, and to do otherwise is unsportsmanlike and immoral. How could you allow rank trickery like sacrificing a pawn for board position? That's tanking! Cheaters!

Any time you structure a game in a larger format, the entire format itself becomes the game, and any individual match becomes just like a single turn in Chess - you might intentionally 'lose' a game (or sacrifice a rook) to better your position. The point of a tournament is to win the tournament. Otherwise, why do we even have them?

The fix is simple: You can concede at any point, including before the game starts (if the crowd doesn't like this, the crowd should attend better-structured tournaments / leagues). If you and your opponent both want to concede, you play the match for the right to decide who concedes.

This is an immediate and universal fix for any situation where both sides want to lose, and still creates a competitive match for people to watch.
posted by 0xFCAF at 5:08 PM on March 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


I really never understood the opprobrium surrounding tanking. If a team thinks that by losing a lot 1 season they can reasonably be in position to contend for a title for the next 5, why in the world is that a problem? As mentioned we don't think its a moral imperative that marathoners sprint the whole course, we take the actual long view into account.
posted by Carillon at 5:17 PM on March 26, 2015


NoxAeternum: "You just gave one. By removing the seeding of the elimination round, you've removed a core incentive for teams to play hard throughout the group phase, as they need only get over the bar that gets them into the elimination bracket. Worse, you open the door for even more toxic manipulations, such as having a team that's secured a slot in the elimination round potentially using their remaining matchups to warp the field in their favor. So while you could do that to solve that one issue, you don't want to, because the cure is worse than the disease."

I don't think we’re talking about the same thing. The Champions League uses the exact thing I describe: the eight group winners are seeded, and the eight runners-up are unseeded. The unseeded teams don’t know which seeded team they’ll end up playing, and vice-versa, so gamesmanship is useless in the group stage.
posted by savetheclocktower at 8:03 PM on March 26, 2015


"I would posit that is a fundamentally different scenario from the question asked in the thread title, and one that is significantly more ethically defensible in my opinion. That said, it's one that I would find a bit troublesome, if only for the white flag it symbolizes.

The problem for me comes when you are talking about players intentionally throwing games in order to secure better position in an overarching structure. That's where I see an ethical line crossed, and the argument that "the tournament structure made me do it" rings a bit hollow.
"

Since we're talking about how the tanking actually happens, as discussed in the article, it's the same question only with real-world context.

And the larger problem with imputing a moral dimension to this is that sports and tournaments essentially have arbitrary rules, and the only real harm is that the fans get crappy games to watch. That takes it into the "Is it immoral to intentionally half-ass sour cream in a Taco Bell order to get it out drive-through faster" territory for me.
posted by klangklangston at 9:02 PM on March 26, 2015


I'm not sure the Edmonton Oilers can do anything on purpose.
posted by mazola at 10:30 PM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


In the NFL, if you finish last, you get the first draft pick. In the Premier League, if you finish last you get relegated. The Premier League seems fairer to me.
posted by salmacis at 1:44 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you hear of someone intentionally losing at checkers by making legal moves when they play against a young child, do you get upset?

I don't get upset, I get contemptuous. There is no greater opportunity in life to feel utterly and completely victorious and dominant than to stare into the sensitive and insecure face of a 6 year old and bellow "KING ME!" It's the grandpa version of "Give me your clothes, your boots, and the keys to your Harley."
posted by Chitownfats at 2:51 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Last night, my colleague Buffalo News drama critic Colin Dabkowski penned the only thing that has made this pro-tank guilt-plagued tortured Sabres fan laugh in a long, long time.

He covered the Sabres-Coyotes game as theater, and boy it was powerful medicine this morning. "As far as I know the piece is untitled, but may I suggest: "Sabres Coyotes 2015, or, the Unbearable Persistence of Hope.""
posted by Andrew Galarneau at 6:42 AM on March 27, 2015




It's happening in Ultimate, too -- a sport that believes so much in "spirit of the game" that it only barely uses referees.
posted by Etrigan at 11:00 AM on March 27, 2015


The opponent should hold back (absolutely destroying them is no good either), but needs to play to win as well.

This is incoherent, especially for a simple board game.
posted by smidgen at 11:01 AM on March 27, 2015


.I don't, because while the stakes may differ, the argument remains the same. To say "it's sort of okay in A, but definitely not okay in B" strikes me as a form of moral cherry picking.

So, hitting people to get what you want: wrong or not wrong? Let's say A is "I want their wallet" and B is "I want to win this MMA fight".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:35 AM on March 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


The question is ambiguous, because it fails to address the many levels (fractal?) of winning and losing. It seems to assume that winning or losing an individual game is the ultimate goal of a team. But there are other possible goals, at both higher and lower levels of detail. Why is winning an individual game more important than winning a season. In the other direction, a game consists of many smaller interactions, some of which directly contribute to winning a game, others which do not. Is it ethical to ever throw a pitch that isn't a strike in baseball? Is it ever ethical to pass the ball backwards in basketball, when the real goal is to get the ball through the basket? Is it ethical to sacrifice a piece in chess, or take a punch in boxing, if it sets you up for a stellar move later? Should marathoners be required to sprint every lap of a 26 mile race? Tanking a game is equivalent to sacrificing a piece in chess - you lose something now but gain a benefit later. If that isn't what a league considers a desirable outcome, then why did they write the rules to reward that kind of outcome?
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 8:14 PM on March 28, 2015


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