Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Integrity of game play: Ethics of tanking

Editor’s note: Check back in the coming days for additional content to this post which will feature a deep-dive discussion on the moral code of tanking and the practice’s themes and applications between me, from a compliance and ethics perspective, and my husband, Bill Afonso, from a sports management and strategy perspective.

This is the second in a series of five posts on the topic of integrity of game play.  Last week’s post discussed player misconduct, such as penalty embellishment, like diving and flopping, and equipment cheating.  Today’s post is about the ethics of tanking and will question the morality of the practice across various sports and situations.  Next week’s post, on March 7, will be about how instances of referee bias impact games, players, and teams.  The fourth post, on March 14, will be about institutional cheating by team organizations.  The fifth and final post, on March 21, will be about coaches who have demonstrated unethical leadership practices.

Tanking is loosely defined as relying upon poor performance in order to ensure future benefit or competitive advantage based upon bottom of the table results. Internal decisions within the team organization can be planned and intended for the purpose of gaining future advantage via sustained losses or refraining from employing the most competitive strategies.   This can include roster manipulations such as sitting key players or keeping others in the minor leagues or farm systems, as well as actually instructing players actively in the game to underperform or to pursue strategies they expect to be unsuccessful or unproductive in order to deliberately lose the game(s).

Tanking recently came into the news due to media attention on Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA basketball team Dallas Mavericks. Cuban, a billionaire with celebrity status who is known for bold and attention-grabbing statements and stunts and is no stranger to controversy both as the owner of the Mavericks and in general, admitted on a podcast to an overt tanking strategy.  Cuban stated that he had instructed his players that tanking the rest of their season was the best prospect for them given a prolonged losing streak that had put them out of playoff contention.  These public remarks provoked outrage and cries of foul play.  In response, the NBA fined Cuban $600,000 for his statements, which they referred to as “detrimental” to the league.  Check out this Business Insider article for more on this:  “Losing is our best option”: Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for publicly admitting the Mavericks are tanking

Some examples of tanking, or its impact, in various sports include:

  • Tanking in baseball: Houston Astros – The Houston Astros had a long period of losing seasons and inconsistent performance in the late 2000s and early 2010s before their return to playoff contention in 2015 and their ultimate victory as World Series champions in 2017.   Many have attributed these years as part of a tanking strategy in order to prepare for a World Series berth.  For more on this perspective check out these articles: from Sports Illustrated, Forget the Underdog Label – the Astros Got to the World Series by Tanking and from Business Insider, How the Astros pulled off the biggest tank in MLB history and built a World Series champion
  • Tanking in basketball: Philadelphia 76ers – “Trust The Process” is the mantra of the ongoing rebuild of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball franchise. True to the spirit of Philadelphia sports (check out this post on the Philadelphia Eagles for another angle on that), starting in 2013 the 76ers organization leaned into the expectations of others that they would be competitively unsuccessful and unworthy of appreciation. “The Process” is the cultural reference to this rebuild, aiming to inspire faith in their often-beleaguered fans as well as provide a response to their ever-present critics. From the perspective of the 76ers, “The Process” involves, at some turns, getting worse in order to get better.   For more on the history and progress of The Process, check out these articles: from Bleacher Report, The Definitive History of “Trust The Process” and from Quartz, “Trust The Process”: How three years of losing on purpose turned a basketball team into winners
  • Tanking in hockey: Pittsburgh Penguins – In hockey, the teams at the bottom of the league table one season have a chance at the first pick in the draft for the next season. Therefore teams with bad records and hopes of rebuilding or getting elite players in the draft have an incentive to reach for the worst record.       This was evident in the performance of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had the worst record in the 1983 season and were plagued with financial troubles throughout the 1984 season. At the end of the 1984 season, the Penguins made numerous moves that to many appeared strategically intended to aid them in their quest to surpass the New Jersey Devils as the worst team in the league at the finish.       Both the Penguins and the Devils wanted the chance to draft Mario Lemieux in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.  However, for the Penguins, team leadership saw Lemieux as the ticket for the ultimate survival of the franchise, therefore emboldening them to make an intentional decision in “Tanking for Lemieux.” For more on “Tanking for Lemieux,” check out this article on the Hockey-Graphs blog, The Art of Tanking: The Pittsburgh Penguins in 1983-84 and watch this TSN documentary that describes the choices made by management to execute the tanking strategy and questions the impact of its success on the future fate on the team:

  • Tanking in football: Impact on competition – Compared to tanking in the above sports, the NFL has traditionally had an unspoken honor code that would scorn any such manipulations of the records. However, in recent years rumors of tanking campaigns have started to ramp up, as pursuing draft picks became a bigger priority for teams rather than some pretense of protecting the competitive sanctity of the sport.  For more on tanking in the NFL and the potential destructive influence of it on football if the trend develops, check out this article from The Ringer: The NFL’s Tanking Nightmare
  • Tanking in the Olympics: 2012 Badminton scandal – Finally, it seems that the Olympics are prone to every scandal or malpractice imaginable, and tanking is no exception. At the 2012 London Olympics there was a heated controversy over disqualification of badminton players for tanking at the Games. Due to the tournament structure with preliminary rounds to determine seeding and knockout rounds to determine medals, it’s possible for teams to have their spot in the medal round already assured with a preliminary game still left to play, opening the tournament up to strategic losses in order to achieve better match-ups in the subsequent medal rounds. For more on what happened with the Chinese, South Korean, and Indonesian badminton players at the 2012 Games, check out this Slate article: Shuttlecock and Bull  

Tanking can be ethical in the right circumstances, under the right conditions. As with all matters of ethical judgement and decision-making, reject an absolutist, fact-insensitive view.  The moral determination of the character of a tanking strategy comes down to its execution.

Managers and coaches who work within the rules of their system and do so in order to produce an overall season result which lends them possible future competitive advantage with specific players or within the league don’t necessarily step over the ethical line. Doubts about whether these individuals are being fair or just really go to the core of whether the system in the league or sport itself is appropriately governed and supervised, not whether individuals acting lawfully within it should be judged through the lens of moral relativism by those who are winners or losers due to their strategic choices.

Building or fielding a less competitive team in order to avoid a middling record that will give the organization neither post-season play opportunities nor any advantage in the off-season, draft, or next season is not cheating or intellectually dishonest. Likewise, preserving players by keeping them in farm systems or choosing not to play them for interests of salary cap, contract management, or other technical reasons that are compliant with the collective bargaining and roster management practices of their league also does not make resulting losses or perception of tanking unethical on its face.

Organizations may make individual judgments that they do not wish to run their operations this way, but this should not cast a light of disrepute on those who decide to do so following their own decision-making processes. However, teams that intentionally go outside of the roster management and administration practices standard to and permissible within their respective systems in order to implement tanking strategies may cross the line of ethical propriety.  Telling individual players or the entire team to lose, for example, as Mark Cuban did, is really no different from game/match fixing and therefore violates the rules and spirit of the game (plus perhaps the rules of the league or the law).  A tanking strategy which is outright intentional cheating in order to deliberately lean into a losing record is unequivocally unethical.  Any coach or manager which encourages this is demonstrating unethical leadership and impairing the integrity of the game itself.

Check back next week, Wednesday March 7, for the third post in this series of five, which will discuss accusations and insinuations of referee bias and how prejudicial decisions and actions by referees, linesmen, and other game judges and officials can have an effect on game play.

Leave a Reply