On Tanking in Pro Sports

Julia Teixeira, Sentry Reporter

One of the most controversial topics regarding sports in recent years is the perplexing, somewhat counterintuitive practice of teams having a losing season on purpose, known as “tanking.” This raises the obvious question of “why on Earth would a professional sports team want to lose on purpose?” However, the hidden benefits may justify this unorthodox and, arguably, immoral approach.

The motivations for tanking a season seem puzzling, but it is a lot simpler than a lot of people may think. After each regular season, each major professional American sports team has the opportunity to participate in a draft, in which they choose eligible young players coming from the collegiate or post-high school level. Usually, the worst teams get the higher picks in the draft, for the purpose of them being able to choose the best player available. However, after some teams started taking advantage of this perk, a few sports leagues began to alter the rules.

The first major instance of tanking occurred in the 1983-84 National Basketball Association (NBA) season, when the Houston Rockets decided to throw their season after a mediocre 20-26 start, by benching nearly all of their starters in order to move up in the draft order. The NBA, realizing that this tactic was diminishing the integrity of its organization, came up with a clever idea to discourage this practice.

Their solution was to implement a lottery system to determine the draft order for the first 14 picks in the NBA draft, with the worst teams having more ping pong balls (lottery tokens) in the drawings of the better picks. This made sure that no spot in the NBA draft was secured, so, in theory, the worst team in the league could end up with the number 14 pick, an unlikely, but disastrous scenario which made tanking much less appealing.

Although this did not stop teams from pursuing a losing season, it did help take away any guaranteed benefits from the practice of tanking. Other major league sports organizations adopted this system and modified it to match their outline of the draft, like the National Hockey League (NHL), which installed its own lottery system in 1995. 

The National Football League (NFL) however, does not follow a lottery system or any tank-discouraging method with their draft, which makes tanking an annual tradition for an exclusive group of all-around terrible football teams. Every year, there is usually one college player that lackluster NFL teams have their heart set on drafting, so they decide to have a terrible season to increase their chances of acquiring the young star.

In 2009, University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford was the athlete that many NFL executives were enamoured with. Since there was no such thing as a draft lottery in the NFL, it was a certainty that the worst team would be acquiring the young talent for its roster. Fans of woeful teams encouraged the widely controversial tanking strategy for that season in hopes that their team would be able to score the number one spot in the draft, and, therefore, that tank-season was renamed “The Matthew Stafford Sweepstakes.” Eventually, Detroit Lions fans’ wishes came true when they picked him number one overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, and he has remained their quarterback for the past decade.

Over the years, fans and sports personalities alike came up with clever campaign names for the NFL’s bottom teams who tried to lose their way into the top spot. The “Suck for Luck” 2011 campaign for Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and the “Tank for Tua” crusade in 2019 for University of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa were two of the most highly publicized tanking efforts. They kept fans entertained while their teams “failed” to win games, but other instances of teams blowing games left fans less than pleased.

The most recent case of suspected tanking for a higher draft pick was only a few weeks ago, and did not happen over the course of a season; it occurred during one game. The Philadelphia Eagles were facing off against the Washington Football Team, and even though the Eagles were already disqualified from playoff contention, they had a goal in mind to better their draft chances: lose the game on purpose.

A loss would mean they would pick sixth in the draft, three places higher than the ninth slot they would have received if they had won. At first glance, the stakes were not necessarily high for the Eagles in this game, but in an attempt to try and better their draft position, the Eagles pulled a trick out of their sleeve three-quarters of the way through the game.

The Eagles made the decision mid-game to pull their starting quarterback Jalen Hurts out of the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter when they were only down three points to put in their third-stringer Nate Sudfeld, a quarterback who, at the time, had not played in a game since 2018. The backup quarterback went on to throw an interception and fumble the ball within his first five possessions, and coach Doug Pederson made the decision to keep him in the game.

The Eagles went on to lose the game, sending the Washington Football Team to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, and simultaneously enraging both Eagles and New York Giants fans. The Giants would have advanced to the playoffs with an Eagles victory. Coach Doug Pederson claims he did not throw the game on purpose, but that response was loathed by fans, who thought that was the response of an incompetent coach. Doug Pederson was fired on January 11 after coaching the Eagles for five seasons and leading them to a Super Bowl in 2018. 

Some argue that tanking is in the same level of immorality in the sports world as gambling; others deem it as a necessity since sports organizations are business-first enterprises. It is extremely hard to find middle ground during arguments on the subject. Nevertheless, tanking may seem like a cheap, last resort option for sports executives who simply do not have faith in the capabilities of their team, but in looking at it from a tactical standpoint, tanking is a legitimate practice that has varying success rates, and it is not going away anytime soon.