Pay to Tank in the NFL

Brian Flores has alleged that Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, offered the then Dolphins head coach $100,000 per loss in a tanking scheme for a better draft position. (He’s also accusing NFL teams of hiring discrimination, arguably a more important and serious allegation, but also out of the main focus of this blog: I leave that to legal scholars.) Former Brown’s coach, Hue Jackson, has also come forward alleging that the Browns paid him to lose in a similar pay-to-tank scheme.

Captain Renault Casablanca I'm schocked!On one hand, the media and sports pundits sound a lot like Captain Renault. Tanking? What? How could that be? Not in the NFL! On the other hand, owners paying coaches to intentionally lose does seem somehow worse than just Suck for Luck.

So, what, if anything, is wrong with tanking?

The basic argument is that sport is a competition. It is, as the late Robert Simon described it, “a mutual quest for excellence.” Winning may not be everything, but the attempt to win, to play hard, to give one’s maximum effort seems to be essential. To lose on purpose, to throw the game, undermines the very point and essence of the activity.

Secondly, sport is open-ended. The outcome is to be determined by the play of the game. For a team to commit itself to lose means the activity is no longer a contest. It becomes something akin to a scripted performance, rather than sporting event. As Simon has argued elsewhere, this cheats everyone involved.

But it is also not quite that simple. Why, after all, are the teams (allegedly) tanking? Why did the Colts purportedly Suck for Luck? It was to get Andrew Luck, a QB with the potential to carry the Colts forward to many winning seasons after they parted ways with Peyton Manning. Isn’t this, then, attempting to win over the long haul? That is, by losing now, a team has the potential to sign players through the draft who will hopefully allow them to win more later. Maybe, then, this Tanking-As-Delayed-Gratification is ultimately compatible with the ideal of sport as a mutual quest for excellence. After all, the concern is not excellence in this one play, this one quarter. We strive for overall excellence. If the scope of ‘overall’ extends beyond any one game to multiple seasons, it might seem rational and justified to lose now so that you have better chance of being excellent over a longer term in the future.

I think there are two main objections to this argument.

First, it doesn’t address the core argument that intentionally losing a given contest is incompatible with it being a contest. The seasons are made up of individual contests. These individual contests need to be valid contests for the season to be valid. And the same reasoning applies across seasons. Therefore, if tanking undermines the contest itself, then this undermines the losing now for winning over the long term.

Second, it is false and deceptive. The team presents itself as engaging in a contest, when they know they are not. It would be more honest to just forfeit. It is an affront to the pride and integrity of the players that take the field.

So what about the pay-to-tank scheme? It certainly looks worse than your average tanking scenario. It just tastes and smells yucky. But that’s not a moral argument. If tanking were morally appropriate, I wouldn’t have any issue with paying for it. But since I’ve argued above that it is not morally appropriate, it is also wrong to pay for it. Paying for it also adds more formality and intentionality. A team might not be good and might not put all its effort forward in each contest. It might look like it is tanking, but then again maybe they just suck. But put a payment schedule on the losing and that removes any question.

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2 Comments

Filed under competition, NFL, Sports Ethics

2 responses to “Pay to Tank in the NFL

  1. I consider tanking/Intentionally-losing to be one of the most challenging ethical issues in sport. Because, as you briefly mention, it might just be that 2 teams have different overall goals in mind. The infamous Olympic Badminton example comes to mind, and the thinking could understandably be, “If we (intentionally) lose this match, we have a better chance at winning the next match and winning a gold medal…which is the objective of this entire endeavour!” Likewise with the intentional loss in football.

    Another argument worth considering is that the fault lies with those who organize the leagues/tournaments. Because athletes/teams could understandably maintain something like this: “You set the rules, and then we’ll follow the rules in pursuit of our objectives.” Because it does seem allowable for, say, a baseball team who’s already clinched the playoff birth to not pursue victory in the final games of the season to rest their star pitchers. The slight disanalogy here being this particular team doesn’t necessarily hope/plan to lose, but just don’t care either way, and certainly aren’t focused on trying to win.

    The Olympics has, built into it, the creed: “give best efforts.” This may be a way to hold athletes accountable but, then again, they could respond, “But we did ‘give best efforts.’ We did our absolute best, within the stated rules, to win a gold medal.”

    Thanks for another thoughful post.

    • Thanks Jack. Thanks also for bringing up the Olympic badminton case. (I wrote about that here: https://sportsethicist.com/2012/08/11/olympics-morality-and-rule-breaking/ ) It is important to work to make sure the structure of the sports themselves don’t incentive behavior or actions we otherwise don’t want. The promotion/relegation system in European football does a good job of avoiding the sort of tanking we tend to see in the US. Another related sort of case worth thinking about is when a baseball team becomes a seller towards the trade deadline. In a way they are packing in the season, giving up some of their better players for a chance of a better team in the future. Is that tanking? Is that wrong? ( I don’t think it is — mainly because while the front office is working for the future season; the players are still typically playing to win on the field.)

      I think sometimes tanking either gets dismissed too quickly as a wrong (as Simon does) or it is too easily accepted as just part of the game. There might some contexts, in the tournament say, where some version of tanking might be be allowable or justifiable. I am not sure, but it is worth thinking about!

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