Category Archives: competition

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.



Filed under competition, NFL, Sports Ethics

Examined Sport: Pam Sailors, “Mixed Competition and Mixed Messages”

In this episode of Examined Sport, I look at Pam Sailors’ “Mixed Competition and Mixed Messages.” Sailors takes up the question of sex segregation in sport by critiquing Jane English’s 1978 “Sex Equality in Sport”. Sailors then discusses how to deal with the complexity of gender in sport and how best to structure competitions.

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Filed under competition, Examined Sport, podcast, Women's Sports

Examined Sport: Edwin Delattre, “Some Reflections on Success And Failure in Competitive Athletics”

In this episode of Examined Sport, I discuss Edwin Delattre’s 1975 paper: “Some Reflections on Success And Failure in Competitive Athletics.” This papers stands out for the distinction between winning and success; and losing from failure. It is also one of the earliest accounts of the logical incompatibility thesis.

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Filed under Cheating, competition, Examined Sport, Fouls

Defining Competition

As part of a recent seminar, I went through the exercise of creating a genus-species definition of competition. A couple of interesting questions were raised by the discussion of the definition, so I am posting the definition exercise along with some elaboration points.

Definiendum: Competition
Examples of particular units of concept:

  • Monopoly, Battleship, Chess, Checkers (Games)
  • Baseball, football, sports, foot races, etc. (Sports)
  • AT&T and Verizon; Apple and MS; (economic)
  • Job applicants for a job/promotion. (economic)
  • Presidential election (political)
  • Chopped, Survivor. (entertainment)

Contrast Objects from which to discriminate units:

  • Two males in a herd battling for dominance (Biological)
  • Two different species of cats in same location, same prey (Biological)
  • War
  • No-elimination Musical Chairs
  • Group ride (bikers touring); fishing, hunting.
  • Singing games: ring around the rosy, etc.

Activities involving multiple parties

Differentia of the units with respect to the contrast objects or the characteristics the units have in common (and that the contrast objects don’t have):

  • Goal is exclusive/rivalrous: cannot be held in common or shared among the parties
  • Means are constrained by some set of rules or guidelines.
  • Participation is also constrained by these.
  • Rules, guidelines are acknowledged or agreed to (at least implicitly) by parties.

Competition is an activity involving multiple parties that are attempting to achieve an exclusive goal, one which cannot be held in common or shared among the parties, and in which there are some set of rules, guidelines, or constraints on the means for participating and achieving the goal.

A few points of elaboration
I have included economic competition as unit of this concept. A possible objection here is that in economic competition, between two businesses or between two applicants for a job, is not bound by rules. Nevertheless, there are normative constraints on one’s actions in these contexts and to some degree these are agreed upon (legislation). No doubt these are different than the rules of a game, yet they are similar enough to be classed together.

This definition leaves out “biological competition.” This seems justifiable because although it is sometimes described as a kind of competition, it is sufficiently different from these other activities that biological competition is picking out something very different in the world. Some of what we say about competition as it exists in sports, business, and politics cannot apply to the biological: is their unfair competition between two types of fungi? Do we really think of the surviving species as “winning”? The use of competition to describe these biological interactions strikes me as more metaphorical.

At the same time, I can see the basis for the following objection (raised by William Thomas). I ought to identify, instead, a general concept of competition that subsumes both the biological interactions and the kinds of competition I have picked out. In that case, the definition is just: “Competition is an activity involving multiple parties that are attempting to achieve an exclusive goal, one which cannot be held in common or shared among the parties.” The further differentia of “in which there are some set of rules, guidelines, or constraints on the means for participating and achieving the goal” would identify a subset of the concept.

I am somewhat sympathetic to this objection. There does seem to be a more general idea of an activity of parties vying for some good or goal. Some of these activities are governed by some set of rules and others might not. Part of conceptual analysis here is to figure out what makes more sense as “competition.” I think I would be more sympathetic if there were more examples outside of biological competition that illustrated activities of parties vying for some goal independent of any set of rules.

A similar objection might be raised about characterizing war as competition. Might this be another member of the more general genus? Whatever superficial similarities there might be, the activities and goals of war are quite a different thing than anything one finds in sports or games (or business or politics or even biological interactions). I am not sure it belongs in the same genus or even nearby conceptual space. The goal is the death and destruction of your enemy (the prey of a predator is only metaphorically an enemy). There is no necessity of agreement on rules, means, or even on particular goals. It can persist without any particular actions of either other party. It can exist without any response from one party (e.g. an aggressor makes war on a pacifistic village). The use of competition here is much more clearly metaphorical. There is little conceptual gain, efficiency, or clarity by grouping these kinds of things together.

(Note: this definition method is one based on Ayn Rand’s account of definitions in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and developed by David Kelley and William Thomas)


Filed under competition, Philosophy