“Tanking” has become an increasingly common practice in professional sports. The controversial practice of tanking, as defined by Mark Deeks: “the team’s intent to do less than everything it can to win.” It is a concerted effort over several months by a team to be deliberately not as good as it could be, according to sbnation.com. Tanking is the cheap and dishonest byproduct of a flawed system where a team is rewarded for being bad, and deliberately losing is thereby a strategic decision.

The obvious motivation for this practice is in the selection of new players. Major sports allow drafting of new amateur players by some modification of the principle of picking players in order, in inverse relation to the team’s record the year before. The National Football League has a straight inverse order, meaning the team with the worst record picks first. Using this format to their advantage, the Indianapolis Colts, a bad team in 2011, were able to acquire a premier quarterback from Stanford, Andrew Luck, to replace the aging legend, Peyton Manning, by virtue of having the worst record in the NFL. The term “Suck for Luck” was coined during the 2011 season, according to the NFL website, to describe a team justifying poor performance in order to succeed in the future through obtaining a higher-ranked draft pick. The National Basketball Association has a modification of a straight inverse draft order. The three teams with the worst records each have a 14 percent chance of picking first in the NBA draft, based on a lottery. 

This process aims to mitigate overt and obvious tanking by its teams, according to a Sept. 28, 2017 article from the NBA, about how people who invest time, emotional energy and money in following their favorite sports teams feel about the practice of tanking. This was recently studied in a poll conducted by the New York Post on Feb. 7 2019. Among the fans polled, there was a slight tendency toward approval of the practice of tanking by the fans (46.7% approved, 41.8% disapproved). However, a solid majority of fans (64.0%) believed that tanking led to a diminished interest in their team, while only 25% believed there was no impact. Ironically 10.7% of fans felt the tanking enhanced their interest — presumably dreaming of the next great college prospect for their team, such as Zion Williamson, a Duke basketball player believed to be a future superstar who is very likely to be picked first in the NBA draft this year. 67.4% of fans believe that the leagues should implement rules to discourage tanking.

Is tanking ethical and consistent with the principles of fair athletic competition? on Dec. 18, 2013, Mike Gilleran from the Santa Clara School of Law addressed this question. He explained that while we would never accept a high school or college team trying to lose, we accept this practice at the professional level because we are “seduced” by the prospect of drafting a player who will act as a “savior” and lead our favorite professional sports team to glory. Gilleran notes that we should not “hold our breath,” waiting for team owners to lower the prices of tickets, parking, souvenirs and concessions during the time the team is giving its fans suboptimal effort and an inferior product. He also seems to lament the fact that we are raised and taught in our youth to compete by giving our best at all times, but that presently, we seem to be accepting tanking by our mediocre or bad teams in exchange for a possible championship team later. Because of this acceptance and the absence of moral outrage by the fans, despite the ethical or moral issues inherent in this practice, tanking is likely to remain present in professional sports for the foreseeable future.

— Megan Geller