The 2018–2019 National Basketball Association’s season is nearing its end. It’s been a good season for a great many teams. Innovative stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and their respective teams are dazzling fans and pundits, seemingly setting records daily. LeBron James is also playing, albeit occasionally. However, there’s a shocking number of teams that don’t appear to be trying anymore. This isn’t because of a major player getting injured or a particularly rough schedule. They deliberately don’t want to win. It’s called tanking.
It’s not a problem endemic to basketball either, teams across all professional sports have been tanking for years now. The reasons many teams tank is because most sports offer benefits in some shape or form to teams at the bottom of the league. In basketball, this is a lottery to decide the number one pick between the 14 teams who did not make the playoffs, with the bottom four teams having a higher chance in said lottery. Rules like these were put in place to make sure perennial losers could maybe dig themselves out of their holes. These days the lottery has been increasingly manipulated by teams who’d like a star player dropped in their lap rather than actually making any improvements to coaching staff or recruiting efforts.
Many of the teams, for fear of retribution, probably, don’t want to admit that their team isn’t trying to win anymore. It’s kind of hard to conceal tanking for most teams, yet they’ll be the last to admit they’re tanking. Last year when Derek Jeter, former shortstop for the New York Yankees and current owner of the Miami Marlins, was interviewed for the HBO show Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel asked him about the status of his clearly tanking team. Here’s an excerpt from the ensuing squabble:
Bryant Gumbel: If you were tanking would you tell me?
Derek Jeter: Tanking? No. Tanking?
Gumbel: Tanking is not trying your hardest to win ball-games everyday.
Jeter: We’re trying to win ball-games every day.
Gumbel: You’re enough of a baseball man to know if you trade your best player for young prospects, it’s unlikely you’re going to win games in the immediate future.
Jeter: When you take the field you have an opportunity to win games each and every day… you don’t tell your team to go out there and lose. You can think what you think. I can see your mind, that’s your mind working like that. [Jeter circles his ear with his finger]. We have two different minds…you’re mentally weak.
It’s possible Jeter gets this mindset from his former neighbor the New York Knicks. The New York Knicks have been forever so epically bad, so poorly managed, so hopeless, that they seem to be in a constant state of tanking. Despite being valued at $4 billion, putting it at number one on Forbes’ NBA team value rankings, they have only won two championships in the 73 years of their franchise. As of 2019, they’ve missed the playoffs every year since 2014. The Knicks’ evergreen sucking often serves as a catchall for us to reason the decisions of the team’s owner James Dolan. James Dolan has made decisions as General Manager that have ranged from head scratching to “does this man have a head?”, but rarely has he made a decision that one would call ‘smart.’ But as a result of the sports culture in which we live, his mistakes can be labelled attempts to tank and his missteps promptly excused. The decisions of James Dolan and of his father, the GM before him, have placed the basketball team of one of the United States’ most predominant sports cities in constant peril.
As a result, fans of the Knicks and those covering the team are continually enraged. Many of them speaking out in their disapproval of the team and Dolan. Dolan’s response to this criticism has been all but mature. Recently, he has been banning fans from Madison Square Garden for life for holding signs that call for him to sell the team. In 2017, former Knicks player Charles Oakley was forcibly removed from MSG and arrested after getting into a dispute of some sort with Dolan. Dolan alleges that Oakley physically assaulted him during the altercation, but video evidence and accounts from fans do not align with his story.
The fans’ main gripe with Dolan is that the Knicks just do not win anymore. And even after being awarded good players through the lottery, they still end up in the same spot.
Gabe Ramundo, a New York native, says he and his family have been fans of the team for “[his] entire life”. On the subject of the team currently, “it’s never a good feeling when your team has been struggling for this long, but at this point I just laugh it off and think ‘well it’s just the Knicks.’” Despite not watching every game anymore he still stands by his hometown team, and his commitment hasn’t yet waned. “I don’t know if there is anything they can do to lose me. I am very loyal to the teams I like. And if I was going to ditch, then it would have been when they traded away [Kristaps] Porzingis.”
Knicks power forward, Kristaps Porzingis was traded to the Dallas Mavericks after the team claimed that there was a growing animosity between him and the team. An animosity, possibly, sourced in the team’s record that year and alleged orders to underperform. “Porzingis was always hurt. Yes it sucks and yes you think it’s stupid when it first happens but when you think of the future it was a smart decision, but it also sucked.”
Ah, yes, the future, the only solace for an ailing Knicks fan. The Knicks and their fanbase have always had a ‘there are brighter days ahead’ mentality, yet these days never come. There are currently rumors abound that the Knicks may get Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving in free agency this summer, but many fans are hoping that the Knicks’ tanking will pay off and they’ll receive Duke superstar Zion Williamson through a number one pick. “I think [Zion] would be a great addition for the Knicks” says Ramundo, “and it might draw the big players like Durant and Kyrie”. He goes on to say that New York has always been a challenging place for basketball. “If you don’t perform right away you will get bashed and knowing [Irving and Durant] they’ll have to toughen up”. Even if the Knicks don’t win titles it doesn’t really matter to Gabe, “It shows who the better team is but you can work your ass off and have nothing to show for it. But still it would be nice to win one.”
The hardest part of tanking for some is that it asks players, most of whom just want to play, to deliberately underperform. This can be a rough transition for many people who, through life, have had a ‘winning is key’ mentality instilled in them. That’s where disagreements, like the one the Knicks allege happened with Porzingis, come about. Many teams have taken a strategy for tanking that involves loading up on young or underperforming players. Imagine what it must be like if you are drafted or traded onto a team, like the Knicks in the NBA and the Marlins in the MLB, only then to realize that you’re not on the team because of your talent but because the general managers and/or owners of a team think you can help them lose.
We all know there’s a mental health problem in the world today, and that doesn’t exclude professional athletes. Recently players across the sports world have been speaking out about their own struggles with mental health. Several of these players have been on teams that one could label as a tanking team. Tanking, a now common practice, has undoubtedly worsened the mental state and psychological well being of the athletes who have been placed on tanking teams, and since players fresh out of college are often the ones used for tanking, their first impression of professional sports is that they don’t belong. Many of these young players utilized for tanking then have a mark placed on them that follows them throughout their careers. Mental health is reportedly a priority for many league commissioners, so maybe they’ll step up and address tanking’s effect on players as well.
It’s obvious that tanking has an effect on those who care about sports and the athletes that play them. So it would be easy to say that our sporting leagues should take measures to curtail this. But what is the alternative? Without this we may have never seen the successes we see now in the loveable losers of the past: the Red Sox, the Cubs, and now even the Cleveland Browns. Should we condemn ailing teams to perpetual losing records? Tanking is a way of getting ahead, and if we take this option away, the teams at the bottom will not be able to get out of their slump.
So what do we do then? I don’t know.