(Ben Green) #1
64 Time December 2–9, 2019



We live in odd aThleTic Times. losing has
never been this fashionable. Look no further than
the 2019 Miami Dolphins, who, as the season was
about to kick off, traded two starters for a haul
of future draft picks. The Dolphins decided, in
modern parlance, to “tank,” or sacrifice the pres-
ent for the potential of a brighter future. The Fins
suffered 59-10 and 43-0 shellackings in their first
two games. Then they traded another starter.
Tanking is now an acceptable form of sports
behavior, creating stark inequality in the stand-
ings. For only the second time ever, for example,
four baseball teams lost more than
100 games in a single season. Not
coincidentally, four teams won
100 games for the first time in
history. The Cleveland Browns
gutted their roster to finish 1-31
in 2016 and 2017. The Phila-
delphia 76ers won 19% of their
games from the 2014 through 2016
seasons. “Trust the Process!” Sixers fans would
chant, with some trademark Broad Street bit-
terness. Now, hoops pundits wait for the latest
NBA bottom- feeders to emerge. Scouts for the
dysfunctional New York Knicks and the injury-
riddled Golden State Warriors will surely begin to

More teams are turning to
tanking in hopes of future
success By Sean Gregory

rack up frequent- flier miles, as they
scour the country for the top col-
lege prospects they’ll likely select
in the 2020 draft.
A few success stories have given
tanking its newfound cachet. The
Houston Astros lost more than 100
games for three straight seasons ear-
lier in the decade: the Astros won
the 2017 World Series and reached
the seventh game this year before
falling to the Washington Nation-
als. Cleveland selected quarterback
Baker Mayfield with the top pick of
the 2018 draft: Mayfield set a record
for touchdown passes by a rookie.
The 76ers have morphed from a
punch line into a playoff contender.

But the wisdom of tanking
withers under scrutiny. Hous-
ton whiffed on a couple of draft
picks and added star players along
the way. (The Astros are also now
under investigation for report-
edly using a camera to decipher the opposition’s pitch signs during their
championship season.) The main flaw with tanking in football: even if
you are able to draft a future star or two, those players are unlikely to
have the same impact on a team’s success as, say, a LeBron James can
have on a basketball court. Even the best football players spend about
half the game on the sidelines. Plus, those rebuilding Browns, who
finally seemed poised for success, started off the season 2-6. On Nov. 14,
Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett, the team’s top overall draft pick
in 2017, struck the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback on the head with a
helmet. He’s facing an indefinite suspension.
Even in basketball, the sport where a superstar prospect can pro-
pel you to a championship parade, tanking is a suspect strategy. A 2016
study in the Journal of Sports Economics
concluded that draft position, or the
number of picks, does not predict an
organization’s success. Strong talent
evaluators, however, are key. “The
pickers,” write the authors, “matter
more than the picks.”
Finally, not even the tanking always
goes as planned. This year’s Dolphins,
again, are telling. Despite a front office that set them up to lose—the
team’s league-low cash payroll of $141 million is more than $24 mil-
lion less than that of the team with the second lowest, the Los Angeles
Chargers—Miami’s players rallied to win two games in November. Are
the Dolphins tanking on tanking? It’s all a bit confounding. Plenty of
winners never failed to the top. How about just playing ball? □


Miami players
take in a 59-10
loss to Baltimore
on Sept. 8



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