Topic: Sports & Entertainment

NBA Tanking

The NBA play-offs have begun. This is the professional basketball league’s showcase: intense games, high stakes, and heroic performances. The regular season is more or less a drawn out seeding device that gets little attention from television or many fans outside the urban centers that the teams call home. But the season serves another purpose for the bad teams. If they do badly enough, they are awarded with hope and more: increased chances of landing the Number #1 draft pick, which in this superstar-dependent sport may mean an immediate turn-around in fortunes, more fans, and much more revenue.

As the season winds down and the play-off teams turn up the juice to get a better placement in the post-season battles, the lousy teams with a shot at getting the first draft pick have a different agenda. The lower their win percentage, the more ping-pong balls with their team logo will go into the annual NBA lottery draw, increasing the chances that they will get the highest pick.

So what do the teams do? They try to lose.

Yes, they do. And they are pretty open about it. Discussions of “tanking” are open and frequent in the sports pages of the bad teams, because it is so obvious. Suddenly, the best players aren’t on the court as much as before, or at all. The stars stop playing through injuries. The coaches stop going all out in close games. Vegas odds makers start taking the “tanking factor” into account when setting the odds, and gamblers do likewise when deciding on their bets. Nobody seems to care, especially the fans who pay outrageous amounts to see the crummy teams play. They generally support and encourage the tanking; they want to see some good teams in their home city before they die. Former Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers told the Boston Herald that after one late season victory when the Celtics were, as this year, competing for the bottom slot, he received an e-mail from a fan that saying, “Great job. Now quit it!” Rivers, who was an NBA player himself, asserts that tanking games in pursuit of ping-pong balls is epidemic and has been for more than a decade.

This season it was more blatant than usual, because the upcoming draft pool is widely regarded as the best and deepest in many years. Thus the team that picks first will continue to have first shot at the better players in every round, in a draft when potential stars may still be available in later picks. The pressure comes, as Doc Rivers related, from fans but even more from the front office. Most basketball teams are dependent on pre-sold tickets; the late-season impact of losing is minimal. Off season sales will depend less on the W-L record of the team than its prospects for being better, and that will be largely determined by the draft. A coach who keeps trying to win may find himself a coach no longer.

Why does the NBA continue a draft system that creates a conflict of interest, with greater rewards going to the teams that lose the most? Integrity has not had a high priority in the league for many years. Teams make the play-offs with mediocre and occasionally sub-.500 winning records. Referee bias for home teams is a tradition. Superstars are allowed to stretch and break the rules if it results in a spectacular shot: when was the last time a prime player was called for “traveling,” for example? And yet slow-motion films frequently show players taking two, three, even five steps as the drive to the basket, never stopping to dribble once. This is a league that markets its players to identify with the same hip-hop images currently being decried in the wake of the Don Imus firing. It’s biggest star, Kobe Bryant, escaped conviction for rape almost entirely on the basis of his celebrity and popularity; the same set of facts would have sent Mike Tyson to jail. There is no penalty for using marijuana; a large percentage of the players acknowledge multiple illegitimate children and are embroiled in paternity suits.

The fans don’t care if the teams tank games and the league doesn’t care. Why should we care? We should care because a professional basketball game is, culturally speaking, a significant and potentially influencial event. It is on the radio and cable TV, and reported in the papers and on the sportscasts. A game that one team tries to lose when the objective of the game is winning is a kind of a lie, a corrupt piece of America that makes a statement about our values. Lies and corruption encourage more lies and corruption, especially when they are accepted, and even more so when they are rewarded.

This is why the spectacle of drug-enhanced baseball freak Barry Bonds approaching Hank Aaron’s all-time home-run record while being paid 18 million dollars a year is so nauseating. Everyone not in denial or state homes for the bewildered knows he is a cheat and a felon, and that being a cheat and a felon is a major reason why he will soon have the record to go with his money. Until Bonds is arrested, convicted, or otherwise suffers for his corruption, he is a walking lesson to the public of how being unethical can pave the road to success. And NBA teams throwing games and getting away with it is a dunking, dribbling lesson on the same topic. If the lessons that lying and cheating leads to success become too persuasive, the public may actually learn them. Our games mirror our lives. Ask the citizens of an African nation what happens when cultures accept corruption as a way of life. Or Mexico, Columbia or Russia.

If that scenario seems too pessimistic for you—hard to believe, since hysteria is the obviously the order of the day; after all, Sheryl Crow believes that things are so dire that we have to severely ration toilet paper to keep the East Coast above water, and NARAL is proclaiming that making it illegal to crush the skulls of healthy, ready-to-be-born infants is a plot to turn American women in Geishas— then let’s stay on the basketball court. Every fan and every sport agrees that taking bribes to lose games is the ultimate unforgivable act in competition, worthy of prison and expulsion from athletic pursuits for life. And what is the ethical difference between a player taking money to throw games, and a franchise tanking games so that it can make more money?

Absolutely none.

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