Determining the ethics of intentionally losing a game to gain something greater in the future—known as “tanking” or “throwing the game”—seems like a no-brainer in that the practice is just wrong. Though…deciphering the logic of this conclusion actually does require the use of a brain as it’s not immediately obvious. Yet…a handful of commentators defend it, viewing it as just another example of good strategy, listing other commonly accepted strategies in defense of the practice.
For starters, if you haven’t seen clips of the 2012 Olympic doubles badminton match between China and South Korea, it’s worth watching. Due to a flawed tournament format, both teams were attempting to lose a preliminary round game in order to face a weaker opponent in the next round. Four hits constituted the longest rally in a sport that often features rallies in the twenties and thirties. As a result, eight players were ejected from the Olympic Games for violating two of badminton’s rules: “Not using best efforts,” and, “Conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”
In the case of badminton, then, it really is a no-brainer: failing to try literally violates the rules. The bigger questions are, should this be in the rulebook, and more importantly: Is “using best efforts” a moral requirement expected of all athletes?
Similar opportunities arise throughout all levels, including youth sport. For example, in order to move to a lower—i.e. easier—league the following year, a team may intentionally lose games during the end of their current season to demonstrate their supposed deficiency. Another example includes a team’s embellishing their win/loss record by intentionally losing the first game in a tournament thus placing them in the lower bracket with an easier chance at winning the remaining games. Currently, NBA basketball teams are allegedly tanking in order to secure better draft picks in the upcoming draft. All seemingly good strategies.
First, let’s consider two analogies given in defense of game-throwing. An Olympic swimmer who is a gold medal favorite rarely “uses best efforts” in the preliminary race and often doesn’t win, only to swim the final race considerably faster, winning a gold medal. Nearly everyone considers this morally permissible. Likewise, once a team has mathematically secured a league championship (for example, near the end of a baseball season) that team will often bench some of their top players, thus clearly not “using best efforts” to win. Again, considered morally acceptable, not to mention strategically viable.
Having set the stage for the difficulty, let me present an extreme to help frame the issue. The 1919 Chicago White Sox embody the unethical nature of throwing a game. In short, eight players were banned for life from baseball for their role in intentionally losing World Series games in order to profit monetarily from gambling. While not an acceptable analogy with our current issue of teams throwing games—this example involves profiting outside of the sporting arena—it actually helps frame just what is wrong with intentionally losing in general.
Most will agree that it is wrong to deceptively treat someone merely as a means to one’s own end: what’s commonly referred to as using someone. If you initiate a close friendship only because you hope to acquire a job from this person’s father, then you are manipulatively using that person and, thus, acting unethically. If instead you have a long-time friend and later discover an interest in that friend’s father’s occupation, then you’re certainly allowed, morally speaking, to pursue that.
In the case of the White Sox, they treated their competitor merely as a means to their own ends, deceptively so. This foundation, then, informs the badminton scandal, NBA tanking, and other youth sports examples in which teams throw games. By intentionally and covertly losing a competition in order to acquire future benefits, the “loser” manipulatively treats their competitor merely as a means to their own ends. This can be applied to all instances in which a team covertly intends to lose in order to acquire some future benefit.
The aforementioned examples of swimming’s preliminary race and baseball’s league champion pass this test. First of all, they do not deceptively treat their competitors as a means only. Secondly, neither is actively trying to lose: actually both would be just fine winning their respective contests.
The logic supporting intentionally losing turns out to be ill-founded, if not vacuous. And as we will see in Part II, were this not the case, it would lead to some real inconsistencies and, frankly, some fairly comical absurdities. All of this will help us reflect on the deeper purpose behind sport (if there is one), which we will do in Part III. For now, you can stop using your brain, go out on the sports field, and “use best efforts” in pursuit of victory.