Intentionally Losing: Part II—The Absurdity Of It All

By on April 3, 2014 9:40 am
Institute of Sports Law and Ethics

No doubt, part of the ethical depravity of the intentional loss relates to the fact that it’s being done deceptively.  The badminton player behaves as though the birdie is going out of bounds only to act surprised when it lands two feet inbounds.  Though this isn’t all of the story: it’s not just that we—spectators, officials, opponents—are being lied to.  We would be equally concerned if, upon the start of a soccer game, all eleven players just stood there, for 90 minutes, blatantly flaunting their desire to lose.  Yet it is this sort of absurdity we are forced to accept if we endorse the practice of intentionally losing.

Were soccer players really aiming to lose—if losing were the objective—we should instead witness the players picking the ball up with their hands, throwing it to each other and running with it.  The referee would incessantly call fouls and yet, at every opportunity, players would continue catching and throwing the ball.

In these soccer examples, at some point we would say that the team in question isn’t even playing soccer.  This is not what the two teams implicitly agreed to.  The intentionally-losing team fails to strive together as the roots of “competition” suggest.

This is essentially what the tanking team sets out to do, though they do so in a more covert manner. The fact that they don’t break any rules is irrelevant. By consistently kicking the ball askew, letting it roll between their legs, or simply just standing there, it is as though they’re not playing soccer. Even if we assert that they are playing soccer, it’s clear they fail not only to play it well, but fail to play it to the best of their ability.

Failing to play soccer well is, of course, no cause to morally condemn athletes, necessarily. But the inherent point of the contest—the whole reason we agreed to do this in the first place—is to strive to achieve the objective (kick ball in goal, throw ball in hoop, etc.) as per the rules, to the best of one’s ability. Setting out to not seek the stated objective is to abstain from pursuing the implicitly agreed-upon purpose. Breaking an agreement in most if not all walks of life is considered unethical.

The possibilities for absurdity are endless if one considers throwing a game an acceptable practice.

Imagine two basketball teams playing each other in the season’s final game. In this case, both want to lose in order to best secure a better draft pick or a more favorable league placement the following season. If we consider tanking acceptable, here’s what should happen: Team A wins the tip-off and races in the wrong direction to their own basket for an easy layup scoring two quick points for Team B. Team A gets the ball back, right under their own basket.  They inbound the ball, quick shot, another two points for Team B. Team A again receives the ball. Repeat. Eventually, Team B starts passionately defending Team A’s basket, doing their best to prevent Team A from scoring two more points for Team B.  In the case that Team B fouls Team A while shooting, the referees become perplexed. It couldn’t be a shooting foul as the player shot the ball in the wrong direction.  What you would get, somewhat ironically, is one of the most intense, competitive “games” of the season—I’m just not sure what, exactly, it would be a game of.

Additionally, athletes who intend to lose could take what, for them, would be performance “enhancing” drugs to help them play poorly. Shots of whiskey would do just fine, possibly combined with a few sleeping pills hours before tip-off. Drunk and sleepy, they’d have no chance at winning, thus “enhancing” their ability to play poorly. Any time getting drunk yields favorable results within an institution, it’s likely that one’s philosophical position is flawed.

One might be inclined here to invoke the practice of forfeiting as this is basically what these teams are doing. Clearly, this won’t solve the problem if both teams invoke the aim-to-lose mentality: they both announce “Forfeit!” and we’re left with a tie (of sorts). Just like infinity-plus-one doesn’t beat infinity, the “I said it first” response seems like the only plausible way to break such a stalemate.

Even in the case of one team hoping to lose, the forfeited match is a letdown for an athlete on the opposing aim-to-win team: While being on the “winning” side of a forfeit improves one’s record, that team misses out on an opportunity to achieve all that’s possible within the originally agreed-upon event.  The only thing worse, I suppose, would be showing up to play a team who behaves as though they’ve been drinking whiskey and taking sleeping pills.

It’s clear from the absurdity of playing out these situations, something truly unsportsmanlike is going on.  As is often the case, if a position taken to its extreme results in an absurdity then there’s likely something askew with that conclusion.  Taking to the extreme the opposing position, “You should try your best,” certainly doesn’t result in anything absurd. It actually gets us closer to the ideal game. The only argument against this is that one can’t play at “full speed” for an entire 90-minute soccer game.  But this is not what it means to be one’s best as a soccer player. Part of the challenge is knowing when to slow down and employ a sense of pacing.  Just as the marathon runner doesn’t maintain the same pace as she would in a 100-yard dash, the soccer player must know when to conserve energy for the next all-out sprint.

If striving together is what competitors, by definition, do, then there must be some thing toward which competitors strive. And that thing, logically, cannot be aiming to fail at the stated objective, for then it breaks down into the silliness of the aforementioned soccer, basketball, and badminton events—we can hardly call them “games.”

Many things in life are absurd, with some even arguing that life itself may be so (I disagree). Regardless, youth sport shouldn’t be absurd, for if it is, we’re wasting a lot of time of a lot of people. Instead, we should cash in on sport’s potential for the profound, and for fun.  Part of this process, as with alleviating the absurdity of life, requires us to reflect on just why we’re doing this in the first place: the purpose of sport.  This will comprise Part III of this series.  For now, at the least, stop trying to fail and avoid the absurd.

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