Tanking might be the most misunderstood concept in sports. Or, put another way, the most willfully misunderstood concept in sports. Roger Goodell, a man employed seemingly because of his lack of understanding, became the latest figure to assert that tanking doesn’t exist in his league.
Here’s ESPN’s Rich Cimini with the relevant quotes:
“I don’t think any team tanks, I really don’t,” Goodell said Monday on a visit to the New York Jets’ training camp.
Goodell, however, took umbrage with the idea that a team would deliberately lose games to enhance its draft position.
“I think teams, depending on where you are, go through transitions,” said Goodell, who earlier conducted a fan forum with about 150 season-ticket holders. “They are looking to sort of say, ‘We need to build more talent here, we’ll do it through the draft. Let’s let some of our veteran players go and develop some of our younger players.’
As per usual, that’s a hefty helping of word salad from Goodell, who tries very hard to say nothing of consequence. (Fortunately it’s not hard for him most of the time.) And just like when Adam Silver came out with similar points a while back, it’s absurd to suggest that there’s no tanking in the NFL. Silver doesn’t want to say it, but tanking is essentially sacrificing short-term gains that might not be sustainable in exchange for long-term, sustained success. The players aren’t trying to lose or throw games. That’s the definition Silver employed, though in his case it was probably a calculated maneuver. Roger Goodell might not know the difference.
Tanking, though, isn’t about the players on the field. It’s an organizational focus on sustained success, and valuing players and other assets differently based on how close to contending you are as a franchise. The New York Jets, the impetus for Goodell’s quotes, are clearly at a point on the timeline where even if they maxed out all of their resources (like future cap space and draft picks) in an effort to pick up a few wins this season, it wouldn’t make a difference. In fact, it’d hurt even more in the long-term, because they’d lose draft position.
“Tanking” is simply an effort not to pointlessly hurt your long-term goals by spending too much for inconsequential short-term success. Sometimes teams push it to the absolute limit; the Lakers shut down just about every decent player they had this past season, for example. But the players who were on the court were trying to win. So by Silver and Goodell’s definition, that wasn’t tanking. But it absolutely does exist, and though it’s a somewhat viable rebuilding strategy, there is reason to wonder if it’s good for the overall health of the game and if there are ways to facilitate rebuilds that are less damaging to the health of the franchise, like draft pick reform.
But you can’t take steps to solve a problem you refuse to acknowledge exists, which is why statements like Goodell’s are so wrong-headed.