The Tanking Epidemic in American Sports

Deliberately losing in order to secure a top draft pick for the next season is plainly unsportsmanlike.

Spectators use paper bags over their heads during the first half of an NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Associated Press

Spectators use paper bags over their heads during the first half of an NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Flynn McGurrin, Staff Writer

If you’ve ever watched a sports talk show, you may be familiar with the term “tanking.” Tanking has run rampant throughout American professional sports, and is considered to be a serious problem by a large number of sports fans around the country.

But what exactly does the term mean?

The four major US sports, baseball, basketball, football and hockey, all use a draft to incorporate young talent into their respective leagues. The order in which teams select players in their draft is determined by the team’s record from the previous season, with the worst teams selecting first, and the best teams selecting last.

While this system allows bad teams to claim the best young players and improve their roster, tanking sometimes tarnishes the draft system. When a team lacks the talent to contend for a championship or even make the playoffs, they will often try to make their roster as bad as possible and lose on purpose in order to ensure they finish at the bottom of the standings and secure the first overall pick in the draft.

However, the players and coaches are not the ones losing on purpose. Athletes, especially at the professional level, hate losing, and a request from the front office to lose on purpose would not go over well with players or coaches. When teams tank, front offices will cut or trade and decent players that are not crucial to the team’s future plans.

A notable example of this can be seen with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. The 2019-20 Thunder were led by superstar point guard Chris Paul and a number of talented veterans. The Thunder made the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Western Conference, yet it was well known that the team did not have a championship-caliber roster. This past offseason, the Thunder went full tank mode, getting rid of most of their best players, including Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari. Their tank has been successful so far this season, as OKC is sixth to last in the league and in position for an early pick in next year’s draft.

The bad side of tanking was very evident in the 2020-21 NFL season with the New York Jets. The Jets were horrendous this past season, with an equally horrendous head coach in Adam Gase. Miraculously, Jets fans were optimistic. Clemson University Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was considered a once-in-a-generation talent by many, was playing his last season in college and would be eligible for the next NFL draft. Jets fans saw their horrible team as a way to lock up the first pick in the draft, which they would need to land Lawrence. 

New York’s tank was going exactly as planned through week 14 of the season. The Jets stood with an abysmal 0-13 record and were 3 games away from the third 0-16 season in NFL history. Then in week 15 and 16, the Jets pulled off the improbable and shocked the playoff bound Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns in back-to-back games. Jets fans were outraged. The team had won two games that they had no business winning and had subsequently handed the worst record in the league, as well as the first overall draft pick, to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jets will now have to completely rethink their draft plans due to the rest of the quarterbacks in the draft pool being significantly worse than Trevor Lawrence.

While the Jets would have benefited greatly from an 0-16 season, fans rooting against their own team have no place in sports.

So how can tanking be stopped? British Premier League soccer uses a relegation system to combat tanking. English soccer has five major levels of professional soccer, with the English Premier League being the highest. Each season, the bottom three teams from each league get relegated, or moved down a level, with the best three teams in each league moving up a level to fill the place of the relegated clubs. Relegation has serious financial consequences for teams, and fear of relegation keeps teams at the bottom of the table competitive and fans extremely passionate until the season’s final whistle.

Unfortunately, a relegation system is impossible in American sports. None of the four major sports have a lower level, professional league to relegate teams to, and the draft system cannot be eradicated as bad teams need a chance for improvement. While tanking is an unfortunate occurrence in US sports, leagues simply do not have a way to get rid of it. Sadly, the tanking epidemic in United States sports is here to stay.