Emotionally against tanking

Forget the expository, I hate expository. Tanking was debated, tweeted, and oh hell-damn-it, we’re into expository now. Some habits are difficult to break.

The tanking discussion, rich at it is, has been quite team focused. What are the incentives for GMs? Are teams actively trying to lose? Is it subconscious or conscious? Management or mismanagement? Is it even happening? Does it work? How do define “tanking”? Is the etymology of “tanking” water-based or armored-vehicle based?

My focus is on the fans themselves, which is strange to say because I really don’t like fans that much. As Zach Harper so often laments, “Basketball would be great if it wasn’t for the fans.” These are the people who cheer tacos as their team gets pummelled. These are the people who go into a shrieking delirium for the privilege of being shot at by a T-shirt cannon. They take offense easily, live vicariously through those whom they’ll later disavow, and hand their city’s money over to some smirking billionaire for the prize of giving that same smirking billionaire 12 dollars per watered-down beer. God, how I loathe them, and myself by implication.

But, as aggrieved fans so often remind us, the sport would be nothing without them. And though sports fanaticism can be ugly, stupid, and irrational, it has the value of transporting people from themselves for a moment. The essence of the arena’s appeal is not just that you’re so close to the action, but also that you’re sharing a collective, emotional experience that takes precedent and makes all of you present. It is the “energy” that Mark Cuban would synthetically amplify if he could, but probably cannot, because the collective pooling of want is equal parts nebulous and genuine. It is spiritual in nature and I suspect that its spirit is crushed by a tank’s girthy pedrail wheels.

Tanking is terrible because it compromises a crowd’s sense of purpose in these intended moments of union. Even if these teams are doomed, even if they’re merely strumming violin strings as the Titanic sinks, the crowd should at least know what it wants. Lately, subjectively: Oakland’s Oracle has felt like a muddled political convention, divided into three parts (Warriors fans for victory, Opposition fans for victory, Warriors fans for defeat). While this can be fun to analyze from the detached perspective of a sociologist, it makes for a worse fan experience. As written by Warriors reporter Matt Steinmetz: “They’re 20-30 and half the fan base is rooting for them to lose as many games as possible. The focus isn’t even on the games anymore, it’s on whether or not the Warriors will get to keep their draft pick.”

Smart people are quick to point out that “clearing the decks” for a big free agent is not all that different from a team clearing the decks in a sneaky, lotto-fueled tanking effort. In both scenarios short term losses are suffered for a long term gain. While I understand the analogy, it fails in this respect: It does not address the difference in kind per the individual game experience. If say, a baseball team unloads salary to pursue a big free agent, they are still thrilled to win games in the interim. Yes, they were willing to sacrifice short term victories, but they’ll gladly take the found money. Their fans will too, and they will cheer on unexpected wins without ambivalence. The same can also be said for a winning team, resting starters down the stretch. Yes, those teams have concluded that losing is acceptable, but they will still be more than happy to take a W should the opportunity present itself.

Tanking for lotto picks lacks this element as the losses are an end in of themselves. And though you could argue that losses are a means to another end (lottery pick), in the moment, that loss is an end of itself. And this has an impact on how or if fans cheer their losing teams.

Fans in the arena and fans at home (those who wish to live in the moments of these games) must juggle whether to root for a team’s victory versus rooting for a team’s health. The process alone robs a loyal fan of his sporting raison d’etre, which is to cheer his team. If truly cheering your team means cheering their defeat, then what is “cheering,” really? And by foisting such existential questions on fans, we’re trolling what should be a fairly basic and fun experience.

Many resist addressing this tanking problem and question whether it is, in fact a problem from a team perspective. I believe the problem lies more in how observers feel and less in how the observed act. Tanking makes fandom feel ridiculous and stupid, often when a team is already at a pretty low point. And this is why I root for its demise.

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  1. [...] a good business model in my book. Ethan Sherwood Strauss put it the best way in his article http://hoopspeak.com/2012/04/emotionally-against-tanking/ where he goes on to say The essence of the arena’s appeal is not just that you’re so close to [...]

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