Clearly I have been asleep, because somewhere along the way the “Tanking is an offense to the game!” crowd just took over column inches, airwaves, and bandwidth. They seem to be yelling a lot louder than the “embrace the tank” crowd. When Kevin Pelton, as reasonable a hoops analyst as you’ll find, is pulling out the virtual slide rule to assess the relative merits of competing anti-tank proposals, you know real change on this issue is likely pending. Now I’ve got nothing against those who find tanking morally repugnant, or just plain unsightly, but allowing what looks increasingly like a moral panic to drive policy is a classic recipe for bad policy.
I cannot truthfully claim to have read every single column bemoaning the cardinal sin of tanking, but I’ve read quite a few in recent weeks. Although proposals to fix the problem differ in specificity, they are almost uniform in how they view the problem. Although very few columns bother to define tanking with any precision, they are all quite committed to distinguishing the “deserving” from the “non-deserving” bad teams. Every columnist has in mind a textbook offender who exploits a draft system meant to help genuinely struggling teams. (Philadelphia is currently the NBA’s food-stamp hoarding, Cadillac-driving welfare queen.) Coincidentally, the draft-manipulating cheat is NEVER the San Antonio Spurs, who made no credible attempt to win in David Robinson’s absence but were rewarded the following year with Tim Duncan and a healthy David Robinson. Well, unless Rick Pitino is telling the story.
At the risk of going all Piven and Cloward on the reader, this anti-tanking business has many of the hallmarks of a classic moral panic.
- Is there a separation into ill-defined yet somehow absolutely rigid moral categories (i.e., “deserving” vs “non-deserving”)? Check
- Are the non-deserving identified by, and summarily punished for, fitting some nebulous description rather than specific behaviors? Check on the first part, and the knives are currently being sharpened for the punishment phase.
- Are there proposals purporting to “tweak” the current system that appear reasonable, but only compared to the most dramatic and outrageous proposals to fix the problem? Check
If US history is any guide here–and it is–well after the moral fervor has died down someone will go back, sift through the wreckage, and determine that no real problem ever existed. Or, that it existed for a long time with no particularly ill effect. Some young Salemites may have practiced witchcraft. There were certainly American communists in the 1940s and 50s. Some Japanese-Americans probably did favor the empire over the stars and bars. Some women on AFDC probably did allow the fathers of their children to sleep in the house. Yet in each of these instances, it was obvious to anyone who cared to look that the “fix” to these alleged problems mostly scratched some people’s itch to punish the less powerful.
And no. I’m not making James Dolan the moral equivalent of a Japanese internee. I’m saying that moral panics in a variety of contexts have the same behavioral hallmarks. This is true when their consequences are insanely unjust or, as in the case of this tanking business, are mostly petty and self-defeating.
The fundamental problem with the anti-tanking narrative is that “tanking” is a managerial strategy, and a reasonable one for turning around a wayward franchise. To be clear though, I’m not here to advocate for tanking per se. My point is that once we move from good and healthy debate over competing morals to the land of policy then we must be clear about what policy can and cannot do.
Good policy cannot reliably legislate against strategy. It can only legislate away its behavioral proxies. Tanking, however one cares to define it, is behaviorally indistinguishable from just being a bad team. The fact that the Knicks were not perceptibly worse after releasing STAT, trading JR, Shump, and Prigs, pretty much proves that one cannot distinguish (a priori) a tanking team from a bad one. Despite being a poster child for “the team that couldn’t even tank right,” the Knicks began the season thinking a playoff berth was not out of the question. After the first few weeks made it clear that this was laughable, they never again gave any more than a cursory nod in the direction of winning. Yet there is no behavior one could reliably point to from a policy standpoint that distinguishes early season bad-but-deserving Knicks from later season still-bad-but-non-deserving Knicks.