Is it really such a bad thing when a volleyball team decides it doesn’t really want to win? Depends on your perspective.
By Don Patterson
The fundamental question that needs to be answered before you can launch any credible debate on “tanking” is this: What exactly is tanking?
I began honing and shaping my own definition of it after reading a recent column in the Los Angeles Times praising the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team for choosing to play hard rather than tanking a match at the London Olympics. The match in question came at the end of pool play – USA vs. Turkey. Had the American women lost, Brazil would have been out of the tournaments, and Brazil was clearly one of the biggest barriers between the U.S. and the gold medal podium.
The American coaches decided to put their first team on the floor for that match – “We never considered any other options,” says Karch Kiraly, who is now the team’s head coach and was the top assistant for the past quadrennial under Hugh McCutcheon – and the U.S. defeated Turkey fairly easily in three games. USA advanced. Brazil advanced. And both teams won their quarterfinal and semifinal matches and then met in the gold medal match.
And Brazil beat the U.S. to win the gold.
So the question has to be asked: If your ultimate goal is to win an Olympic gold medal and you have an opportunity to eliminate one of your fiercest foes by tanking, why not do it?
And that brings us back to defining our terms. Most people would agree that the broad definition of tanking is throwing a match on purpose, but there are different levels to it, and each of them heightens the ethics debate.
Let’s say, for instance, a coach tells his players to purposely lose – to hit balls out and chowder sets and blow passes. That’s clearly tanking. And taboo, in most people’s eyes.
“When a coach tells the players, ‘Don’t try to win’ or ‘We need to lose this game,’ I call that managing the competition, and I think that erodes the integrity of sport,” says USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal, who coached three U.S. Olympic men’s indoor teams, including the 1984 gold medalists. “I think trying to lose has no place in sports.”
Kiraly agrees, and for both of them the issue is mostly about an overall philosophy that goes like this:
Never take your foot off the gas, no matter who you’re playing or where you’re playing or what’s at stake.
“Whoever you put on the floor, you should play hard,” Kiraly says. “(By doing that), you continue the momentum and continue the rhythm and continue trying to get better as a team.”
Beal says: “I think as a coach, you want your team to play as hard as it can all the time. I would really be surprised if you can get a coach to say, ‘It’s OK to go through the motions.’ Because I think that’s as habit building as it is to play your very best and win. Either one can become the expectation of athletes when they walk on the floor. The more you win, the more you are likely to win. The more you lose, the more likely you are to lose. You develop behavioral habits and mental habits.”
Hard to disagree with any of that. But here’s where the line gets blurry. I’ve talked to parents who have been downright steamed when they see a coach put in non-starters for a match in which that team has the power to win and vault their kid’s team into the next round. And my question to those parents is always the same. Did the subs play their hardest? If a coach chooses to put subs in the game knowing that it’s likely to lead to a loss that might help his or her team later in the tournament because it’s eliminating a team they don’t want to face, well, fine. I have no problem with it. The coach is free to make those decisions, and I’m not going to judge coaches unless it’s obvious they have told their teams to purposely play badly.
To take it to the extreme, you could argue that even telling the players to not play their best isn’t a crime. Doesn’t say anywhere in the rules that you can’t do that. But when coaches sink to that level of gamesmanship, it is, as Beal points out, a punch in the stomach to fans and supporters of the sport. “It cheats the whole fabric,” he says. “Spectators and television and sponsors are paying for some level of credibility and value.”
For the record, I’ll draw the line there. No playing poorly on purpose, and, along the same lines, no putting in your defensive specialist at middle blocker. Playing players out of position is, in Karch’s words, “weaselly.” No further explanation needed.
For whatever concerns there may be about tanking, here’s what I’m not OK with: A courtside jury. Remember the badminton controversy in London? Four women’s doubles teams were disqualified because it was determined that they had been playing to lose. One of the teams was from China, and a player from that team didn’t protest; she said they were purposely not playing their best and conserving energy because the match wasn’t an elimination match.
Defense of their actions is simple: it’s within the rules. Condemnation of their actions is simple, too; it’s ethically bankrupt.
Bottom line for me? Criticism should have come from the fans, the media and anybody else who wanted to deride their disregard for wholesome competition. But disqualification from the tournament? No. Again, it’s not against the rules. They didn’t cheat. And in my view, it’s far worse to turn a sport that is decided by points into a sport that is decided by judges and prone to all the subjectivity that comes with that.
And what about the team that loses out when the team that’s supposed to win loses and doesn’t help it along to the next round? Hey, that’s life. If you’re counting on the Green Bay Packers to beat a team in the 16th and final game of the NFL season to put your team in the playoffs, know this: The Packers are going to rest Aaron Rodgers if they don’t have anything to gain from winning Game 16, and that means the Packers’ opponent is more likely to win and your team is more likely to miss the playoffs.
Sure, that can be tough to choke down. But whether it’s your favorite football team or your favorite volleyball team, there’s a foolproof blueprint for avoiding a missed opportunity to advance to the next round. Win. It works every time.