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Ethics of tanking as Sabres set to face Coyotes

These are confusing times for Buffalo Sabres fans. ¶ There has been a schism in a place the team likes to call Hockey Heaven. Conflicted fans have turned against each other. “Tankers” have been cheering for the opponent while claiming Sabres loyalty. Losing to win is the progressive spirit, they declare, a nouveau fandom to be embraced for a potential payoff down the road. ¶ “Anti-tankers” find it distasteful to root against the Sabres and to hope they finish in last place. True fans, they say, never want their team to lose, and tanking is a betrayal. And, oh, the children. What should we tell the children? ¶ With 16 days left in the NHL season, the Sabres are holding down bedrock. The worst team is guaranteed no worse than the second overall draft choice, meaning the Sabres would land Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, blue-chip prospects who make scouts drool. ¶ But the Arizona Coyotes can bore beneath the Sabres for a more fracktastic finish. The teams have two games to play, Thursday night in First Niagara Center and Monday night in Gila River Arena.

If the Coyotes or Edmonton Oilers undercut the Sabres, then a long winter will feel even bleaker. The Sabres still could get a fine player with the third draft pick, but the talent level from McDavid and Eichel falls off the shelf.

That’s why, although the Sabres never have admitted to calculated losing, many fans are OK with their favorite team’s front office committing to being the NHL’s worst club for a second straight season.

Advocates and detractors naturally have visceral reactions to the idea of repetitive defeat being an organizational mission.

From a moral standpoint, however, gut feelings aren’t enough to determine what’s right or wrong.

We possibly won’t know for a few years if tanking was worth the suffering, but we can examine whether it’s ethical in sports to lose on purpose.

Ethicists interviewed by The Buffalo News didn’t agree across the board about the Sabres’ managerial conduct. Some felt the Sabres weren’t to blame and that professional sports should be held to a looser standard than amateur athletics.

In general, though, the idea of losing on purpose and the inherent deviousness that traditionally accompanies such behavior was considered an unethical business practice and harmful to the overall sports community.

“It is not ethical for a team to tank. You can put a period on that,” said Lee H. Igel, co-director of New York University’s Sports and Society Program and writer on sports-business ethics for Forbes magazine.

“Playing for the Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel sweepstakes is not ethical. There’s no reasonable circumstance in which losing on purpose is right.”

Andrew Koehl, a philosophy professor at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, isn’t as rigid in his opinion of the Sabres. He has empathy for General Manager Tim Murray’s situation.

“Tim Murray has an obligation to do what’s best for the Sabres and in accordance with the rules,” Koehl said. “He has an obligation to do that in the short term and the long term. For him to prioritize one or the other doesn’t seem to be exhibiting a conflict of interest.

“But the Sabres are in a genuine moral dilemma. GMs are playing within the rules, but they’re forced to do something unseemly. They’re forced into a situation where they have to be dishonest.

“The real blame, I think, goes to the NHL because the league has had the power to do something about this, and they haven’t.”

Fay Vincent, the former Major League Baseball commissioner, was aghast at the thought of fans cheering for their teams to lose and for rivals to win – not only because it looks bad, but also because it harms the league’s overall business model.

“That’s just sick,” Vincent said from his home in Vero Beach, Fla. “It’s a total perversion for what the sport is all about, which is fair competition with everybody playing to the best of their ability and all teams putting the best product on the field or the ice.

“When you beat the Sabres – and that impacts the postseason – you’ve beaten a team that’s built to lose. That’s just bizarre, and it’s corrosive.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban didn’t directly address the issue of tanking because he wouldn’t acknowledge it happens in the NBA, although the Philadelphia 76ers have been accused this season of intentionally bottoming out.

“Teams in the NBA don’t lose on purpose,” Cuban wrote in an email to The Buffalo News. “They just aggregate enough talent to compete for a championship in that year.”

But if there were such a thing as tanking, then Cuban might be able to make a case for it. Cuban, a firebrand spirit among old-school NBA owners, is known for challenging the establishment.

“Remember: The goal is not to win games,” Cuban wrote. “The goal is to win a championship. Some believe the best approach to get there is by getting the best possible draft picks.

“So those teams are not trying to lose. They are trying to win a championship.”

But if championships are the sole purpose in sports, then have the past four decades of Buffalo Bills and Sabres games provided no value to Western New York?

Landslide losses

Nobody has alleged the Sabres’ coaching staff or players are on the take. They appear to be giving an honest effort, recently scoring the first goal 10 times in a 12-game stretch.

Where the Sabres have rigged the system is by assembling a team that – no matter how hard they try – still would lose a landslide number of games.

“It’s the sneakiness that can have a deleterious effect in the long run,” Koehl said. “Tim Murray is exemplifying a kind of dishonesty where you wink at the truth, and he’s a public figure. So I think that’s harmful for the community.”

The NHL’s traditional rebuilding method occurs with an in-season decision. Management usually assesses its team after a couple months or a set number of games and determines whether to make a playoff run or reorganize for next season.

The Sabres have looked like a team with a premeditated strategy to lose as many games as possible.

Las Vegas oddsmakers haven’t favored the Sabres once all season, not even early at home, against awful opponents or both.

The Sabres have scored 1.77 goals per game, the fourth-lowest average since the NHL legalized the forward pass in 1929. They scored 10 goals through their first 10 games, the lowest such output since 1936.

And when they went on a 14-game losing streak in December and January, management sat on its hands. The Sabres neither waived nor traded any of their players. They didn’t fire coach Ted Nolan.

“What it’s doing is displaying and encouraging a certain kind of dishonesty, an appearance of a lack of effort, an appearance of gaming the system,” Koehl said.

“Everyone else is drawn into it: the sportscasters, the journalists, the fans. Everyone is drawn into this place of acting and feeling in a way that is two-faced.

“That’s the opposite of what you would hope a public organization would do. You would hope a public organization would bring out the best in humanity.”

What the Sabres appear to be doing isn’t new.

The NHL instituted a draft lottery system after the Ottawa Senators flopped to select Alexandre Daigle first overall in 1993. The gambit backfired. Daigle is considered among hockey’s biggest draft busts.

Former Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson admitted this month – without providing all the details – his general manager, George McPhee, ordered him to lose down the 1998-99 homestretch to improve draft position.

The NBA changed its postseason seeding rules when the 2005-06 Los Angeles Clippers seemingly tanked games to dodge Cuban’s Mavericks in the first round.

The 2006 Swedish hockey team lost a game to avoid playing Canada or Russia in the Olympic quarterfinals. Four women’s badminton doubles teams were ejected from the 2012 Olympics for throwing round-robin matches to manipulate their seedings.

Last month, two Tennessee high school girls’ basketball teams were banned from their postseason. They tried to lose to each other and avoid playing the defending state champ in the regional tournament. They committed blatant fouls and even shot into the wrong basket.

Carrie W. LeCrom, director of the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, sees degrees of ethical misbehavior among the various examples.

“I consider there to be a major difference in societal expectation of what is done at the high school or college level versus the professional level,” LeCrom said. “Professional sports are so financially driven that I think it’s a challenge to say that this version of tanking is similar to pro sports version of tanking.

“Is it ethically questionable behavior either way? Yes, but I really don’t think you’re comparing apples to apples.”

Igel and Koehl noted that even pro sports come with a certain community responsibility, whether the issue is steroids, medical care or competing with integrity.

“A majority of people would roll their eyes,” Koehl said. “Talking in terms of character and virtue is something that has probably gone out of style in our culture.

“Then there are people who are just outraged at what the Sabres are doing, that it’s shameful, a travesty or makes a mockery of the game. There are a lot of people who find a virtuous approach to sports very refreshing in this day and age.”

NHL fails to respond

The NHL has insisted it doesn’t have a tanking problem.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly did not respond to emailed questions from The News about the league’s stance on the temptation to intentionally lose for favorable draft position.

At the NHL’s general managers meetings last week, Daly did comment on the widespread perception that teams such as the Sabres, Coyotes and Oilers are diving for a shot at McDavid or Eichel.

“I certainly agree that there has been a higher focus than I have ever seen it,” Daly said. “Having said that, I don’t think it’s an overriding concern for the league.

“I don’t think any of the teams are actively tanking, and we have new rules. The odds of the lowest finishers have been reduced dramatically to win a top pick, and beginning next year you could finish last and still pick fourth. We’ve taken steps to address the perception.”

The NHL’s Daigle-induced lottery system is being phased out over the next two drafts.

This year’s lottery shrinks the chances for any non-playoff team to win the top selection. The second pick then goes to the next team with the worst record and moves back from there.

Next year, the lottery will slot the top three draft choices. Being the worst team will provide fewer assurances of getting one of the top rewards.

“I’m sympathetic to these fans who get so rabid they lose sight of proper perspective,” Vincent said, “but it’s a terrible view to think ‘We can get ahead by deliberately having a poor season.’ There’s something really offensive about that.”

Vincent noted there’s a substantial difference between losing on purpose and consistently failing to field a competitive team such as baseball’s Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates did for decades. Vincent lamented how rotten his Cleveland Browns have been for half a century.

“Taking steps to end up at the bottom involves some purposeful action,” said Vincent, a former chairman of Columbia Pictures and vice chairman at Coca-Cola. “Some teams end up doing very badly because they’re incompetently run. They didn’t do it deliberately.

“That’s not nearly the same as affirmatively going out of your way to lose for draft position, which I feel should be condemned.”

Is it corrupt?

Should losing on purpose in sports be considered morally corrupt?

The answer depends on the philosophical method. While there are other ethical approaches to decision making, here are the three main approaches used in academic circles:

• Utilitarianism is the belief that, in basic terms, the ends justify the means. It’s also known as social hedonism; pleasure is the objective regardless of the cost. This would provide the most favorable view of tanking.

• Deontology says that some actions simply are intrinsically wrong, and we shouldn’t do them. A cornerstone to deontology is reversability, meaning a person should be able to switch roles with someone else in a given situation and still be able to rationally will that action be done. In other words, if you would scoff at the Toronto Maple Leafs for tanking, then you shouldn’t want your team to tank either.

• Virtue theory is based on the works of Aristotle, Plato and ancient Chinese philosophy. At virtue theory’s core is a flourishing community, with character the most important trait. Under this approach, tanking is not virtuous if done deceitfully or if it damages the league or the sport.

Igel and Koehl disagree about where blame should fall in the Sabres’ approach to 2014-15.

Koehl, who considers himself a virtue theorist, can forgive the Sabres’ front office because the NHL rewards the most terrible teams.

“The Sabres’ leadership has been put in an awkward situation because of an unwise structure,” Koehl said. “They’re making decisions that are in the best long-term interests of the club.”

But just because a team is allowed to lose on purpose, doesn’t mean it should.

“Saying that it’s OK because that’s how the system is set up pushes away any effect that behavior has on the broader society,” Igel said. “We tend to forget – and this is a big thing in business ethics – whatever decisions are made in an organization are going to have an effect not only on the people in that organization, but also the industry in a broader sense and, by extension, society.

“That’s when you start to get into the excuse business. You can look at business scandal after business scandal and find the same kind of mentality, shifting blame. ‘Yeah, I did it, but there were all sorts of other factors that made me do it.’ ”

Koehl and Igel agreed the ethics of purposeful losing cannot be determined by whether it works or not. The integrity of any decision is founded on the wisdom and information at the time it’s made.

So it matters not if a team that loses intentionally all season could be guaranteed A) last place in the standings, and B) a player that wins the team three Stanley Cups.

And it matters not if the team fails to get the player it wanted or he gets seriously injured in a motorcycle accident before he plays a game.

“Your action is ethical not based on how it turns out,” Koehl said, “but on all the information you had at the time.

“But the result’s not even guaranteed, and that’s a point… You can make all these choices that are truly objectionable and still not achieve the goal you’re aiming for.”


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