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The Value of Things - Tanking: Part Three

Are there actually measures that prevent tanking?

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Aging usually tempers our obnoxiousness. In my youth, I really laughed hard at wrestling fans. Of course, some of them made it really easy on me. Some would claim that WWE was fake and WWF was real. Others would claim the opposite. It all just seemed so over the top to me. What I’ve come to understand through maturity and life experience is that it doesn’t matter how one chooses to entertain themselves. It may not have been maturity at all, but too many years of watching Nickelodeon and Disney shows with my daughter. Suddenly, wrestling didn’t seem so outrageous.

Wrestling is not a sport. The key point that binds all sports together is the idea that the outcome is not known in advance. So, whether you are talking about darts, bowling, soccer, baseball, or football what makes it a sport is the fact that you have to wait until the end to see what happens. Sure, an intelligent prognosticator may be able to pick the winner a majority of the time, but upsets happen just often enough to make watching sports fun.

The Brian Flores lawsuit has thrown a lot of this out into the open. He accused Miami ownership of offering him extra money to lose. Hue Jackson accused Cleveland ownership of the same thing. It remains to be seen what will happen with those franchises once an investigation is done. Yet, that charge cuts right to the core of sport itself. Steroids, Deflategate, Bountygate, and other scandals pale in comparison. All of those teams were still trying to win. If a team is actively trying to lose for whatever reason then they are threatening the core of sports itself.

An Argument in Semantics

A commenter in one of the previous editions postulated that players and coaches would never try to lose. I think most rational people would agree. There are thousands of people that are strong. There are thousands of people that are fast. There are thousands of people that could probably throw a football or catch a football. Most of those people never make it to the NFL.

So, at some point it is fair to question what separates an Aaron Rodgers from another guy with similar physical traits and athletic skills. It is fair to ask what made a Lawrence Taylor or Jim Brown different from other men that may have looked the same and had similar physical skills. Obviously, those physical differences were minor and probably secondary to the mental and psychological differences.

Great players and great coaches are great because they have an overwhelming desire to be great. They spend long hours working out or studying film to be great. They demand that those around them also be great. Only the rarest of athletes makes it beyond high school without the desire to be great. So, if anyone wanted to actually tank games it would have to come from someone above the coaches and players.

So, tanking is a semantic argument. Are teams actively trying to lose or are they simply not actively trying to win? What is the difference between those two things? I’m sure Nick Caserio knew the Texans wouldn’t be a playoff team last season. I’m sure he knows they won’t be a playoff team this season. Does this mean he’s actively trying to lose or does it simply mean that he has privately acknowledged the obvious? More importantly, what mechanisms are in place to incentivize teams to strive to be at least mediocre when they know they can’t be anything more than that?

A Salary Floor?

The NFL’s salary cap is so complicated that most teams hire someone that is referred to unofficially as their capologist. Maybe Webster’s dictionary will actually add that to the dictionary next year so the scribbly red line won’t dominate my computer screen. Technically, there is no absolute salary floor, but there is a limit that ends up effectively setting a lower limit on spending. Below is a quick rundown of the 2021 high and lows in each major sport.

MLB: Dodgers 266 million, Orioles 42.4 million

NFL: Jets 205.7 million, Chargers 167.2 million

NBA: Warriors 175.8 million, Knicks 101.9 million

Obviously, each sport has its own peculiarities in terms of spending and how those things work. The stated expectation is that NFL teams will spend within 89 percent of the cap once in any four year period. I’m just a humble English and Social Studies teacher. So, the math and legalities involved are beyond my meager skills. Furthermore, there are no definitive statements as to what happens if you don’t do that. As far as we know, no one has tested that.

However, that little nugget has to put Caserio’s spending spree in the last two springs in some perspective. A MLB franchise would have gone the way of the Orioles. I know it seems impossible, but the Orioles are spending a shade less this season than they did last year. The idea is not to litter your roster with middling veterans just for the sake of having middling veterans. You can get high draft capital and bank some money in preparation for when your team will be good and will need to pay really good young players.

So, essentially, the signing of a dozen linebackers, random defensive lineman, and aging running backs has a purpose. They are almost universally signed to one and two year deals just to raise the spending to eclipse the lower limit. They supposedly lead the league in available cap space with over 34 million according to Spotrac. That number will balloon up to 127 million next season when all of the dead money clears. So, you hold on for dear life while you upgrade the roster through multiple draft picks. The coaches and players try to win as many games as they can because that is what they do. If they are good enough and smart enough they may just win more often than we think they will.