The sports world is still recovering from the news that four badminton teams have been booted from the Olympics for attempting to throw preliminary round matches in order to draw a more favorable opponent in elimination play to come.
Badminton, like a lot of other sports in the Olympics and elsewhere, uses non-elimination preliminary matches to determine which teams advance to the knockout rounds and where those teams are seeded. As The New York Times reports here, teams from China, South Korea and Indonesia, already assured of spots in those elimination rounds, were blatantly attempting to lose their final (and meaningless) prelim matches to avoid specific opponents locked into various seeds in the elimination tournament.
This might be a scandal in badminton, but it’s a familiar form of tanking to fans of any number of team sports — including the NBA and professional basketball in general. For as long as leagues have set up postseason seeding systems in which teams can look ahead to potential playoff opponents, teams have sought to cozy into a bracket spot that better suits them. Memphis pulled this at the end of the 2010-11 NBA season, happily sitting several core players with “nagging” injuries in its last two games in order to drop to No. 8 and draw the top-seeded Spurs — a team that the Grizzlies had played well during the regular season, and one that did not have the kind of front-line bulk required to stop the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph duo. And in 2005-06, the Clippers out-tanked the Grizzlies down the stretch, resting star players in a head-to-head loss that helped Los Angeles “win” the “race” for the No. 6 seed — and a date with the 44-win Nuggets, slotted into the No. 3 seed ahead of the 60-win Mavericks (No. 4) under an antiquated set of seeding rules the NBA abolished that offseason.
These kinds of shenanigans have popped up in several international competitions, including the (gasp!) Olympics. In the 2008 Beijing Games, Serbia’s water polo team allegedly threw its final group play match against Italy in order to draw an inferior set of elimination-round opponents, including the U.S.; the aquatics gods punished it with a thrashing at the hands of the angered Americans in the semifinals.
Keep your eye on Group B of the basketball tournament in these Olympics. Barring a shocker, the U.S. is going to win Group A, and you can chart Group A’s full elimination path to the gold medal game right here. Read it carefully, and you’ll notice the team that finishes third in Group B can avoid facing Team USA until the gold-medal match, while the second-place Group B team would have to face the U.S. one round earlier. The easiest way to avoid Team USA until the final possible moment is to “control your own destiny” and win Group B, but Russia and Brazil — the latter looking very shaky so far — would likely have to upend Spain to do that. If your overriding goal is to avoid Team USA as long as possible — and it should be, if you want a medal — the system has incentivized someone among the Spain/Brazil/Russia crew to dive for third place.
The incentives aren’t totally clear-cut. Finishing third in Group B means playing the No. 2 finisher from Team USA’s group in the quarterfinals, while winning the No. 2 slot gets you No. 3 from Group A — an inferior team, in theory. And a team tanking for No. 3 could unintentionally end up at No. 4, a slot that means an immediate quarterfinal date against the Americans. But the first negative isn’t so negative, now that France has upset Argentina and thrown a monkey wrench into the Group A standings, and the second punishment would require an upset somewhere from Great Britain, China or Australia.
The general point: Keep an eye on Group B as the preliminary rounds go on.
This version of tanking has never struck me as especially bothersome or ethically problematic. Elite athletes and teams are judged on wins or losses when the stakes are greatest — gold medals, NBA playoff series, championship games. And that judgment doesn’t come only from fans or schmucks like me. Players, coaches and general managers leverage postseason success into tangible things — contracts, extensions, endorsements. You can’t set up the rewards system this way and wag your finger when teams manipulate the system to increase their odds of succeeding in the right kinds of ways.
It’s not ideal, obviously. Losing on purpose, even in Game 82 of a long NBA regular season, can tip the league’s competitive balance in a slight way. If a team trying to fall from No. 6 to No. 7 happens to be facing a team currently in slot No. 9, but with a fighting chance to sneak into the playoffs, the team holding fast to slot No. 8 is going to be upset. But chances are, that No. 8 team got a few of the innumerable lucky scheduling and health breaks the NBA brings every year — a cleaner-than-average bill of health; a well-timed short-term injury to an opponent it randomly faced twice in a week; a date against the Spurs on a night when Gregg Popovich rests his stars; or two post-trade deadline games against an opponent, such as the 2011-12 Blazers, that blew it up at the deadline. There’s just too much randomness built into an NBA season to single out one bit of non-random, seed-based tanking as uniquely important in tipping the league’s competitive balance.
If leagues and governing bodies really wanted to minimize this sort of thing, they could change the structure of their tournaments. The NBA and soccer’s World Cup already try to do this by synchronizing the start times of games on the last day of the regular season and group play, respectively. The Olympics might be able to reseed after preliminary play, or simply do away with group prelims in favor of an NCAA-style single-elimination tournament. (Note: As a proponent of minimizing the single-elimination factor in any tournament, this would make me queasy and probably function as an over-correction to a relatively small problem.)
The NBA could reseed after the first round. It could also reward the No. 1 seed with the right to pick its first-round opponent from a pool of teams toward the bottom of the postseason standings — a right that could trickle down to at least the No. 2 seed before firming up the brackets. I’m sure there are other solutions, and I’d love to hear yours.
Bottom line: It’s hard to get upset with what these badminton players did when it happens across lots of sports, including basketball. Unfortunately for these women, it’s harder to obscure tanking in a sport with only two players, a net (a handy and obvious way to lose points) and no convenient means of benching stars for backups.