Tournaments, Tanking Games, and Hating Yourself in the Morning
By Doug Abrams
Youth sports tournaments can bring out the best in players, but sometimes the worst in their coaches. Too often, we read or hear about coaches who scheme to deliberately lose a tournament game, hoping to position the team for an easier opponent in a later round. Another tanking scandal surfaced last week in Portland, Oregon at the Little League Softball World Series for 11- and 12-year-old girls.
The coach of the South Snohomish (Washington) team was accused of throwing a game against Salisbury, North Carolina by benching his top players and instructing the team to bunt repeatedly rather than swing away, sometimes even with two strikes. Washington had won all three of its earlier tournament games in pool play, but lost this game, 8-0, on a no-hitter. Based on tiebreakers, North Carolina advanced with Washington to the next round. North Carolina’s victory eliminated Polk City, Iowa, which had earlier played Washington tough.
In a press release responding to Iowa’s protest, Little League International said somewhat gently that it had “received credible reports that some teams did not play with the effort and spirit appropriate for any Little League game.” The reports were so credible that the governing body prescribed an extraordinary remedy. It ordered Washington and Iowa to play a special playoff game the next day to determine which team would advance.
In a statement reported in the Des Moines Register, the Washington league’s president acknowledged that his coach had strayed. “Our coach was faced with a decision that, in the bubble of intense competition, appeared to him to be in the best interest of our team. In hindsight, it is very likely he would have made a different choice. Though the decision that [the coach] made did not violate the letter of the rules, I can see abundant evidence that it was not in line with the spirit of the game.”
The Washington league’s president placed the blame where it belonged. “[T]he decisions that have placed our team under scrutiny were decisions made by the coach. Our young ladies had no role in that. In fact, they have fought their hearts out to be in the World Series and nothing should take away from that accomplishment.” The president intimated that the coach had deprived the 11-12-year-old girls of “the opportunity to compete in a way that honors their commitment to fair play and open competition.”
Iowa came from behind to win the special playoff game, 3-2. The victory ended Washington’s run, and North Carolina won the national title later in the week by downing Warwick, Rhode Island, 4-2, in the finals.
When a Coach Tanks a Game, the Players Lose
Last week’s events in Portland received coast-to-coast media attention because they occurred on a high-profile national stage awash in television coverage, the Little League Softball World Series. But in a variety of sports, even local and statewide tournaments below the media’s radar screen can tempt coaches to compromise (as Washington’s president put it) “fair play and open competition.”
Three stories – from Tennessee, Manitoba, and California — describe the invariable formula that unfolded in Portland last week. The coach schemes to lose the game, the players obey the coach’s instructions, and the players end up as the real losers in one way or another.
Tennessee: “A Farce”
In Tennessee early this year, Riverdale High School faced Smyrna High School in a Tennessee girls’ basketball district tournament. Obeying their head coaches’ instructions, both teams tried their hardest to lose the game.
The coaches knew that the winner would face defending state and national champion, Blackman High, in the semifinals, but that the loser would move into the opposite bracket. With both teams intent on throwing the game, the London Daily Mail called the contest “a farce.” Players on both teams deliberately missed more than a dozen free throws and committed multiple game violations. When one girl was about to try to score on her own team’s basket, the referees finally stopped the game to warn both coaches.
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association imposed sanctions that stigmatized innocent players for their coaches’ misdeeds. The Association dismissed both schools from the tournament and placed them on probation for the upcoming season.
Manitoba: “We Had To Put Up With It”
In 2011, tanking marred an early round of the Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) High School Hockey League’s A-Division playoffs. The Westwood High School Warriors led College Jeanne Sauve, 3-2, late in the third period, when Westwood’s coaches schemed to lose the game by pulling their goalie to let the opponents score. The coaches knew that by losing, the Warriors would draw an easier opponent in the upcoming semifinal round and avoid a faceoff against the league’s regular-season champion. With their net empty, the Warriors gave up the tying and winning goals and lost, 4-3.
The Winnipeg Sun reported that many Warriors players left the ice “visibly distraught” because they knew that their coaches had deliberately thrown the game. “It was brutal,” a Warriors forward told the Sun. “We were embarrassed, and we’re sad we had to put up with it.”
Westwood’s players assumed leadership after their coach abdicated his responsibilities. With the coach quickly suspended for unethical conduct, the players themselves agreed to face the regular-season champion in the semis, the match-up that a victory honestly earned against College Jeanne Sauve would have produced.
California: “Most of Us Did Not Like the Idea”
Coaching shenanigans marred the U.S. Youth Soccer Association Region IV playoffs in Honolulu in June of 2003. With his team ahead 1-0 and about five minutes left to play, the coach of the U-17 De Anza Sharks of Cupertino, California instructed his girls to lose by scoring twice on themselves. The strategy was to avoid a strong opponent in the next round. The Sharks lost the game, 2-1.
“Our coach looked at the brackets,” a Sharks player told the Alameda (Calif.) Journal afterwards, “and he felt it would be best if we played a weaker opponent in the second round. He brought up [the idea of deliberately losing] to us before the game. Most of us did not like the idea, but he was our coach and he felt it was the best thing to do.”
Hating Yourself In the Morning
Many youth coaches doubtlessly weigh tactics during playoffs and other tournaments, which frequently feature multiple games in a few days, sometimes on only a few hours’ rest. To conserve stamina with the team comfortably ahead, for example, the coach may pace first-stringers and reward substitutes with extra playing time.
The ethical compass points in a different direction, however, when the coach deliberately tries to lose a game. The line between reasonable pacing and deliberately trying to lose may sometimes be hazy, but coaches cross the line when the players themselves figure out that the team is pulling a fast one. Players are perceptive enough to know what is happening when the coach instructs players to bunt their way through a no-hitter, instructs the team score on itself, or pulls the goalie when the team is winning late in the game.
The integrity of sports depends on competitors who try their best to win. Angling to lose brings dishonor by denying every competitor the spice that comes from physically and emotionally invigorating competition. The British Association of Coaches points the ethical compass in the right direction: “Sport without fair play is not sport and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”
When they cut ethical corners, coaches and players alike may wake up hating themselves in the morning, when their scheming begins to sink in. Not only that, but the coaches can pay a heavy price because no person of character respects a cheat for very long. I doubt that the Washington, Tennessee, Manitoba, or California coaches had much of a real future with their organizations, or with any other ethical organization that heard about how they let down their players.
Most youth league tankings do not reach the newspapers, but word gets around in cities, suburbs, and outstate areas alike. Even if a sullied coach returns, the cloud of suspicion and distrust can linger because Benjamin Franklin was right: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”
In a real sense, then, the players are not the only losers when a youth team throws a game. The coach also loses because personal reputation endures longer than the aura of today’s victory. If the coach senses that players might recognize tanking, they probably will. When in doubt, don’t.
[Sources: John Naughton, Iowa Little League Squad Beats Team Accused of Tanking, But Loses in Semis, Des Moines Register & USA Today (Aug. 18, 2015); Coach of Wash. Little League Softball Team Alleged to Have Thrown Game Lashes Out, USA TODAY, Aug. 20, 2015; Oliver O’Connell, Two High School Basketball Teams Suspended For BOTH Trying to Lose the Same Game – With One Player Even Shooting Into Her Own Basket, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2969629/We-NOT-champions-Two-girls-high-school-basketball-teams-suspended-trying-lose-game.html (Feb. 25, 2015); Tom Kreager & Mealand Ragland, Riverdale, Smyrna Coaches Suspended for 2015-16 Season, District Says, Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), Feb. 25, 2015; Ken Wiebe, Swift Hockey Justice, Winnipeg Sun, Mar. 5, 2011, p. S3; Mike McGreehan, Board Takes Action Against Youth Coach, Alameda (Calif.) Journal, Sept. 23, 2003, p. B1]