Tennessee’s high school athletics authority has suspended two teams for an unusual reason: They played in competition to lose.

The TSSAA removed Riverdale and Smyrna from the high school girls basketball postseason on Monday following a report from a high school referee in charge of their District 7-AAA consolation game held Saturday where he said that both schools “played to lose the game.”

Both Rutherford County schools were placed on restrictive probation by the high school association for the rest of the school year and probation for the 2015-16 school year.

Both schools were fined a total of $1,500 apiece.

Over There, Sam Wilkinson objects:

Both coaches had instructed their players to do what they did because both coaches realized that winning that night’s game put themselves in a worse position in further tournament play. Because of an odd quirk in the Tennessee seeding mechanism, either team winning the game would have been punished by being put in a bracket that included Blackman High School, a regional powerhouse, a team ranked first in Tennessee basketball and fourth nationally. Blackman had beaten Smyrna by 23 points in January, and, a few days later, beat Riverdale by 8.

Both coaches rightfully recognized that being on Blackman’s side of the bracket would almost certainly involve getting beaten, and presumably thought that being on its opposite side might mean having a better chance to advance further in the tournament. There was no way to know this for certain of course but there is rarely a way to know anything for certain, so both coaches preceded make the strategic decision to encourage their players to understand that losing might be more beneficial than losing.

When I played football in middle school, we were playing a team, ahead 8-0. At the middle school level, place-kicking is non-existent. Even punting will only move you about 20 yards or so. That we were on their side of the field was a really, really big deal. We were on our own five yardline or so. Turning the ball over meant that they would get the ball right in scoring range. In order to avoid that, we gave the ball to our fastest running back and he was told to evade the defense for as long as he could in the endzone. It was essentially a self-inflicted safety. But it meant that we would be able to kick the ball off from the 20 instead of from the 5, and kicking from a tee meant that the kick would go further than a punt, with less possibility or error. It was a genius move, and we won 6-2.

The coach gave us a lecture after the game, though, about how you should always try your best, but “best” can mean different things under different circumstances. I knew exactly what he had done, and I thought it was awesome that he won us the game.

Despite that bit of strategery, though, I come down against the coaches in the TSSAA case. It’s one thing to sacrifice a play (or three) for strategic advantage in a game, but another thing entirely to throw a game for playoff positioning. I just can’t get on board with that, and would be embarrassed and angry if I went to watch my daughter (or future son) intentionally lose in order to avoid a tougher game next.

There is some flexibility here. Such a game, where you’re not worried about losing, is a great time to give kids that don’t get as much game time an opportunity to play more. I can also forgive missing free throw shots because you’re trying some fun things (underhanded, etc). These are things that can add fun to a game. Intentionally getting ten second penalties isn’t fun. It isn’t enriching. At best, it’s exploiting a loophole. At worst, it undermines the points of playing the game to begin with at that level: having fun, and learning teamwork and competition. Sam and others might argue that two teams trying to lose together are engaging in a competition, but it’s not a meaningful one.

It makes me think, just a bit, of how sometimes a part of me will actively wish that Southern Tech (or some other team I am rooting for) will lose out so that our coach might be fired and replaced with someone better. I have to actively tell myself that’s a bad mentality to have (there are debates on the message board). But I’m just a guy and if I hope we lose that makes me a bad fan. If players were to actually try to lose a game with the hopes of replacing a bad coach, I’d want the new coach to replace as many players as possible, such would be my embarrassment.

Play to win. If you’ve already effectively won, or don’t care about winning, play to have fun.

Category: Theater

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6 Responses to Playing To Lose

  1. Jhanley says:

    I agree it’s bad form, but I reserve my real scorn for the systemic structure that creates such a perverse incentive. I think it’s a bit silly to encourage people to act in an undesirable way, then act shocked when they actually do act that way.

    As with so many things, this comes back to Hanley’s 2nd Rule of Policy Design: “Don’t focus on the goal you want to achieve; focus on the incentives you’re actually creating.” And the corollary, quitcherbitchin when people thwart your goal by following the incentives you created.

  2. Chris says:

    James is right, this is definitely a result of the system, but it’s about as fair a system as possible. These teams were playing for final positioning in their division, which would determine into which bracket they’d be placed in the division tournament. And of course, those brackets are structured the same way at just about every level: the highest seed plays the lowest, the second highest plays the second lowest, the third highest the third lowest, and so on until you’ve exhausted all of the seeds. The bracket is further structured so that the two highest seeded teams cannot play each other until the finals, and also so that the highest possible seed a team can play in any given round is always lower than the highest possible seed team’s seeded beneath it can play in that round.

    In this case, the result of this game would determine final seeding, and the team that lost would end up on the 2 seed side of the bracket instead of the 1 seed, with the 1 seed in this division being one of the best in the country. This is not an uncommon situation, but the only way to avoid it is to make the tournament less fair.

    To me, the tournament structure is worth suffering the occasional game in which teams try to lose for more favorable seeding, and I see no reason to punish teams when they do that.

    Though as I noted over at OT, these two schools were rivals of my school when I was in high school, so screw ’em.

  3. James Hanley says:

    If this is in fact just normal tournament structure, then it’s a case of there being no such thing as a perfect institution. All institutional designs have their drawbacks.

    And punishing these two schools probably won’t really eliminate that incentive next time it comes around. If it happens only rarely, it’s likely to be distant enough in time that the lesson meted out to these teams has been forgotten. If it happens before the lesson is forgotten, the effective lesson will be to be less obvious about trying to lose. The star will have an “ankle injury” in practice, or half the team will come down with “food poisoning,” or key players will “accidentally” get in foul trouble early.

    Moral recriminations may make us feel better, but it’s doubtful they’ll change anyone’s behavior much.

    • trumwill says:

      I would consider it an improvement if they played the backups and took risky but fun shots.

      Anything is better than taking up inaction fouls.

    • Chris says:

      Right, that will almost certainly be the lesson from this: lose less obviously.

      If i were a coach, I’d just use it as a practice: implement new plays, try unusual lineup combinations, run complex defenses, that sort of thing. Hard to win that way, but at least you’re playing the game.

  4. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    My comment Over There

    As for your coach, yes he intentionally gave up the safety, but in reality he was trading in 2 points for almost 30 yards of field position, plus the right to kick off of a tee. He wasn’t intentionally trying to lose.

    Much like a team in victory formation intentionally gives up 2 yards in exchange for keeping the clock running and preventing a fumble, or a team intentionally spiking the ball in order to stop the clock.

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