As a heartbroken kid once pleaded to Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so!”
In this era of “enlightened” sabermetric analytics, how can pundits legitimately argue teams should purposely throw games? At least with baseball’s infamous Black Sox scandal, of which Shoeless Joe was a part, only a handful of players were in on the fix. Now a broken welfare system has entire organizations taking a dive, aiming to lose now in hopes of winning later, by securing high draft picks today that could become stars tomorrow.
The World Series win of the Houston Astros, who shamelessly tanked their way to three consecutive seasons of 100-plus losses while accumulating prospects, is sure to unleash a stampede of imitators. While many teams will be “successful” at the losing part of the plan, the eventual winning is far from guaranteed. The only promise fans will be certain to see fulfilled is a wider chasm between the “haves” (who are trying to compete on the field) and the “have-nots” (who are focused on the accumulation of “futures” assets, with little regard for competing on the field in the here and now).
The powers that be clearly recognize this is a problem, yet they have failed to meaningfully address it. Then-Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie brazenly broadcast his tanking intentions in 2013, making famous a phrase borrowed from Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs curse-buster Theo Epstein. Hinkie urged fans to “Trust the process,” but as the self-inflicted losses piled up, the league could no longer ignore the absurdity. Rather than act to take away the incentive to lose, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver instead pressured the Sixers to fire Hinkie. The well-being of his game on the line, Silver chose optics over integrity.
There is a better way. At the highest level of professional sports, does it not make sense that teams should have incentive to win every game possible? If the Redskins fight to the finish, yet fall just short of the playoffs, why should they be penalized (with a middle-of-the-pack first-round draft pick), while the (purposely) wretched Cleveland Browns — who announced last year they were embarking on a multi-season campaign of “not [being] focused on wins and losses” — are potentially rewarded for their on-field ineptitude with the first overall pick?
Fighting the good fight should be what is rewarded — and finishing last should be the thing pro teams want to avoid as much as sandlot teams do. In an NFL “integrity-based” draft, for example, the top 10 picks would go to the teams with the best records that miss the playoffs, in order of finish, best to worst; the remainder of the picks would alternate between the best remaining teams that missed the playoffs, again in order of finish, and those eliminated in the playoffs. Pick No. 31 would go to the Super Bowl winner, and pick No. 32 — the last one — to the season’s last-place finisher. Under a system like this, we are still helping weak-er teams by awarding premium draft positions; we simply are no longer rewarding the weak-est team(s). The worst teams will now need to work to improve, rather than angling to be delivered a “savior.”
Here’s a complete first-round order for an NFL draft under this proposal, which could be tweaked for other leagues:
1. Best record, non-playoff team
2. Second-best record, non-playoff team
3. Third-best record, non-playoff team
4. Fourth-best record, non-playoff team
5. Fifth-best record, non-playoff team
6. Sixth-best record, non-playoff team
7. Seventh-best record, non-playoff team
8. Eighth-best record, non-playoff team
9. Ninth-best record, non-playoff team
10. 10th-best record, non-playoff team
11. Wild card loser (worst record)
12. 11th-best record, non-playoff team
13. Wild card loser (third-best record)
14. 12th-best record, non-playoff team
15. Wild card loser (second-best record)
16. 13th-best record, non-playoff team
17. Wild card loser (best record)
18. 14th-best record, non-playoff team
19. Division round loser (worst record)
20. 15th-best record, non-playoff team
21. Division round loser (third-best record)
22. 16th-best record, non-playoff team
23. Division round loser (second-best record)
24. 17th-best record, non-playoff team
25. Division round loser (best record)
26. 18th-best record, non-playoff team
27. 19th-best record, non-playoff team
28. Conference championship loser (worst record)
29. Conference championship loser (best record)
30. Super Bowl loser
31. Super Bowl winner
32. Last-place finisher
Imagine the end of the NFL regular season under this scenario. The top teams continue jockeying for home-field advantage, just as they are now. But the middle-of-the-pack teams, who may have been eliminated in Week 15 or 16, are still in the thick of it for a top draft pick. The organization will still have every incentive to give all they have to win out, rather than “shutting down” millionaire superstars based on the manufactured excuse of wanting to “look at” backups and third-stringers. Even the teams at the bottom of the standings will have incentive to fight to avoid the cellar, since even a single additional victory can easily mean five or 10 spots higher in the draft. Rather than the majority of teams left with “nothing to play for” in Week 17, the action will be intense across the board, as teams compete for their present, as well as their future.
It’s time to end the “reverse-standings” draft — which only gives the last-place team the top pick because the owner of a last-place team originally drew it up — and reward teams for success on the playing field. Losing at the highest level of professional sports should never be rewarded and it should certainly never be celebrated. We must demand that the worst teams make every effort to at least become mediocre — to earn a top draft pick.
Is that really too much to expect from the teams comprised of the greatest athletes in the world at the highest level of professional sports? It’s time to put the “compete” back in major league sports competition.
Brad Kullman is a human performance specialist with nearly two decades of MLB front-office experience, including a stint as general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He is the author of “Losing (To Win): How Incentivized Losing Undermines the Integrity of Our Major Professional Sports Leagues” and “Hardwired for Life: Human Understanding Beyond Surface Personality.”