How To Win By Losing…Well, Except For The Suspensions That Follow
The story goes like this: basketball fans attending the Tennessee District 7-AAA’s absolutely scintillating consolation game watched one of the most bizarre games ever played in American sport. These fans witnessed two teams trying, intentionally, to lose the game. It didn’t work.
According to the coverage from Tennessee’s Daily News Journal, both Riverdale High School and Smyrna High School spent at least the first half of Sunday’s game seriously attempting to outtank the other. This included asking referees to blow whistles, missing free throws, shooting on their own baskets, and generally doing whatever was necessary to lose. Perhaps though it is better to let the newspaper spell out exactly what was happening:
…the referee noted that Riverdale “missed 12-16 free throws intentionally.” And that Smyrna “wouldn’t get the ball across the half-court line to get a 10-second count or to make us call an over and back violation intentionally.” The referee said “one time a Riverdale girl looked at one of the officials and gave the official a 3-second signal wanting him to call three seconds on her. Smyrna stood in the lane as well to have us call three seconds on them.” The referee wrote that he finally called the coaches together for a meeting after “a Smyrna player was about to attempt a shot at the wrong basket (but there was a 10-second violation call before they attempted the shot) on purpose.”That was when I called both coaches together and told them we are not going to make a travesty or mockery of the game. WE ARE NOT GOING TO START TRYING TO SHOOT AND SCORE FOR THE OTHER TEAM.”
Perhaps predictably, both teams have been suspended from further play and as of today, both coaches have been suspended for the entirety of next season. As the scholarly Herm Edwards once repeatedly screamed at reporters who balked at one of his decisions, “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!” And generally, yes, it is the case that every team seeks to win. But sometimes, seeking to win can, when the circumstances are just so, necessitate a loss.
Which is what happened in Tennessee before Riverdale and Smyrna took the floor. 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.
For this, these coaches have lost their jobs, and their teams have been booted from the playoffs. And about those players, the ones who were following orders?
TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said the decision to remove the teams stems from the players’ actions on the court. “The student athletes bought into it,” Childress said. “They were the ones asking to call three seconds. They were the ones stepping back over (midcourt). They were the ones not attempting to shoot at the basket.”
What Childress is presumably implying is that players receiving an order from coaches to play badly should have known enough to ignore their coaches, because of…well, reasons. Because they didn’t, Childress lays the blame at the players’ feet too and feels entirely justified having suspended everybody having anything to do with either two schools.
We’re meant to believe that athletic justice has prevailed.
Of course Childress’s quest for responsibility stops short of taking any responsibility for the seeding mechanism that lead to this. Nor does he explain why punishment is necessary in a game in which both teams played badly for awhile and then didn’t play badly for the rest of it. Smyrna eventually beat Riverdale 55-29. The game finished with a winner and a loser. Odd? Perhaps. Against the rules? Not really. Against the meaning of the game? Well…
It depends entirely upon what the meaning of the game is. If each game were played in a vacuum, with each previous game and each future game having no bearing on this immediate one, playing to lose makes no sense. But each game isn’t played in such a vacuum. It is played in such a way as to make important both previous and future games. Both coaches recognized this and responded to the incentives as laid out before them.
For this, they’ve been punished, not because they did anything wrong, but because they weren’t responding to the incentives that micromanagers like Childress imagined to exist. To him – and frankly, to almost all of the adults who have been involved in this story – all that matters is winning the immediate game. It’s the same thing that matters to most lunkheaded sports fans. Hell, it’s the same thing that motivated Herm Edwards in his previously linked-to meltdown.
Dreaming about what the incentives are supposed to be and recognizing what they actually are? Those are two different things. If Childress really wanted to have avoided something like this, he never would have allowed rules that punished a team for winning a game. What he should have said was, “What happened Saturday night was unfortunate, but it’s our fault for having incentives that rewarded both coaches for making the decisions that they did. That’s not the kind of basketball we want to encourage, and as a result, we will be changing the seeding processes in future tournaments so that something like this never happens again.”
That’s not what he said. He demanded instead that coaches stop thinking. To emphasize his point, he suspended everyone who dared to do otherwise while taking no responsibility for why they’d done so. And to back him, the administrations’ at both schools backed Childress’s understanding. Cowardly’s probably too inaccurate a word to Childress and these other administrators, but losers? That seems decidedly accurate.