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Thursday cannon fodder: tanking

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NFL- Washington Redskins @ Miami Dophins

At dinner last night, I got into a discussion about tanking in professional sports. I posited that if you could get an off-the-record answer from a team executive that could not possibly be traced back to him or her (basically if you could guarantee honesty) that he or she would unequivocally tell you teams tank every season. Drafting a star player can change the fortunes of a franchise for a decade or longer. For example, it’s clear to almost all observers that the Miami Dolphins are tanking this year with their eyes on drafting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in 2020.

But for the most part, players don’t tank. They have to perform at their best because their play determines the value of their next contract and / or if they don’t measure up, they could be out of a job. They can’t take plays, quarters, halves, or games off — that’s a great way to get seriously injured.

Playing on a team that is tanking must be miserable. Imagine being someone who has been successful and won games their entire developmental and professional sports career. Winning has always been the goal, both for you and for everybody around you. Then, all of a sudden, it isn’t. You start losing and losing badly day in, day out. I’ve been on the receiving end of a good, old-fashioned, sports blowout. It’s not fun.

Structural elements of European club football — promotion-relegation, the existence of competitor leagues in each country, different developmental paths for young players, etc. — make having a draft nearly-impossible, which in turn makes tanking not a thing. But let’s put those things aside for a thought experiment.

There is now a draft that covers the top four leagues in Europe and pro-rel is out the window. How, if at all, does the draft change the football landscape? Is getting one star player in football good enough to turn around a struggling team? Good enough to make tanking worth it? Over time, does it shift the balance of power away from the traditional big clubs by spreading out the talent?