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Keith Strudler: Losing To Win

You think watching the Knicks is rough? It could be much worse. You could be stuck watching a girls high school basketball game between Tennessee’s Riverdale and Smyrna High Schools. That would be much, much worse.

See, when the Knicks play, it looks like they’re trying to lose. But when Riverdale and Smyrna played this week, they actually were trying to lose. Like by missing 10 free throws in a row on purpose. And asking the ref to call 3-seconds on them. And trying to score a basket for the other team. That’s the other team, in their basket. That’s what fans were privileged to this week as the two teams jockeyed for playoff position in a district consolation game. Apparently, for both teams, losing would have given them a softer spot in the upcoming playoff schedule, placing them on the opposite side of the bracket from defending state and national champion Blackman. So losing, at least from that perspective, was kind of winning.

The refs didn’t see it that way and eventually demanded both teams cut the nonsense and play the game as Naismith intended. Which means, at the very least, you shoot exclusively at your own basket. Inevitably, Smyrna did this better than Riverdale, “winning” the game, if you will, 55-29. Yet all their concerns over playoff seedings were unnecessary, since after the game the Tennessee Scholastic School Athletic Association banned both teams from the postseason. They also fined them $1500 each and placed both teams on probation for the next school year. While the schools themselves haven’t levied their own punishments, it’s likely coaches will suffer suspensions if not worse, if for no other reason than their remarkable lack of subtlety. The Athletic Association didn’t lay all blame on the adults, which is why they didn’t accept the schools’ request to simply suspend the coaches and let the kids keep on playing. According to the verdict, these high school athletes were complicit throughout, which raises obvious questions about power and control in the often servient world of high school athletics. Regardless, there are no winners here, except perhaps Tullahoma and Lawrence County, who get byes into the next round of the tournament.

It’s hard to defend the actions of either team, even if you can understand their genesis. And to be honest, it’s not all that different than what we often see in the professional ranks, if only with slightly different goals and much better performing. NBA clubs are routinely accused of losing to avoid a hot first round playoff matchup. Teams deny, but perhaps still do lose towards season’s end to get a better spot in the draft – which is why the NBA created its ridiculous draft lottery in the first place. And this doesn’t even take into account the teams that rest star athletes for the stretch run, which though technically isn’t trying to lose on the field, does give their team a much lower chance of emerging victorious. So let’s not pretend that Tennessee high schools created the intentional tank. They just happen to have mangled the craft.

But really in the end, this isn’t a discussion about intentionally missing free throws or standing in the key so long you should start paying taxes. It’s about the role and intent of school sports. The athletes on these two teams were trying, in an odd way, to do one thing. They were trying to win. Now, they may have done so in a way that offends our sensibilities, and it sure doesn’t look good. But if this act was deviant – which the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association deemed it – it was most certainly a case of overconformity, of craving victory so bad, they’d take potentially unethical means to that end.

Of course, these teams, and certainly these athletes didn’t operate in vacuum, and their decision wasn’t arbitrary. In the gym they played – if that’s a fair term – this unsightly game, they probably hang banners for things like state titles, like they do in pretty much every gym in America. No one hangs banners for playing hard, or respecting the integrity of the game, or even your opponent. They reward victory at the highest level. That’s what these two teams aspired to, a banner on a wall in a gym.

Most of us, when we first heard this story, probably blamed the kids and the coaches and all that. And that’s fair. They made a bad decision. But they made an informed one. And until youth sports is built on anything other than winning – from the top down – then the critique, and probably the penalty itself, feels a bit hypocritical. It’s like hating the Knicks for trying to get the top pick in the draft. Which, right now, won’t be that hard for them to do.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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