In writing this, I feel it is worthwhile to comment at the outset that I am not referring to the tank in its role as a key aspect of armored military technology, but rather in terms of the tank job as being a deliberately failed effort. This is further distinct from the expression tank within stan culture as being something that fails, as there is a distinction that is worth making between something that fails despite full effort, where praise may be given for effort if not for results, and something that fails on purpose. A true tank is a deliberate failure. And while we might not think that deliberate failures are common, they are especially common in American sports, to the extent that some fanbases (here’s looking at you, New York Jets fans) are upset when efforts at tanking end up being unsuccessful because a poor team ends up winning too many games. When fans of a franchise are rooting for their team to lose for the best long-term success, something has gone fundamentally wrong with the structure of competitive efforts, and that is something worth talking about.
Given the fact that I am a somewhat competitive person, I have a strong degree of personal loathing for deliberate and intentional failure. Yet it must be admitted that there are often structural reasons why a team might deliberately fail in order to improve its long-term position. This is especially true, for a variety of reasons, within American sports. For tanking to occur there has to be a confluence of factors that makes it both possible as well as alluring. One of the notable qualities of American sports leagues is their fixed class status. No matter how poorly a franchise does, for however long, that franchise remains in its leagues and divisions, be it in the professional ranks or semi-professional ranks or college or high school sports. American sports leagues are fixed for various reasons, and no amount of skill will allow someone to move up in divisions just as no amount of failure will make it sink unless its division/conference/league ceases to exist. This may be contrasted with the behavior of European soccer leagues, where a long chain of leagues separates the elite teams at the top of competition from the amateur teams many ranks down. This chain of being, a European rather than American concept, means that theoretically at least, a terrible team can fall rank after rank based on poor results season after season while a successful and skilled team can rise, thus making European sports leagues generally more meritocratic than American sports leagues.
Despite the general anti-socialist leanings of many Americans, American sports have long had a great deal of socialist facets that are deliberately anti-competitive, including salary caps, restrictions on free agency, luxury taxes, revenue sharing, and drafts based on inverse order of performance that reward poorly performing teams with the chance to draft the best players. Specifically speaking, it is the combination of fixed league presence and the rewarding of poorly performing leagues with the yearly chance of a considerable talent infusion that incentivizes tanking on a structural level. A team in the UK’s Premier League, for example, would not be rewarded for losing almost all of its games, but it would be demoted to the First Division and lose the revenue that is to be gained from Premier league status. In stark contrast, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who finished the 2020 season at 1-15, get the first pick in the NFL draft where they have the potential (and likelihood) of drafting a quarterback who could potentially improve their team for years as a reward for losing so many games. It should be noted that not all American leagues have this pure reward for failure. The NBA, for example, has a draft lottery that provides a chance for teams that only barely missed the playoffs to gain a higher draft pick than they normally would, thus turning a team that barely missed the playoffs into a team with the potential to land one of the best players in the league if its luck works out well, thus making them a potential powerhouse. Similarly, a team that tanks can lose out on the first several picks, thus making it far less attractive to tank because one is not guaranteed of getting the highest draft pick no matter how badly one plays.
Where this becomes especially problematic in American sports is with regards to American football. Most sports have a high amount of games played, thus allowing teams to easily differentiate themselves based on their play. In the NFL, though, there are only sixteen regular season games (and college football has even fewer at 11 to 13 games or so in the regular season, depending on various factors), which means that frequently teams depend for playoff positions and seeding based on factors outside of their direct control. This is especially true since NFL schedules are based so closely on one’s division, forcing teams to play a very similar schedule to other teams within their division. Frequently, therefore, the success of a team is going to depend on other teams holding up their end up of a competitive bargain. This does not always happen. For example, the New York Giants finished their season at 6-10 and were in a position to make the playoffs if the 4-10-1 Philadelphia Eagles knocked the 6-9 Washington Football Team into a tie. The Eagles, though, saw the possibility to gain a much better draft pick by losing, and so sabotaged their own success to lose that additional game to gain several sports in the draft order and hand the division to the Washington team rather than play to win. And the Philadelphia Eagles were not alone in not playing to win in order to improve draft order. As mentioned earlier, fans of the Jets were upset that their team played to win just enough to end up with only the second pick of the draft rather than lose all of their games to end up with the top pick of the draft.
It is important to realize that the existence of tanking and its prevalence within American sports is not accidental. Deliberate and persistent failure results from the incentives for failure that exist within American sports that actively punish teams that succeed and reward teams that fail. This can be found at nearly every level of American sports. Salary caps and luxury taxes punish successful teams and limit them from paying the salaries commensurate for the talented and successful rosters that they have, and reward teams that have less desirable talent by allowing them the wherewithal to throw money at players to help them get better, at least potentially. Revenue sharing punishes teams in large and successful markets by siphoning a great deal of this income to teams with small markets who do not play competitively so as to earn as much money as possible themselves. Protected league and division positions reward teams for persistent failure by not punishing them with relegation and/or disbandment for consistently poor performance, thus giving them an automatic benefit for league membership not deserved by their play. And automatic draft positions based on inverse performance incentivize teams for tanking by rewarding them potentially with more talent. And despite all of these ways that leagues attempt to encourage competitive balance, there remain teams with persistent cultures of failure where they only have themselves to blame for not being able to take advantage of the numerous advantages they possess for at least occasional periods of success. It is almost enough to turn someone libertarian when it comes to matters of sports culture.