“Suck For Luck”…Well, It Sucks

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Have you heard of this?  Some NFL teams are supposedly losing games on purpose so they can have first crack at Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the consensus Number 1 pick in next spring’s draft.  I hate everything about this – the expression, the theory and especially the idea that any professional team could actually set out to intentionally lose a game.  As the theory took root on sports broadcasts across the country, it had me wondering just how easy it would be to lose a game on purpose.  I’ve never been a competitive athlete but I raised one and watched him compete and it didn’t make sense to me that an athlete who, in most cases, was conditioned since childhood to win would suddenly be able to flip the switch and lose.

So, I asked around.  I know athletes who play (or have played) at all levels of competitive athletics – high school varsity, Division I college and professional.  The first person I spoke to was my son, who was the Outside/Opposite hitter on his high school varsity volleyball team and private club team which, during his final year as a club player, was ranked Number 1 in Southern California, Number 1 in Northern California and ended the club season with a bronze medal in the more challenging Open Division at the Junior Olympic National Volleyball Tournament.  I mention this only so you’ll see that he was playing at an elite level.  When posed the question about whether or not an athlete can intentionally set out to lose a game, he flatly refused to consider the question.  So, the fact that he didn’t think my question deserved a response was response enough. 

I then turned my attention to several athletes who played sports for Division I universities.  All of them told me they could not, under any circumstances, intentionally mess up a point, let alone do enough messing up to lose a game.  In fact, one player told me that she had been in that position one time – as a middle schooler.  She admitted that the reason her coach asked her to intentionally serve the ball out of bounds was valid: her team was beating its opponent badly and the coach’s request was an act of mercy.  But, this player, who had been trained to win, couldn’t physically serve poorly.  Every time she tried, it would bounce inside the back line of the court to score an ace!  In fact, my question reminded her of this moment and of how horrible the whole thing made her feel.  She said it was the only time she had ever been asked to do such a thing and, here it was, 10 years later, and it was still bothering her.

Stanford QB Andrew Luck Credit Image: © Matt Cohen/Southcreek/ZUMAPRESS.com)

After I spoke to the college players, I moved on to a professional athlete.  It just so happens he is in the starting lineup of one of the teams being named as engaging in the “Suck for Luck” campaign.  He told me that there may in fact be players who might buy into this plan and even could implement it by missing a tackle here or not making a hard tackle there but he, personally, could not play that way.  He had been conditioned since childhood to play hard on every play; how could he now play a different way – a softer way?  He couldn’t do it; he wouldn’t do it.  He plays to win, never to lose (good for him!).  But, he did say that there are two components to this strategy – the players and the coaches.  So, unbeknownst to the players, the coaches could be calling plays that they know will fail.  It would be subtle.  For example, faced with a fourth-and-one, the coach might call a play that he knows the players could never pull off. 

To me, enacting such a plan would do more psychological harm than good to a team.  Losing?  Losing consistently?  It gets in your head.  Nobody likes to lose – it doesn’t matter what kind of competition it is.  For example, I take pride in the fact that only one person has ever beaten me in Scrabble (and it was lucky that he got an “X” that could be used on a Triple Word Score on the last play of the game!)  That happened more than 10 years ago and I still remember it!  I remember kids on my son’s elementary school baseball team falling down and crying when the team lost to its arch rival.  I recall my son’s teammates’ tears when they lost in the semifinals at the JO’s, resulting in their bronze medal.  Never mind that they medaled over 50 other teams.  They felt that loss.  Last month, UCLA fired its coach two days after the team lost to USC by a score of 50-0.  And, the Lakers losing in four straight to Dallas last spring is something the team may not ever forget (their fans won’t, that’s for sure). 

Losing goes against an athlete’s instincts.  Athletes play because they want to win, not because they want to lose.  And, if a team loses too much, a window of opportunity opens to develop a Culture of Losing.  Look at the Los Angeles Clippers.  They spent so many years dwelling at the bottom of the NBA standings that, whenever a close game was within reach, they just didn’t know how to pull out the win.  Their morale was low, their actions on the court were subpar because they didn’t have faith in themselves.  Current Los Angeles Laker (and former Los Angeles Clipper) Lamar Odom was interviewed once about a close loss the Lakers had just suffered.  He was confident it wouldn’t happen in the next game because the team wouldn’t let it.  He added that when he was a Clipper, they were losing games by an average of double digits so this close loss was no comparison.  In other words, the Clippers had the Culture of Losing while the Lakers had the Culture of Winning.  The professional athlete I spoke to confirmed this during our conversation.  He told me he feels pretty damn awful because of his team’s record.  I’ve seen him during win streaks; I know that losing is something he is definitely not used to.  No, his team isn’t doing well this season and yes, it is really bothering him.  But, it bothers him as a professional because, as an athlete, he’s conditioned to win. 

When broadcasters and pundits think teams are losing on purpose to get a higher draft pick, I say only one thing: you’re wrong!  It goes against every instinct of a professional athlete’s fiber – and I’m going to go out on a limb and include coaches and owners, too – to intentionally lose games for a specific purpose, whatever that purpose may be.  And, not only is it a near-impossible feat, but it’s unethical, too.  With fans paying big bucks to watch sports events in person and another level of fans paying cable prices to watch them at home, every athlete should play hard enough and every coach should coach well enough to win.

Finally, why would any coach or owner risk introducing a Culture of Losing into his team for a specific player, in this case, Andrew Luck?  No, I don’t think so.  Yeah, Luck is a good player; okay, he’s a great player.  But, he’s not perfect.  I watched him panic against USC.  I saw him lose to Oregon.  And, besides the fact that he’s not perfect, there are rumors that if a lousy team drafts him, he will force a trade because he wants to go to an established team that isn’t suffering through a Culture of Losing. 

So, all the way around, Suck for Luck, well, it sucks.

What do you think?  Do you think a player or coach or owner could intentionally do something to avoid the win?  Post your comments below.

 

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