Two High School Girls Basketball teams from Tennessee are punished because both teams were trying to lose a game against each other.
What did they do wrong?
This small event in Tennessee made national news. For a brief period in late Feb. 2015 this was a mainstream news story.
- It made CBS Morning Show & CBS News.com
- It made The Washington Post
- It made The New York Times ("They have a sports section?" "Yes." "Why?" "Because Obama plays basketball.")
- It made Deadspin.
The vitriol in the comments section of those pieces is particularly interesting because it's so intense. Who knew people were so passionate about high school sports in states they don't live in?
I don’t know which side you, dear reader, are on, but if you’re on the “What those girls did was wrong” side, pause for a movement before we move forward. Clearly articulate in your head your answer to this question “What, exactly did the girls do wrong?”
If you said “they didn't respect the integrity of the game” or some variation of that, not only are you wrong, but you don’t know even know what you’re saying. You’re just spitting back statements from the above links.
What is integrity of the game?
Especially in a non-professional high school girls basketball setting?
If the answer is, “Win for the sake of winning” the counter is, that’s exactly that the girls were trying to do, on the meta level.
For those unfamiliar with the story, both teams had an incentive to lose as the winner would play the defending state and national champions in the playoffs, and the loser would play some other not-as-good team in the playoffs.(This is glossed over in all other pieces on this event, the team they were trying to avoid, Blackman, is not only the defending state champs, but also the defending National champs. They are, literally, the best team in the country.)
As a reminder both teams had already played the Blackman in the regular season and lost.
So, yes there is an incentive to lose the game. But I’m pointing out that they were playing to win, it’s just that they were playing to win their NEXT game.
If they were therefore playing to win (albeit their next game), then they are in fact not disrespecting the integrity of the game.
So what did the girls do wrong?
The answer is……..
They didn't lie well enough.
This becomes clearer if you read the local news media piece on this from the DailyNewsJournal which appears to be the local newspaper for Murfressboro Tennessee. (Yes, the bustling metropolis of Murfreesboro Tennessee!)
In that piece (found here) several telling quotes emerge. Reproduced below:
“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." - [this caps lock emphasis is in the original piece written by the referee.]
"From what I understand, he [the coach] sat down and let them do whatever they wanted to do,"Childress said. "We questioned why his starters were on the bench and he had no attention to the game. He acted like he really didn't care about what went on in the game." [emphasis mine]
Based on the above quotes, the problem wasn't that they were playing to lose, not really. It’s that they were too obvious about it. In particular, the girl counting to three was too obvious, and the coach who acted “like he didn't care what went on in the game” was the straw the broke the camels’ back.
Had the girl not counted to three, had the girls not tried shooting into their own basket, had the coach actively tried to ‘coach his heart out’ the school administrators would not have descended the bleachers to demand the starters be put back in.
As a reminder: every single person at the game; the referees, coaches, players, attendees (who were predominately parents/relatives presumably) were all completely 100% hyper-aware of the fact that it was preferable to both teams to lose this game. Parents were likely hoping/praying for a loss. So what they did wrong was not ‘disappointing’ the fans.
The problem wasn't the trying to lose; it was the being obvious about it. If this is still not clear to you, read the quotes from the referee & administrator again. The caps-lock level anger (from grown men) comes not from the losing, but from instances where the players and coaches were being really blatant about it.
Let’s assume, for the moment, that high school sports are partially meant to teach high school students life lessons. What is the life lesson the girls have learned from this? They've been punished and banned from the play-offs, for trying to lose a mostly inconsequential game (both teams were already playoff bound regardless of outcome.) What has it taught them?
It has not taught them “Always Play To Win” - they were already doing that, they were actively playing to win their next game. Just like their coaches and admins and parents taught them/wanted them to.
It has taught them instead - Never make the boss look bad. If you expose the boss (or the things the boss thinks are important) as a fraud, or impotent, or incompetent or grossly unimportant despite intense delusions of grandeur, well then the punishment will be swift and brutal; anything to save face. You don’t matter. Only those in power matter. Show your fealty.
It could be argued that learning to please the boss is still an important life lesson, as Bob Dylan once said “you're gonna have to serve somebody”. But damn, that’s a depressing life lesson for a high school kid. Usually you have to be an adult before the full soul-crushing alcoholism-inducing truth hits home.
You can read the official statement from the mighty awe-inspiring authority that is the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association here. It’s worth looking at.
It was apparently written on a type writer and then scanned to Scribd. (Yes, really, a type-writer!) - the final paragraph is this:
Unfortunately for the girls, the TSSAA are taking the "become successful citizens in society" portion of their mission very literally. Girls- next time you’re trying to do exactly what your bosses told you to do (i.e. Win), don’t. The bosses don’t want you to win or think for yourself; not really. They want you to make the boss look good. Only those who learn to make the boss look good can become “successful citizens in society”.
Life lesson learned. Don’t worry, alcohol numbs the pain once you hit 21.