The Chicago Blackhawks have made it abundantly clear that they have no interest in winning games this season. There one goal is to position themselves to win the draft lottery in the hopes of landing Connor Bedard, widely believed to be a sure-fire generational talent. Even if they don’t win the lottery, the draft is considered at least three difference makers deep, so the Hawks being abysmal is likely to jump start their rebuild.
In service of that rebuild, the Hawks have jettisoned any pretense that they are trying to be competitive. They traded away a 40-goal budding two-way superstar in Alex Debrincat. They signed two goalies who can charitable be described as bad despite having better options in the minors. Their big free-agent signings are players coming off bad years who still could be good, but the moment they are they will be shipped out to contenders for picks. Of the three really good players they have, the moment any of them even suggests they would waive their no-movement clauses, they would be shipped out so fast the breeze would melt the ice at the United Center. Their top prospect is almost certainly ready for the NHL and almost certainly will spend a significant portion of the season, if not all of it, in the AHL. In fact, none of their prospects, no matter how ready, are expected to play significant games in the NHL. I think one of their ticket promotions is four seats, four cokes, four hot dogs, and four shifts on the fourth line for 99 dollars a ticket.
They are dedicated, as an organization, to being bad. Is this ethical?
They didn’t have to do this. They had cap space – they could have kept Debrincat, they could have kept Dylan Strome. They could have tried to find players that complimented Kane and the style that their new coach wanted to play and tried to at least compete for playoff spot. A lot of things went wrong last season and before they traded away some of their better players at the deadline, they were winning at a pace that put them at the edge of the playoff race over the course of a full year. A few upgrades, some improvement from returning players like Kirby Dach (also traded) and Johnaton Toews (a former star fighting to return from poor health), and better coaching (Jeremy Coliton did an admirable job handling the fallout from the Kyle Beach sex scandal, answering questions from a time when he was not a member of the organization when others in the organization who should have been in front of the cameras ducked that responsibility. But he did a poor job coaching the team.) and you could convince yourself that this team could contend for a wildcard. And once you are in the playoffs, anything could happen, and often does.
Some people like Mark Lazarus of the Athletic think that is what they should have done, that tanking is a betrayal of the fans and the players. I don’t think that is actually the case. The team does have an obligation to the players and the fans, but I do not think that tanking violates those obligation to either.
The team’s obligations to the players are the easiest to dismiss with regards to tanking. The team is obligated to live up to the contracts they sign with the players — pay them, ensure their physical and mental wellbeing are protected as best as possible within the bounds of playing a physical dangerous and mentally taxing sport and live up to any side agreements they have with individual players — i.e. keep their word if at all possible. It could be argued that players sign contracts with the understanding that a team will try to win every year, or that they will play a certain style, or that they will get a certain rile ona team. But players also know that regimes can and do change, and that no coach or general manager is guaranteed to be in place for the length of their contract, nor is the relative strength of the team guaranteed to remain unchanged. So, players know that teams may trade them or tank or tread water or do any number of things that change their role on the team in service of a number of goals. It is an accepted part of the business of professional sports. Tanking, or any change in how a plyer is used or in the plan of the front office, is not an ethical violation with respect to the player/team relationship. It is an understood part of the life of a player.
What about fans? A team is an entertainment product, so the ethical relationship is obviously that the team takes the fans money with the promise of attempting to be as entertaining as possible. But what does entertaining as possible mean? As I said, tanking is not the only choice to playoff relevance. Teams like Vegas, Calgary and Tampa Bay have played games with the salary cap and reloaded over the last several years and never torn their team down to try and win. But Vegas and Calgary have never won a Cup, and Tampa was terrible before their Cup winning years.
Similarly, Columbus could have traded away players like Bobrovsky and Panarin for assets. They kept those players and made the playoffs. They got one round of magic before watching those players leave for nothing and have been stuck in the middle of the bad teams ever since, hardly sniffing the playoffs but not drafting low enough to get a truly transcendent player to help turn the team round. Or how about Toronto — a dynamic fantastic regular season team with at least one, maybe two superstars on it that always makes the playoffs and always loses in the first round. Are those teams as entertaining as they could be?
Maybe. Since this is an entertainment product, in Toronto, for now, the answer is yes, because the fans keep supporting that team. Same in Vegas and Calgary and to a lesser extent Columbus. Chicago fans, given the attendance numbers, conversely, seem to be okay with the idea of trying to rebuild a Cup contender through bottoming out. I personally agree with that sentiment. To my mind, being entertaining involves trying to contend for as many Cups as possible. Having lived through both a massive drought and three Cups in five years, I crave the latter. I don’t want a series of first round exists. I want meaningful games deep into the playoffs, even if they don’t win the Cup. After the wandering, wasted last five years, I am happy to have a plan to try and achieve that.
Besides, bad doesn’t have to mean unentertaining. Luke Richardson, the new coach, may very well have the team play hard and exciting, even if they cannot close out games. Organizations may tank, but players don’t. They can be entertaining even if they are not good.
As long as the fans, then, as a group, still watch games, still buy tickets, still pay for merchandise, then they ethical obligation to be entertaining is being met, as best as we can measure it. And as long as that is true, then the team isn’t violating their ethical obligations to the fans.
So no, tanking is usually not unethical.
Unlike stadium deals.