The first time I ever heard the word “tanking” in relation to sport was in the early 1990s referring to the then enfant terrible of tennis, Andre Agassi.
The suggestion was that Agassi had developed a tactic whereby if he realised he was losing a set, he would effectively give up on it in order to conserve his energy for the next one.
This was seen as a rather chiselling move by tennis traditionalists and somehow very American.
Agassi would go on to claim he “tanked” an Australian Open semi final against Michael Chang so as to avoid Boris Becker in the final for personal reasons (he believed Becker had been flirting with his then girlfriend Brooke Shields).
In his autobiography, Agassi reaches the kernel of the whole issue of tanking: “It’s (tanking) almost harder than winning. You have to lose in such a way that the crowd can’t tell.”
Carlton’s Brock McLean re-lit the tanking debate in the AFL with his comments on On The Couch on Monday regarding his departure from Melbourne. As is so often the way with these matters, those watching live, as I was, could be under no impression that McLean was talking about anything apart from deliberately losing games in order to get better draft picks when he made those comments.
They may not appear definitive in print and McLean will struggle to provide watertight proof – this is the crux of the matter as Agassi alluded to – that the Dees deliberately threw games even if he stands by his view when interviewed by the AFL.
The problem Melbourne, and by extension the AFL, have, is that the perception is widely held that while Melbourne may not have deliberately lost games, they certainly didn’t do their best to win. And argue many, including former players and presidents, if you are not going 100 per cent to win, then effectively you are happy to lose.
Are Melbourne the only team to tank if we define the act as not doing everything possible to win? No. North Melbourne in 2006 sent key players for surgery once it became mathematically impossible to make the finals three rounds out from the season’s end. It didn’t help the Kangas get a priority draft pick but certainly made it difficult to win the remaining games, which ensured a high draft pick.
If North had been fighting tooth and nail for a finals spot that year, would the likes of Shannon Grant have been sent to have persistent injuries cleaned up? Certainly not. The proof of that is in the pudding sitting before us. If North were bottom four, Leigh Adams would probably be off having surgery on his dodgy shoulders in order to be cherry ripe for next year.
Instead Adams is moving heaven and earth, and a lot of painkilling injections, to get up for every game as his team strives to make the eight.
The crucial issue for Melbourne is that there is a widespread view, reinforced by a huge range of factors, that the club made a strategic decision to “bottom out” in order to scoop up a series of high draft picks and build a side that would contend for premierships from there.
The so-called model for this is Hawthorn. But Melbourne forgot that while Hawthorn did indeed trade for draft picks and wear a few years at the bottom, they’d already brought in the nucleus of their currently white hot side before taking that decision.
We can argue whether delisting the likes of James McDonald constitutes tanking or not until the cows come home. The reality is that there’s few who disagree, up to and including the coach who oversaw much of the period, that Melbourne did not have winning games as it’s number one priority for a period of at least two years. That is tanking plain and simple.
Questions need to be asked about this and the AFL says it will ask them. It should too, and in the form of a proper inquiry, conducted by an independent agency. That the Victorian gambling regulator has again indicated it is taking an interest in the matter should alert the league to the seriousness of the situation. The number one responsibility of the league is not to maximise revenue, but to ensure the integrity of the competition.
This inquiry cannot be a re-hash of the recent internally run exercise that cleared clubs, and the league, of tanking allegations. Self regulation is fine up to a point. That point has now been reached.
Hard questions need to be asked, of Melbourne especially, but not exclusively. And for Melbourne fans, the key question, and potentially most painful, is how far up the chain of command the strategy went. Did Jimmy Stynes know? Or approve?
It is hard to believe that a man who worked so tirelessly on behalf of his beloved Demons could not have been at least aware that the onfield plan involved rebuilding via the draft, albeit at turbo speed.
Obviously Stynes is not here to defend himself and his legacy. And it is hard to believe a competitor as fierce as Stynes would have sanctioned simply throwing games. But, and here we are back to the murk of the grey area, if by delisting senior players and using others out of position a team is not fielding its best possible side and using the best possible tactics to win, can it really be said to be trying 100 per cent?
The grim reality is not that the Demons tanked. The system was set up to implicitly encourage them to. The problem is that they forgot Agassi’s dictum and let on to the crowd that they weren’t trying 100 per cent to win.