It should be tough to take a moral stand on anything business-related in sports. The complexities of life and career and ethics are shuffled further in sports, where a collection of owners at once compete with each other and collude together to cap their employees’ earnings. And the money, from ownership down to the veteran player’s minimum, is mostly obscene, as is the amount of time and attention the masses give to on-and-off-the-field sports stories.If anything, a dreary few seasons of abundant losing could be more edifying for a young, newly rich pro than joining a good team.
And yet, morality hot takes flood the airwaves every day. Typically, narratives project good values onto winners and tag losers with presumed character flaws. There are no bigger losers in sports than the “tanking” Philadelphia Sixers, and no shortage of sermons on how their team building process has angered the sports gods.
The “process” in Philadelphia is fairly crude: don’t worry about getting moderately better in the short-term, while increasing your chances of getting much better in the long-term. The premise isn’t unique. Many teams sit players, ride out lame duck coaches, or trade away talent with an eye toward a worse record and better hopes of landing young, cheap, franchise-changing players in the draft. The San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, and Oklahoma City Thunder are all considered some of the most well-run, classy organizations in the league. All of them benefited from convenient, if not intentional, losing while heading into a draft featuring one of their important players.
The Sixers took this to the extreme. Not only have they traded away all of their established players over the last few seasons, they’ve also cornered the market on both bad and cheap contracts—they’re paying more salary to players they’ve waived than the players on this year’s roster, many of whom are debatably not NBA-level talents. They even let players draw up plays in a tank-off with the Miami Heat last season.
When the Sixers hit a historic losing mark, or one of their players gets bad press for off-court issues, folks start pointing to the bankruptcy of their sports morality as a cause. Since they aren’t trying to win games, the parable loosely goes, their players are losing in life. First-rounder Jahlil Okafor is speeding and scuffling because there is no older Sixers player to keep him in line. Fellow first-rounder Joel Embiid experiences recovery setbacks because Philly rolled the dice on an immature kid and/or drafted with hubris by selecting a tall person with a foot injury.
The frustrations are not limited to outsiders and fans talking silly. Brett Brown has admitted that the losing has been more frequent and more demoralizing than he anticipated when accepting the head coaching job in Philadelphia. The other owners of the league reportedly sic’d the commissioner onto the team’s front office, getting Jerry Colangelo, an accomplished winner, inserted into the team’s decision-making hierarchy. General Manager Sam Hinkie may be removed from his throne of draft picks and cap space in the near future.
Much is made of “winning cultures” in sports, and I’m even tempted to feel pity for young, athletic marvels making millions of dollars to lose in the sport they have always thrived in, night after night. But is winning actually a virtue?
Is contentment in losing really such a bad thing? The Bible places little priority of coming out on top. Losing your life to find it, turning the other cheek, the first becoming last, etc. Something like a loser’s mentality is forbidden, but those cautions tend to concern a slothful attitude while sinfully taking the future for granted. Hinkie has not been propping his feet up on his desk every day, leaving the office early because “who cares we gon lose”. On the contrary, he’s made methodical hires, exploited other mechanisms in the business of basketball, and collected assets that will almost surely materialize into a very good young core in the next couple seasons. Despite their dismal record, Brown has coached his butt off, and I’d imagine the players, coaches, scouts, and development staff for the Sixers are working hard for their money.
If anything, a dreary few seasons of abundant losing could be more edifying for a young, newly rich pro than joining a good team. The NBA has its own pseudo school for young players coming into the league because wealthy, successful young people are prone to get into trouble from time to time. “How to cope with losing without punching someone at a night club” is probably not a class in the works.
Philippians 4:13 is one of the more popular verses to show up smudged in eye-black or written on players’ socks during a game, the implicit application being, “I can win this game through Christ who strengthens me.” But with a dash of—wait for it—context, the verse just before it frames things differently:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
So I’m not worried about the Sixers team or its players. The soft tribulation of scoring a lot less than the other teams is no worse for them than a championship parade would be.