Should teams be allowed to lose for tactical reasons?

Eight badminton players (four doubles teams) in the Olympics have been booted out because of charges that they deliberately lost their games. Why might they have wanted to lose? Because these were pool games in qualifying rounds and whom one played in the subsequent round depends upon your ranking in your qualifying group. Being second in your group may sometimes provide a better path to getting to the finals than being first, depending on how teams in the other groups fare. This kind of tactical maneuvering for group ranking is a common problem in any sport that has round-robin qualifying group matches before going into the sudden-death final rounds.

Should teams be allowed to deliberately lose for tactical reasons?

The obvious answer, based on general sporting principles, is no. In competitive tournaments, the popular sentiment is that people should always play to win. But it is not so simple. For example, take team sports like the NFL. Once a team has made it into the playoffs, they will often rest their best players for the last game or two of the regular season so as to avoid risk of injury. So they are essentially willing to lose those games, and often do, for tactical reasons. This is common and openly done but is it wrong?

It is also the case that when a team has an unbeatable lead, they will take out their best players or not try too hard to score to avoid embarrassing the opponent. This is a nice gesture but it does mean that they are deliberately holding back and not putting forth their best effort on every play. Is that wrong?

There are also suspicions that some weak teams in American football and basketball may be deliberately losing their last games of the season so that their season records become even worse, since the lower your team’s rank, the earlier you get to pick players in the draft for the following year. Is that wrong?

There is also the famous true story, often used in evolutionary theory as an example on how altruism develops, about four teams in the English soccer league who in 1977 were playing in two different matches on the last day of the regular season. (See The Selfish Gene (1989), Richard Dawkins, p. 223 for more details.) Depending on the results, one of three teams (out of the four playing in those two games) would be relegated to the lower division in the following year, an ignominy that all three wanted to avoid, and so they were all playing hard to win.

One match ended a few minutes before the other and the result was flashed on the scoreboard of the other match. Because of the result of the first match, the two teams on the field in the second match (the score of which was tied at the time) realized that if theirs ended with a tied score, they would both avoid relegation and the team in the first match would be the loser. Instantaneously, this match changed from a hard fought battle for victory to one in which both teams made no attempt whatsoever to score and simply passed the ball around aimlessly until time ran out. What is worse here is that this was not a unilateral tactical decision by one team but that these two teams were obviously colluding against the third team. Should they have been allowed to do that?

My own feeling is that it is too hard to ascertain motivations so one should allow individual athletes and teams to lose games for tactical reasons if they want to but maybe take a harder stance against collusion. Considering all the other problems present in highly competitive sports, such as cheating in all its forms, it is not the worst of offenses.


  1. Matt Penfold says

    They has the problem of teams colluding to draw, or allow one to win, in the Football World Cup. They overcame that problem by requiring the last group games be played at the same time.

  2. slc1 says

    There are also suspicions that some weak teams in American football and basketball may be deliberately losing their last games of the season so that their season records become even worse, since the lower your team’s rank, the earlier you get to pick players in the draft for the following year. Is that wrong?

    Although this is possibly true in football, in the NBA, there is a lottery amongst the 8 teams that didn’t make the playoffs for the drafting order. While it is true that the worse a team’s record is, the greater the chances of getting a higher pick because of a weighting factor based on the record, it would still be taking a chance to deliberately lose games as, even with the weighting factor, the team with the worst record could, and ofter does, end up not getting the top pick.

  3. Mano Singham says

    But then you might still have the problem with the soccer example I gave, if one game ends before the other and the result becomes known.

  4. Matrim says

    Eh, I think it is entirely dependent on the situation. If you’ve already clinched a spot (i.e. nothing you could do in the context of the game could change your position up or down), you should be free to play as you see fit. However, if there is any form of contention still in play, teams should be held to a competitive standard. True, it would be hard to enforce in some instances (you can’t be sure that a player deliberately botched a serve or missed a return), it is the principle of the thing.

  5. Matt Penfold says

    True, but I know the organisers do their best to ensure both halves in both games start at the same time, so it does minimise the problem.

  6. James says

    There’s also a case (can’t remember the coach & team) where the coach either got the wrong final score from another match or added up the points/goal difference wrongly and in the final minutes told his team to hang on to their draw rather than go for a winning goal. His team got relegated and he got the sack.

  7. eric says

    I’m okay with taking individuals out in US football, because of the relatively high risk of career-ending injuries. Plus the fact that there are relatively few players whose sole presence makes or breaks a team (Manning and the Colts being an obvious recent exception). I’d be okay with analogous practices too: as a general rule, in any team sport where the risk of serious injury is high, IMO the “disease” of letting the coach sit out players is better than the “cure” which says they must stay in the game.

    I could also argue there’s a qualitatitve difference between that and throwing a game. Coaches sit high value players sometimes even when they are trying to win that game. Sitting players is a normal tactic that could result in a loss, but is also used to try and win. It is not a “below board” tactic specifically designed to result in a loss.

    But yes, it would seem to me that in other sports’ pool-to-single elimination tournaments, it would be reasonable to try and have the last game or two of each pool played “in the dark.” At a minimum, if you think there is a serious risk of collusion between person or teams A and B, have A and B face off first in the pool. That way, the issue of collusion is largely avoided; nobody is going to throw the very first pool match, there are too many unknowns.

  8. Mr Ed says

    In sports you play to win but how you define win matters. In cross country when teams have back to back races some runners don’t go all out the first day to be fresh for the second day. They aren’t just looking at winning the event at hand but at winning overall. The Olympics are full of events where the looser goes home seems to me that these players were just taking advantage of poorly written rules.

  9. karmakin says

    You can’t stop it. So if you try to stop it, you actually end up rewarding better cheaters and punishing more honest people strangely enough.

    The best example I can give (by far) is the CCG Magic:The Gathering. Most tournaments are run in a Swiss Pairs fashion, that is, you play people with the same/similar record as you. At a certain point in the tournament, if you have a good enough record, it’s better for both players to intentionally draw, so you each get 1 point rather than one getting 3 and the other getting zero, potentially knocking one person out of the top 8 (where it is single elimination) furthermore, sometimes it’s better to just let someone else win, especially if it’s a friend or a teammate.

    You can’t stop players from drawing and you can’t stop players from intentionally losing. So you just make it so that players can do this, with a couple of strict no-nos (bribery, randomization of winners), and things are all brought above board.

    This is a bit different when you’re talking about spectator sports (although Magic is increasingly becoming watched), and you have to set up your tournament structure to prevent it. Probably in this case the best thing to do is to randomize the seeds for the knock-out rounds.

  10. stonyground says

    As I see it, the problem in the badminton was not the players but the system. If losing the current match gives them an easier opponent in the next round, then by losing this match deliberately they are playing to win, by taking a longer view. As for trying to prevent it happening, the only solution is to design the rules so that this situation doesn’t arise. Had the badminton players been a little less obvious about it would have been difficult to prove that they lost on purpose.

  11. ollie says

    In professional sports, teams have some obligation to deliver a competitive game to their audience.

    That isn’t so true in other situations.

    As far as “fairness” concerns of the system: this is Arrow’s Theorem in action.

  12. ACN says

    There have been some recent changes to MTG tournament play to try to negate this.

    Instead of deciding which player will choose to play-or-draw at random, in the t8, that decision now goes to whichever player had the better ranking at the end of the swiss portion.

    This provides incentive for players who CAN simply draw in to consider playing out the last round as it’s possible that players who HAVE to play out the last round to get into the t8, could end up with a better swiss ranking than those who drew into the t8 (since draws are worth only 1 match point, and wins are worth 3).

  13. Mano Singham says

    I had never heard of Arrow’s theorem before you mentioned it. It will take me a little while to understand it in general and how it applies here specifically.

  14. says

    I think it should be allowed, because as you say, it is strategy. It’s no different than what Sun Tzu’s Art of War would recommend. Games are defined by their rules, and bending them is part of the game. For example, if you are playing chess, and you add a rule that pawns cannot capture rooks, would you still be playing chess? The game of chess is as much about the pieces that you use as it is the rules that defines chess. Another example is when baseball teams use hand signals to send messages to players on the field. The reason they do this is so the other team can’t guess what they’re planning. This implies that if the other team figured out the opponent’s signals, then it’s fair for them to use them. It would still count as a win for them. Another example is the practice in the NFL of icing the kickers. One could argue that it goes against sportsmanship, but it’s also knowing the rules, what the rules allow, and what they don’t. This is what it means to play a game or sport.

  15. Brian says

    There’s another odd case of this that occurred in the Carribbean Cup where Barbados needed to win by a margin of two goals to qualify, and so while winning 2-1 late in the game, deliberately scored an own goal to force the game to go into extra time (where a double-point “golden goal” rule came into effect). The Grenadan teamattempted to foil this by scoring their own own goal, (losing the match, but winning the qualification), leading to the odd situation of the Barbados team defending both nets.

  16. Mano Singham says

    Wow, that is the most bizarre example of this kind of tactical thinking I have ever heard of!

  17. Alverant says


    The spirit of the games is for sportmanship and fellowship among nations. Throwing a match is an insult to the winning nation. It’s the equivalent of a child saying, “I could but I choose not to.” Other countries take the games a lot more seriously than the USA. What happened was a big slap in the face that’s on par with cheating.

  18. jamessweet says

    I tend to be of the mindset that if a team is incentivized by the rules to deliberately lose and/or not play their best, then that is the rules and that is acceptable. Teams should do whatever they can within the rules to maximize their chance of winning (barring deeply unethical practices, of course, but generally the rules should be tailored so as to prevent unethical practices from giving teams/players an advantage).

    You can always make a rule saying “Don’t try to lose”, but I would call that a very bad rule, because (as you point out) it is nigh impossible to discern motivations. So for example, taking the football match where the teams decided to just pass the ball around and accept the tie, you’ll have trouble enforcing a rule that says “You have to try to win at all times!”, but instead you could have a rule that says, “If neither team attempts to advance the ball for X minutes, both are awarded a loss for the game.” I dunno, I’m sure there are numerous problems with that rule, but I am providing it as an example of the type of thing that would make for a good rule. It is much more objective, and it de-incentivizes the teams from non-winning behavior.

    I think one could have a rule banning teams from specifically colluding with each other to influence an outcome. But I don’t think it is feasible to have a rule saying, “Each team individually must try to win at all times.” If the tournament rules don’t already incentivize players to do so, then the tournament rules are broken and need fixing.

  19. jamessweet says

    The “icing the kicker” thing is a perfect example of what I am getting at in a later comment. Is it “bad sportsmanship”? Well, maybe, yeah, but these are high stakes games and it is (or, was) perfectly within the rules.

    And so the NFL made an objective rule which limits the extent to which you can do it. That’s how you fix these problems: not by whining about bad sportsmanship, but by making an objective, enforceable rule that prevents and/or disincentivizes the behavior.

    (Side note for those who don’t know American football: the practice of “icing the kicker” refers to calling a timeout just as the other team is attempt to kick a 3-point field goal. Teams in American football are given a limited number of timeouts, so this tactic only comes into play at the end of a game when the score is tied or the team who has the ball is trailing by 3 or fewer points, and the defending team has one or more timeouts left. So it’s already a nerve-wracking situation for the kicker. The defending team calls the timeout just before the field goal is kicked, meaning the kicker winds up kicking the ball anyway, which expends energy, and — in theory, at least — “psychs him out” so that he will be even more nervous for the next kick.

    After a number of high-profile incidents of this, and ensuing fan displeasure, the NFL made a rule that says the same team can’t call more than one consecutive timeout before a field goal. So you can still “ice the kicker” once, but even if you happen to have multiple timeouts left, you can’t just make him keep kicking it over and over.)

  20. left0ver1under says

    In some leagues, the order for drafting players is determined by the order of finish in the previous season. The team that finished last drafts first, and so on. For obvious reasons, teams may have an incentive to lose games deliberately to attain a better draft position. There have been accusations in some leagues (the NFL and NHL, if not others) of teams “throwing” games by keeping their best players out of the game to ensure defeat.

    The NBA attempted to remove the temptation to lose by having a “draft lottery”. However, even that has been accused of being rigged, especially when the New York Knicks “won” and drafted Patrick Ewing. And a similar accusation was made in May 2012, after the over of the New Orleans NBA team agreed to keep the team in the city.

    Here are two related examples of game fixing from outside of pro leagues:

    In the 1982 IIHF World Championships, the USSR and CSSR (Czechoslovakia) played a game of “try not to win”. The USSR had already won the gold, but by tying, the CSSR would win silver. A USSR win would have given Canada the gold. After the game the accusation was made by Alan Eagleson of Canada, “I won’t say the fix was in, but…”.

    In the 1987 IIHF World Championships, it was time for payback. Canada had already lost the chance at the gold medal, and would likely have lost the silver if the USSR and CSSR collaborated again. Instead of trying to beat Sweden for the silver, Canada deliberately threw the game in a farcical display. Sweden “beat” Canada 9-0, a score that never would happen under any other circumstance. In doing so, Sweden took the gold medal over the USSR. Fourth place never felt so good.

  21. left0ver1under says

    Argh. That should read:

    The USSR had already won the gold, but by tying, the CSSR would win silver. A USSR win would have given Canada the silver.

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