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Why Some Sports Teams Don't Play To Win


In the world of sports, for every winner there must be a loser. But commentator Mike Pesca says nowadays losing is rewarded, and it's messing up the fan experience.

MIKE PESCA: The other day, the Jets were ahead of the Buffalo Bills by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. I knew not to celebrate. Blowing 14-point leads is what the Jets do. It's kind of their thing. But apart from the usual premature chicken-counting advisory, there was another reason to hold my glee. As a Jets fan, I have been told that this is a rebuilding season. The aim is not to necessarily lose, but it's certainly not to win because a poor record will result in better draft picks next year and glory in the future. There's some logic to this. The worst team does get the first pick in the draft the next year, but there's also lots of illogic. In a sport like football with 53 players on a roster, one player is but a small piece of the puzzle.

And also there is this - if the Jets do get the top draft pick or, as is more likely this year, the Browns or the 49ers do, guess who will be executing their draft strategy. It will be the Jets or the Browns or the 49ers, teams terrible enough to be in the position to have the top pick. Playing not to lose but certainly not to win is endemic in sports these days. The Philadelphia 76ers were so bad for so long they branded their ineptitude the process. The Astros just won the World Series based on their concerted effort of not necessarily losing but certainly not winning.

I can't explicitly blame management. They're incentivized to construct their roster and apportion their free agent money, not with losing in mind but certainly not with winning. I can't blame the players. They're going all out. I mostly blame my fellow fans or the fan-driven media who've convinced themselves that this is a prudent long-term strategy - playing ant to the rest of the league's grasshopper. But a joylessness descends upon the fan who is forced to consult his cognitive dissonance flowchart to know how to properly cheer a touchdown.

Now, it's true that Jets fans are a woebegone bunch. Larry David is among the Jets' most prominent supporters. But maybe we and the other purposeful non-winners have internalized the label long-suffering to such a degree that we've managed to do the impossible. We're now suffering the wins more than the losses.

MARTIN: The wisdom of Mike Pesca. He has the Slate podcast The Gist. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.