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Tank: The four-letter word that sports officials don’t want you to hear

The ugliest word in sports these days is “tanking.’’ Among league officials, the preferred word for losing on purpose is “rebuilding.’’ More civilized, apparently. The only surprise is that they didn’t come up with an even more benign term for planned failure. “Cotton candy spinning’’ would have had my vote.

This is reminiscent of military and national-security euphemisms. Waterboarding might look like torture to most of us, but to the CIA, it’s an “enhanced interrogation technique.’’ Civilian deaths are “collateral damage.’’ To “neutralize’’ is to kill.

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The NBA recently fined Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $600,000 for saying that he had told some of his players that tanking was the best course for the team.

Bulls vice president John Paxson says that forward Cristiano Felicio (above) will get more playing time as the team looks to go younger the rest of the season. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

NBA commissioner Adam Silver “would hate to be hearing that,’’ Cuban said on a podcast. “But at least I sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans are going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again. This is like a year and a half of tanking. That was too brutal for me.”

The outspoken Cuban gets fined about as regularly as the rest of us brush our teeth, so $600,000 to an NBA charity probably elicited a shrug from him. But he would have had every right to argue that he was only pointing out the obvious: Lots of teams in all sports are losing on purpose. Losing on purpose is the real, non-airbrushed meaning of rebuilding.

At least nine major-league baseball teams believe that “losing is our best option,’’ as Cuban put it to his players. Those teams are tanking. The White Sox are one of the tankers. The Cubs used to be enthusiastic tankers, until they started winning, nabbed a World Series and went to three straight National League Championship Series. They razed their major-league product so that they could amass a pile of high draft picks in the hopes they could become a winner down the road.

The strategy worked. Hail to the tanker.

I’m not a fan of tanking. It makes sense for some teams individually, but it’s bad for sports broadly. It takes the paying customer for a ride that might not end in a championship. But let’s at least call it what it is. “Rebuilding” is an antiseptic word for taking a wrecking ball to a franchise while continuing to charge fans full price for the product. “Tanking’’ says: We’re going to strip our team of talent, lose prodigiously and figure fans will stick with us because of the success of the Cubs, Astros and other tankers. We’ll still make a ton of money and, hey, if we don’t win a championship, we followed the current best practice in the industry. It’s called tanking. T-a-n-k-i-n-g.

The Bulls should have been losing in earnest from the beginning of the season until now, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that Bulls vice president John Paxson announced that more young players were going to get the bulk of the playing time the rest of the season. In other words: Yeah, we’re going to tank our butts off.

Why did Paxson dally? Why did he allow Nikola Mirotic to help the Bulls win games? Possibly because he was concerned about being too obvious in his tanking. Perhaps he envisioned a Cuban-like fine coming his way if he used Cristiano Felicio too often. Or a fan uprising. Whatever the case, the Bulls did it wrong. It will take some exuberant losing to get them near the first pick in this year’s draft. As of Friday, they had the eighth worst record in the NBA.

Major League Baseball seems especially sensitive about tanking, probably because so many of its teams are doing it. It was interesting to hear officials, including Cubs president Theo Epstein, recently argue that all teams are competing, even if they’re competing by not being competitive at the major-league level. A CIA operative couldn’t have put it any better.

“I don’t buy into a concept that if clubs adopt a strategy of rebuilding that that should be characterized as ‘tanking,’ ” commissioner Rob Manfred said. “I think that our clubs, all of them, want to win. The question is what strategy are they going to adopt over what period of time to put themselves in a position to win.”

What’s different now is that there’s an appetite among fans for tanking. If Cubs fans had risen as one and said they weren’t going to stand for five years of brutal losing, the strategy wouldn’t have worked. But the Cubs had hired Epstein, a two-time World Series winner, and parched fans were willing to hike with him into the valley of death.

So the White Sox are following the Cubs’ lead, as distasteful as that might be to some Sox fans. In the Plan they trust. They trust that Sox general manager Rick Hahn is choosing the right young players. That’s not a given. Some of the tanking teams won’t succeed. That is very much a given. If a third of major-league teams are tanking at the same time, there’s no way all of them will eventually win.

The answer to losing on purpose is a system that penalizes teams for sustained failure. Maybe that means a loss of high draft picks. Maybe that means relegation to a lower league, a la the Premier League.

However the leagues choose to deal with the phenomenon, let’s at least be honest about what we call it. Tanking. That’s not so hard, is it?