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Original Issue

I Can Quit You Baby

The Philadelphia 76ers have given up for Lent. Not their overmatched players—they still want to compete in the worst way, and they're doing exactly that, losing 26 consecutive games from Jan. 29 to March 29. No, it's the Sixers' ownership and front office that are tanking, following the advice of Philadelphia's own W.C. Fields, who said, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it."

Quitting has always been the worst possible thing you can do in sports. It's downright un-American. When flyweight Hyman Miller lost a controversial decision in the 1928 Olympics and the entire American boxing team threatened to withdraw in protest, the USOC president—Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur—thundered at them, "Americans never quit!"

But quitting can constitute a courageous act, in which case the Sixers deserve our applause. Let's give it up for giving up.

At its root, quit means "to set free"—think of an acquittal in a court of law—and to quit is often to be liberated. (Take this job and shove it.) While the Sixers will likely be rewarded with a high draft pick and cap space for their acquiescence, giving up can also be its own reward. There is something inherently foolish in soldiering on when there is no hope of payoff. Which explains why, if statistics are to be believed, many of you quit reading this column before the second paragraph.

Champions recognize this. It isn't true that winners never quit and quitters never win. Winners quit—Roberto Duran had a 72--1 record when he quit against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. And so-called quitters win: Favorite Paula Radcliffe abandoned the marathon in the 2004 Olympics after 22 miles, then won the world championship the following year.

Whatever MacArthur thought, Americans quit too: It is a pity that John Daly wasn't wearing his signature stars-and-stripes pants when he hit seven shots into the water on the 11th hole at the 2011 Australian Open, ran out of balls and abruptly departed the course in a courtesy car. Daly's surrender was not well received, but then throwing in the towel never is. Throwing in the towel, of course, originated as an act of boxing surrender, a sensible and potentially life-saving thing to do. Even Duran's famous no màs took a certain amount of bravery. What he told trainer Ray Arcel that night—"I quit: No gonna fight anymore"—remains a strangely moving anthem of capitulation.

While collapsing this spring, the Maple Leafs have been accused by their fans of giving up and have in turn urged their fans not to give up on them. "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up," said Thomas Edison. "The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."

It's supposed to be a timeless truth, from that little old ant with his rubber tree plant to the Little Engine That Could. Speaking about one of their fellow painters, Edouard Manet once told Claude Monet, "He has no talent, that boy! Since you are his friend, tell him to give up painting!" Pierre-Auguste Renoir did not give up and was rewarded for his perseverance.

But let's face it: You're no Renoir, and you're certainly no Edison. And there are many who were rewarded for not persevering, men and women whose never-say-live attitude changed their lives for the better. Wally Amos quit his job as a theatrical agent to sell chocolate chip cookies and only then became Famous. Charles Darwin quit medical school to become—in the phrase of his angry father—"an idle sporting man," and we're all the smarter for it.

Idle sporting men, in turn, quit all the time for all manner of reasons. Elite marathoners abandon races after dropping out of contention to save their energy for another day. Chess masters resign when the match is irretrievably lost. Poker players, we've been told, know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. And so, on evidence, do the Philadelphia 76ers.

From cigarettes to the 2013--14 NBA season, quitting is seldom easy. But nothing worth doing ever is. If you've never quit anything, you really ought to try. And if at first you don't succeed, try again. Don't give up until you've given up. It just might set you free.

While the Sixers will likely be rewarded with a high draft pick and cap space for tanking, giving up can also be its own reward.

Who are the best and worst quitters in sports?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin