Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


luis-suarez-dive-2

(PHOTO: JKATU/FLICKR)

In Defense of Diving, Flopping, and Cheating at Sports

• September 11, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: JKATU/FLICKR)

When people are paid to win a game with a set of arbitrary rules, people will break the rules. We’re almost always OK with that—except for one thing.

Here is an incomplete list of things that happen during sporting events:

• Men attempt to break each other’s fingers, gouge each other’s eyes, and grab each other’s cup-protected penises in an effort to recover a fumbled football.
• A pitcher will purposely throw a baseball, at speeds faster than it is legal to drive a car, at the body of an unsuspecting and defenseless batter.
• Men wearing ice skates will, within the laws of a game in which the object is to place a rubber puck into a goal using a stick, repeatedly punch each other in the face.
• Players will exaggerate or feign contact in order to force a referee to call a foul.

Only one of these things is normally considered offensive.

EVER SINCE ATHLETES HAVE been getting paid to win at sports, athletes have been cheating at sports. And so long as it happens on the field, we’ve generally grown to be OK with it. (Search “PED use” to get a sense for how we take to off-field cheating.) In some cases, we’ve even come to celebrate it. Fouls are now “good,” “smart,” or “professional.” An NBA player who can set an illegal screen without a referee noticing has mastered a “veteran move.”

If that’s sounds obvious, it’s because it is. In an arbitrary competition that, above all else, awards human beings for winning, those human beings will push and bend the rules as far as they can. Especially when the rules and structure are maintained by other human beings, who, being human beings, will never be able to catch every infraction and make every correct call.

“Sport was never pure, for God’s sake. We want people to go out there and play as hard as they can and win. I always get a kick out of people talking about morality.”

And that’s all fine—until someone purposefully falls to the ground. For all the things we let go, when someone exaggerates a touch, fakes an injury, or invents a foul, that’s when we lose the appetite for doing whatever it takes to win.

You can watch a soccer game by yourself or follow along on Twitter or actually go to a stadium to experience the diving-induced sport-rage. If not, you can read about whether or not diving is, in fact, ruining the sport. Or you can listen to the greatest manager of the sport’s modern era worry about how diving will affect the children. And if that doesn’t do it, you can see that Major League Soccer now fines and suspends players, after post-game video reviews, for what the rulebook calls “simulation.”

The NBA has taken a similar approach to flopping, which is America’s answer to diving in sports that aren’t soccer. The league similarly reviews possible-flopping incidents and then fines players adjudged to have tried to con a referee. Even so, David Stern, the league’s commissioner, considers the current punishment structure to be way too lenient.

Yet, as competition encourages, if you can grab an opponent’s jersey to slow him down more times than the referee will call it, you do it every time. Same goes for any tiny push the ref can’t always see. Every small advantage puts you a baby-step closer to winning the game. And for fans—and, presumably, the people in charge—as long as someone isn’t flopping or diving, that’s easy to understand.

“Coaches teach it. Players learn it,” Jay Coakley, author of Sports and Society: Issues and Controversies, told me. “Players invent things to disrupt their opponents, and if fouls don’t get called, that’s the way the game goes. Sport was never pure for God’s sake. We want people to go out there and play as hard as they can and win. I always get a kick out of people talking about morality. People’s livelihoods are at stake here. I’m not condoning cheating, but I think people will do what they can until it hurts their team.”

To review: You can be fined or suspended for exaggerating a foul or acting like you’ve been fouled, but purposely and covertly fouling a player without the referee seeing it? No punishment for you.

TWO THEORIES FOR OUR hatred of men falling down:

1. Xenophobia. Soccer is an inherently un-American sport. In England, where the diving outrage is often loudest, much of said outrage is directed at foreign players who play in the English Premier League. It also seems like too much of a coincidence that so many of the players in the NBA held up as floppers are not American. Diving heralds the un-American-ification of our sporting culture.

2. Insecure Masculinity. For whatever reason—sacrificing agency, maybe—faking a foul isn’t considered manly, while tugging the shirt of or throwing a baseball at an opponent is. This is not un-related to theory number one. The prime example is LeBron James (whose sport-related manliness has also been questioned due to his statistically-superior-but-more-deferential style of play and his decision to join a team with two of the other best players in the NBA). The occasional flop from James questions crumbling ideas of what sports are supposed to represent. It is one of the final arenas of an old conception of masculinity that was defined as being macho. Diving heralds the de-masculinization of our sporting culture.

A THIRD THEORY, FROM Coakley, who is a sociologist, which I am not: “When authenticity is disrupted, people get pissed off. … If I grab someone on a breakaway to the hoop, everybody understands that I’m willing to take a foul to keep that from happening. And I’m being authentic. But when I flop, that’s a dramatic action designed to evoke a particular response from a referee. But fans don’t define that as an authentic act. If they sat down with players, though, they’d lend a little bit of authenticity to it.”

The issue, then, is why is diving any less authentic than, as Coakley says, grabbing a player in the open court who is about to dunk? It’s an admission of an inability to play the sport (I can’t defend you within the rules) and a blatant violation of the rules. Not to mention that it keeps a dunk—the most fan-friendly moment in sports—from happening.

In a pick-up game, you wouldn’t do any of these things. You wouldn’t foul a guy to send him to the free-throw line, you wouldn’t throw a ball at someone’s head during a softball game, and you wouldn’t fake an injury during a five-a-side soccer game. I mean, you could, but you’d pretty quickly end up pitching to yourself, playing 1-on-0, or shooting at an imaginary goalie.

“Fair play, on a voluntary basis, is grounded on the ownership of a sport,” Coakley said. “When kids go out and play informal games, you make up your rules and you know, if you don’t follow the rules, the game isn’t gonna happen. People call their own fouls. The basis for their ethical actions is that they have created them.”

Any organized sport, and especially a professional one, takes this ownership away from the competitors and puts it in the hands of … well, it’s not really clear. We realize that, though. And we accept a lot of the in-game blurry lines and uncomfortable situations that arise when people are playing a sport to win and to earn a living—and not just playing to play. Diving and flopping, in this context, just seem another part, an actual part of the game, and not some must-be-eradicated scourge.

After all, if someone dives, the best part is, they always get back up.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

More From Ryan O'Hanlon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.