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.