Monday, June 14, 2010

Should Floppers Get a Tech?

Basketball fans watching the World Cup over the past couple days may have noted that FIFA gives yellow cards to a player who egregiously flops, acting as though his opponent knocked him down, in hopes of drawing a call against his counterpart for supposed unsportsmanlike conduct. Such diving is euphemistically called** "simulation" in the official FIFA argot. A yellow card in soccer is quite like a technical foul in the NBA; two yellow cards result in a red card, which means the player in question is ejected. The footballing penalty is actually more severe than two techs in a basketball game; in the former, the player's team is forced to play with ten men for the duration of the game, while in the latter, the player's team simply replaces the banished player. On the other hand, a technical foul in basketball results in one free throw for the opposing team, usually an easy point with a skilled shooter. All told, a yellow card is probably more serious than a technical foul. One point is highly unlikely to alter the tenor of a basketball game, while playing one man down in soccer probably means you will give up a goal.

Under current NBA rules, of course, there is no penalty to players who blatantly take a dive; Derek Fisher can flop all he wants and live to see another Rondo. And some pundits have argued that flopping has become a greater problem in the NBA in the last ten years as more European and South American players, influenced by soccer culture, have entered the league. Should the impunity around flopping be changed?

We might do well to consider the direct costs of flopping, aside from referee-imposed penalties. In basketball, a defensive flop can give your opponent an easy path to the basket for two quick points, if no foul is called. The enormous size of a soccer pitch, and the number of players on the field, means that a flop by one individual player is unlikely to result in a clear advantage for the other side. So perhaps the risk of an unsuccessful flop (i.e. a flop that fails to draw a foul) provides sufficient caution against would-be basketball floppers. Plus, crashing to the hardwood can hurt weary bones; a trip to the green lawn is far softer.

The biggest problem with penalizing flopping in basketball is the subjective discretion that this would invest in referees. If a player drops, was it a dive, or was he pushed? It would be difficult to definitively demarcate the difference in any written set of rules. Soccer referees indeed do have this discretion, but upper-body contact is less common in that sport and a flop is likely easier to identify as such.

All told, I do not support the penalizing of flopping in the NBA at this time. However, referees must become more chary about calling a foul to reward the player who flopped. If a non-American player (or Derek Fisher) dives unexpectedly, it was probably fake.

**[Warning, large PDF; see page 115]

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