One of the most popular arguments against soccer in the States is that the diving is a despicable stain on the sport. Since the media has appointed Luis Suarez the official poster boy for flopping, Liverpool fans deal with this as much as anyone. People act as though they are above watching such a spectacle and, worse yet; act as though no such thing would ever happen in American sports.
Please consider Exhibit 1: The quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton, who could stand to take a few lessons from the English footballers in the art of diving. This thing of beauty occurred in Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game.
Forget about the fact that there was no benefit in flopping to draw a call on what was the most egregious offside violation in NFL history. In addition to recommending acting lessons, someone might want to tell Cam that he should save the embellishment for potential late hit calls. The real takeaway was the deafening silence from announcers and fans regarding criticism of the act. The general reaction seemed to be one of amusement and people shrugged their shoulders and moved on with life.
While Cam’s flop provided more comic relief than most dives, it isn’t as though it was an isolated incident. Receivers are coached to try to draw game-changing pass interference and holding calls on every route they run. Quarterbacks yell the name of a certain city in Nebraska dozens of times to try to trick the opposition into jumping offsides. (Ok, that’s at best a distant-cousin of “flopping” but still under the more socially acceptable umbrella of “gamesmanship.”)
Now juxtapose those events against things like the questionable penalty Raheem Sterling was awarded against Stoke. My first thought was, “Thank goodness that wasn’t Suarez” because had it been the Uruguayan striker we would have had to spend the next three weeks reading nauseating articles about his morality, and lack thereof. It was only fitting that Cam Newton’s ridiculous flop later that afternoon provided the opportunity to further contemplate the double-standard.
Consider a few examples from other sports. The first obvious comparison is basketball because each game contains multiple bad calls resulting from embellishment. Fans and analysts do their share of moaning about the officiating but the player’s actions rarely get framed in the context of morality as they do in soccer. To be fair, a lot of people do complain about flopping in basketball, but they often qualify it with a statement attributing it to the influx of European players who think that flopping is ok because of soccer so even that comes full circle.
The influx of European players might not be helping, but they can hardly be considered the root cause. Consider the the 1963 Sports Illustrated article Boston Celtic Frank Ramsey wrote that could have been titled, “How To Flop in Basketball.” Ramsey was born in 1931, raised in Madisonville, Kentucky, and went on to play for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky. The flopping in international soccer and all the ill-repute it brings probably wasn’t a huge influence on the playgrounds of a western Kentucky coal town in the Great Depression. Sorry America, you came up with the idea of flopping in basketball independent of European influences.
What about baseball? The catcher in baseball frames every pitch that reaches his mitt in the strike zone to create the illusion that it was a strike in the hopes of influencing the umpire’s decision. That happens at least 100 times in every baseball game and is as much a part of the sport as “breathing.” Diving outfielders catching a ball on a bounce inevitably spring to their feet and hold the ball in their glove for all to see in an attempt to create the perception of a clean catch and yet there aren’t water cooler conversations deriding these acts as “deceitful” after each game.
The real irony is that soccer is the one of the few sports that actually attempts to legislate flopping. Players whose flopping skills are on par with Cam Newton’s are awarded potentially game-changing yellow cards. The NHL deserves credit for taking a proactive stance through the introduction of the diving penalty in 1992. The NBA started regulating flopping in the 2012-13 season but only in the form of a warning followed by increasing fines. While that can hurt a player’s paycheck, it can’t influence a game the way a yellow card does. There’s wiggle room in the form of generic “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalties in most sports but, for the most part, soccer and hockey are the only two major sports that take a meaningful stance against it.
Like it or not, embellishment is part of the game, and the fact that it occurs in virtually all corners of the earth only serves to prove that it is inextricably part of any sport where the subjective judgment of an official is in play. It gets more attention in soccer at least partly because the consequences are so high. One penalty kick can determine the outcome of a game, whereas, one bad call in a basketball game might result in two first-half free throws that are long forgotten by the time the game ends. Referees aren’t doing much to help eradicate it either. They do issue the occasional yellow card but when was the last time a penalty was awarded when a player didn’t go down after contact? Even at the youth level it has become almost impossible to escape coaching kids to go to the ground on contact because it’s the only way a spot kick is ever awarded.
While it isn’t an example of flopping, the backlash against the infamous Suarez handball in the World Cup is equally baffling. There’s no debate that Suarez purposely prevented a goal with his hands. The official rightfully administered the punishment per the letter of the rule book by issuing a red card, dismissing the player, and awarding a penalty kick. Within the context of the rules, Suarez changed the situation from “a game his team was certain to lose” to “a game his team at least still had some chance of winning, however improbable.”
Switch the context to a basketball game in which a team is trailing by two points with the other team about to get an uncontested dunk with only a second or two remaining on the clock. If the player dunks the ball the game is over. If the player is intentionally fouled, the offending player will be ejected from the game if it is his 6th foul (or 5th in college), it will force the opposition to make the free throws and, if there’s a miss, the fouling team still has a chance to win or tie the game on a final shot. An intentional foul in this case would not be seen as any kind of referendum on morality. In fact, it would be universally regarded as the only sane way to approach the endgame.
All things considered, players are simply trying to gain an edge and short of changing a fundamental aspect of human nature, there’s not much to be done about it. It’s the same part of human nature that drives the intensity of competition in the first place. As for the specific issue of flopping, my personal opinion is that the NHL has taken a compelling stance that other leagues would be wise to consider. In hockey, a player can be penalized for a dive but it doesn’t negate the penalty to the initiating offense. If there really was an infraction it is also still called so this often results in dual penalties. It may seem subtle, but there’s no logical reason for a flop and a foul to be mutually exclusive. Put in the context of a soccer match, this would seem to reduce the pressure an official feels to avoid being “shown up” on the pitch. In the Stoke match, Anthony Taylor could have awarded the kick from the spot and issued Sterling a yellow card, thus indicating he acknowledged the flop but still felt there was enough contact that a foul had been committed. That sends a very different message about the official’s interpretation of the play and it doesn’t box the official into a choice between the two extremes.
Finally, please don’t consider this an endorsement of flopping. Having a match decided by a flop still feels like a kick to the gut, but debates would be much more constructive if so many people didn’t just dismiss it as an unethical act that is unique to soccer. Just about everyone wants to see increased enforcement against flopping. In the meantime maybe we can get people to better recognize the parallels to other sports, get off their high horses, and stop pointing their fingers at the culture of soccer. Conversations about the role of officiating bodies, increased enforcement, and potential rule changes seem a lot more constructive than baseless morality speeches.