Many years ago I played a pickup basketball game on an outdoor court near the university I was attending.
One of the regulars was a former all-conference offensive tackle who, by this time, was closing in on 400 pounds—though he still had quick feet. Big “E” was about my height, so I always had to guard him.
One of his favorite moves was to back me down in the post using his enormous derriere, just enough to force me to take a step back, and use that room to shoot his turnaround jumper or drop-step to the basket. In essence, the space he created to make his move was the direct result of a charging foul. I established position and Big E initiated the contact.
Try calling that foul in a pickup game.
Yet this move is widespread in both college and NBA basketball. The defender is expected to lean back into his man (but not too much, or a foul is called on the defender) and hold his ground. If he cannot hold his ground because the force of the contact is simply too strong, the defender has two choices: take a step back and keep his balance, or keep his feet under him and fall down as his center of gravity is shifted backward from the contact.
The same dilemma is present in soccer, which I also play (and just as poorly). In soccer it is the attacking player who faces this dilemma. When a player makes a move that beats his defender, it is considered good defending to turn into the attacking player as he tries to get past—to slow him down just enough that another defender can bring the help defense.
If he cannot delay the attacking player with a shoulder as he tries to blow by, the savvy defender uses a hand check or an outright hold. As a last resort, the defender lunges at the attacking player’s legs, just enough to force the attacking player to maneuver, or “skip,” over the defensive appendage.
In any case, the intent of the defender is to slow down the attacker and cause him to lose the ball with a move that is “impeding the player,” a violation of the laws of the game.
Just like the post-up bump in basketball, “impeding the player” in this situation is never called in soccer, ever.
So what is a savvy attacking player to do?
He has two choices: either give up on the ball and let the other team take possession, or use the contact to go down, hopefully signaling to the referee that a more serious “charging” or “holding” foul has occurred.
What do fans of both basketball and soccer call this, when a player who is illegally fouled chooses to emphasize the foul and go down?
Its called “flopping” or “diving,” respectively, and the fans claim to be outraged, sparking major movements in both sports to crack down on these instances of “cheating.”
But is it really cheating if the alleged player is simply responding to the fact that the game officials refuse to call the foul on his opponent?
Seriously, what is the player suppose to do? Give up position under the basket? Give the ball away to his opponent? In the heat of competition these are undesirable options, but it is this dilemma that gives us flopping and diving.
If referees would call the initial foul—“charging” in basketball and “impeding the player” in soccer—there would be no incentive for the fouled player to go down so easily. He could stand his ground and take the hit in the post or try to avoid the defender in soccer, knowing that the referee will reward him for making the correct play by punishing the true culprit.
To be sure, wherever there is competition there are players who are willing to take whatever advantage the officials allow. Some players will dive or flop whether they were fouled or not (see the modern NFL). These players should face the harsh sanctions the mob desires, which the NBA and FIFA brain trusts now seem willing to grant.
True diving and flopping will be so much easier to detect if officials are willing to call the first foul. If it is not called, the player has only bad choices: let the other player have his way, despite the foul, or pretend that the force of the foul reached whatever upper limit referees seem to use when calling them in these situations.
If the referee will not call a foul unless someone falls down, what choice does a player have but to go down?
In public policy circles this is called a “perverse incentive,” where people are encouraged to do something that is just as bad (or worse) than the original problem.
Flopping and diving are the direct result of fouls that are never called. Consider the logic of the no-call: If the contact is not enough to actually knock a man to the ground, it is not considered a foul, even if the initiating player gains an advantage.
These no-calls are so much a part of these sports now that when a player faces the dilemma of giving up advantage or going down and chooses to go down, the fans scream that the fouled player is cheating!
Want to stop flopping and diving? Try enforcing the rules of the game in the first instance so there is no incentive for the simulation of a greater foul that will draw the referee's whistle in the second instance. Remove perverse incentives for simulation, and not only will simulation decline, true simulation will also be easier to call.