Taking a dive

“Now, I know this isn’t politically correct these days, but my father used to say ‘Soccer is for three types of people: girls, communists, and queers.'”

I had the pleasure of being told this last week during an otherwise innocuous group conversation about the World Cup (in Russia, on FOX!). Obviously you want to know who said it, but it’s immaterial. You can probably picture the type of person who would say such a thing, and that’s enough for now.

Soccer is un-American, I think we all can agree, primarily because it is the only sport where competitors on every level “flop”. Flopping is generally defined as embellishing or downright faking some sort of illegal contact (attempting to influence the officials call via acting) by an opponent in order to convince the official to call a penalty. Disgustingly reprehensible, right? It’s hard to imagine a U.S. citizen trying to gain an advantage in order to win. To act according to the incentives clearly laid out in front of them.

NBA: a known flopper successfully fakes a charge against the best player of all time

MLB: the classiest player of the 21st century successfully fakes getting hit by a pitch

NFL: you have to see it to believe it, folks! is nothing sacred??

Listen. I don’t want to be overly irreverent, but I have actually heard rumors that soldiers have been known to fake injury (and even death) to gain an advantage in war. So, it’s theoretically possible that America’s Greatest Generation had floppers, even if there isn’t a youtube compilation to hold them accountable. Oh you thought I forgot hockey? lol

NHL: take the fall! act hurt! get indignant!

Let me be clear: the type of acting jobs you see in those videos are significantly more prevalent in soccer. And let me also be clear: it’s okay to resent those plays, maybe even those players. But don’t hate the game. Hate the incentive structure, if you must. But try to understand it, first.

What is it about soccer, anyway? When you take away use of your hands, sports exclusively draw soft, theatrical-type people with no integrity? Or maybe it’s because of where they are from, culturally.

Any other ideas?

Think about this. Of team sports with physical contact between opponents (and human referees) which one has the fewest scoring opportunities? In other words, which athletes have the most to gain by flopping? Ya’ll, it’s soccer, and it’s not even close. Think about the outcomes of a successful flop, sport by sport. Following my respective links: free throws, free base, free yards, free power play… In soccer, it’s a “set piece” at worst and a penalty kick at best (plus the chance of yellow or red cards, oh my). Those outcomes are literally some of the most decisive outcomes in sports! It is hard to score goals, people! Any time you can’t use your hands and 11 people are trying to stop you, you’re going to have a low success rate.

I want to avoid over-explaining a fairly simple argument, but bear with me as I do exactly that. A soccer official has the highest degree of subjectivity of any referee in major sports. First, there is only one true “referee”, who is responsible for the entire field and 22 players on it. Not only does this one human have to determine which contacts are fouls, and which fouls are deserving of yellows or reds, he or she also has to decide if “advantage” is in play. In effect, a referee is supposed, when fitting, to NOT call even an obvious foul if the team that was fouled currently has an “advantage” (possession of the ball on a breakaway, for example). Sometimes they go back and give a card after the end of the play, and sometimes the uncalled foul just fades into obscurity. This results in long pauses after fouls, while the referee sees how play unfolds and evaluates all factors, then decides to blow the whistle or not. Hence, a lot of rolling and screaming and general cavorting occurs during those pauses. Can you imagine a dead period in your favorite sport while the referee is thinking about what call to make? Exactly.

Just a quick aside: Japan just advanced to the knockout round while Senegal was eliminated despite the teams having identical 1-1-1 records in pool play, 4 goals scored, 4 goals conceded, and tying head-to-head. The difference? Japan had four yellows, Senegal six. When they played, Japan drew three yellows from Senegal, whereas Senegal drew two from Japan.

True, soccer has other problems. Playing for draws. Stalling in general. But the point holds! Everything teams and players do makes sense, according to the rules of the game. And there are tradeoffs for everything. Soccer revolves around the fact goals are rare – the exception – and that is a huge part of what makes it beautiful.

Now that I’ve seriously and comprehensively explained why flopping is so prevalent, you can still choose to dislike soccer. Just don’t act like the root of the issue is lack of integrity or toughness, or cultural stereotypes. People respond to incentives, and flopping is rational. It’s far, far more interesting to ponder why one of the best soccer players in the world has BITTEN someone during a game THREE times: Luis Suarez – All 3 bites.

It’s frustrating to see people rewarded for faking, or even faking unsuccessfully. I get it. But, as long as the cost/benefit favors flopping, it’s going to happen. Flopping is part of life, not just sports. Is “pitch framing” flopping? (Answer: yes). I would argue that the U.S. legal system encourages “flopping” (the penalty for frivolous lawsuits is too low).

In most soccer leagues now, players can get carded for flopping. NBA players can get fined large sums of money. Flopping in pro sports has peaked, I have no doubt, as video replay is outing more and more fakers. The equation has changed, but the tradeoff for increased in-game justice is more in-game stoppages. Is it worth it? Who’s to say..

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