Ethical If We Want It To Be: NBA Flopping and Fooling the Ref

“And in the category of Best Feigned Foul in An NBA Play-Off Game, the nominees are….”

Once again, the issue of players in professional sports intentionally deceiving the referees is enlivening the sports pages. I welcome it: the intersection of sports and ethics is always fascinating. This particular intersection is as old as sports itself. Is deceiving the referee (or umpire) for the benefit of one’s team competitive gamesmanship or cheating? Is it an accepted tactic, or poor sportsmanship? In short, is it ethical or unethical?

The current version of this controversy has broken out in the National Basketball Association, where  Commissioner Daniel Stern  has declared war on “flopping”—the maneuver where a player draws an undeserved foul on an opposing player by acting as if minor contact or even no contact at all was near-criminal battery. Stern has suggested that the NBA needs to start handing out major fines for these performances, which in the heat and speed of the game are often only detectable with the aid of slow-motion replay after the fact

The NBA is especially vulnerable to ref-fooling, because fouls have always been the sport’s Achilles heel. The refs can’t possibly call every foul that would qualify under the rules, nor can they see all of the contact between the players that would warrant fouls if referees did see them. Moreover, if every foul were called, pro basketball would slow to a crawl. Thus part of basketball is being as physical as possible without getting caught. How different is that, ethically, from a player pretending to be fouled when he has not been? Not very. They are two sides to the same coin. This creates the natural rationalization for flopping: some players are fouling and getting away with it all the time, so the players who are being victimized should be allowed to fight back by manufacturing a fouling offense where there was none. Your mother would immediately recognize this as “Two wrongs make a right”…which, as she always reminded you, they don’t.

They don’t if the NBA decides they don’t, that is. Any sport or game can evolve in its rules and practices to hold that particular varieties of deception aren’t cheating, but are just part of the game. Sometimes this is done explicitly. I used to play a board game called Diplomacy, constructed to simulate international alliance building and diplomatic intrigue, in which lying and betrayal were expressly permitted. In soccer, flopping is considered an art: YouTube has hilarious videos of children at soccer camps being trained to fly backwards as if being hit by a sledgehammer. In football, intentional grounding by a quarterback (that is, throwing away the ball before being tackled) is a penalty, but learning to do it so that it fools the refs into believing the toss was a legitimate incompleted pass is a talent to be admired. The best baseball catchers excel at quickly moving their mitts into the strike zone after a pitch has arrived, often fooling the umpire into calling a strike; the best second basemen are skilled at turning double plays while leaving the base slightly before the throw from the shortstop arrives, but doing so smoothly enough that the umpire calls a force-out anyway. None of these are regarded as either cheating or poor sportsmanship, because the culture of the game supports them, and has for decades.

Such conventions stem from tradition born of practical realities. The so-called “phantom double play” is allowed in baseball because it reduces injuries, since the second baseman has to throw the ball to first as the baserunner from first is hurtling into his legs. Calling the play strictly would also require making a rule against hard slides to break up potential double-plays, and that would come at the cost of reduced excitement and fan entertainment. The catching trick is difficult to detect; before video-replays, it was almost impossible. When sports and games include opportunities to get around the rules that can’t be stopped (or can’t be stopped without slowing or otherwise damaging the game’s entertainment value), the usual approach is summed up by the old saw, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” It’s not cheating; it’s gamesmanship. It’s smart playing.

As in everything else in life, however, technology is changing the equation in sports. Now, thanks to the universal televising of most pro contests and cameras that capture action that can’t be detected by the naked eyes of referees, fans can see that their team lost a game because of a strike that was stolen, or a foul that never happened, and that can hurt a sport’s integrity. Today the camera is becoming the real referee, and all sports are slowly adjusting. The NBA can change the culture of its sport to turn flopping from gamesmanship into cheating; all it has to do is start fining and suspending players after reviewing the video, or even forfeit some games.  Baseball can do the same with outfielders who pretend to have caught balls they really trapped, or batters who, like Derek Jeter in a nationally televised game a couple of seasons ago, act as if they have been hit by a pitch when the ball only made contact with the bat. All the sports have to do, in short, is change their cultures to hold that what was once acceptable is no longer. What was once thought to be acceptable  is now wrong, because of changing perceptions, conditions and priorities.

That’s what cultures do: adjust ethical standards. Sports cultures are no different.


Spark: Washington Post

Graphic: Bleacher Report

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at


8 thoughts on “Ethical If We Want It To Be: NBA Flopping and Fooling the Ref

  1. Point of order: it’s not tricking the ref into believing the toss was legitimate, it’s staying within the letter of the law while flagrantly violating its spirit (which is fine with me; I thought intentional grounding was the worst rule in sports even before it became clear that forcing a guy to remain in sitting-duck position was not the best idea).

    • Distinction without a difference. If the ref thinks it was grounded intentionally, he calls it. If it wasn’t a true attempted pass but grounding disguised as a pass, then that’s deceiving the ref.

      • False. A quarterback can throw the ball into the third row, but if he’s outside the tackle box and throws it past the line of scrimmage, it’s a conventional pass. Likewise with a direct toss at an eligible receiver’s feet at point-blank range. However, if the ball slips out at release and sails eleven yards past the receiver, even if every intention was to complete the pass, it’s intentional grounding. Despite the “intent” in the name, intentional grounding is objectively judged.

        Which is not to say that football doesn’t have its deceptions; every blocking technique I ever learned ended with “don’t get caught”.

        • You’ve just cited an exception where the rule doesn’t apply: “The passer can avoid an intentional grounding penalty if he is able to scramble out of the pocket and throw the ball away. To be considered out of the pocket, the passer must be outside the boundaries set by the left and right tackles of the offensive line. The ball must be thrown at least as far as the line of scrimmage, but it may land out of bounds as long as it reaches the proper distance forward.” That’s interesting, but it is irrelevant to the act I described.

          • Addendum: I’d call “a direct toss at an eligible receiver’s feet at point-blank range” exactly what I’m talking about. Because of the proximity of the receiver, the ref can’t assume that it wasn’t just a bad throw. If you’re saying he wasn’t technically deceived if he is trapped by the ambiguity, OK. Then the throw is deceitful.

  2. I admit I’m having a little trouble with this one.

    If I understand correctly, your premise is that each sport has its rulebook, and what’s ethical or not is mostly determined by what’s in that rulebook. The outside margins of “mostly” come from long-standing traditions, and de facto rules related to safety or practicality. The game isn’t life–it’s a distinct “closed system” if you will, and the rules about life might not apply. Or perhaps it’s better to say that we can choose to declare (in the rulebook or through tradition) that certain rules of life do not apply within the game and that’s okay. Doing so diminishes neither the ethical rule nor the game itself.

    So the beginning of my trouble is that this smacks a little of a combination of “Everybody does it”, “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical”, and The Compliance Dodge. Okay, I can accept that, though, because we’ve already stipulated that specific ethical principles can be exempted from a game/sport.

    Next comes my own dissonance in trying to reconcile this article with other recent articles here on Ethics Alarmsabout pro football, where the same exemption of ethical principles is applied, but somehow shouldn’t be. Okay, I can accept this, too. There is a distinction in that an ethical principle shouldn’t be exempted from the game when there are clear, demonstrable consequences to the player that persist after the game is over and the player’s real life resumes. In a situation such as that, it’s impossible to exempt an ethical principle JUST for the game because the exemption itself renders the game no longer a “closed system”.

    But ultimately, I keep coming back to this: If a sport is supposed to be a contest of athletic skill (or maybe just “skill” for certain sports like target shooting or bowling) then anything that detracts from that contest–or makes it a contest of something else–is inherently unethical. I fail to see where a demonstration of one’s acting prowess should ever be considered a valid part of a contest of (oversimplifying, I know) putting a ball through a hoop the most times. The point of the game is to measure your skill (or the collective skill of your team) against another, not just to WIN! This is just good sportsmanship: give your best effort, congratulate the winner if you lose, be gracious to the loser if you win, and try to win by being better at the game rather than by cheating.

    And teaching good sportsmanship is one of the primary ways that our culture teaches young people the basics of good ethics. Take that away, and you cultivate a culture of grown-ups who know nothing but winning by whatever means can be gotten away with.

    That is a VERY serious, and long-lasting consequence that continues into real life after the game ends.


  3. Pingback: Is It Okay for Athletes to Trick the Referee or Umpire? « NGB News

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