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
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