Why you should care
Don’t let the World Cup commentators confuse you: When it comes to flopping and faking injuries, American athletes can compete with the best in the world.
There’s a powerful myth among American sports fans that our soccer players don’t know how to fake injuries. And because they fail to writhe on the ground in imagined agony, the argument goes, they are less successful at drawing crucial penalty calls when it matters most.
Today, the U.S. soccer team battles Belgium. A spot in the quarterfinals of the World Cup is at stake. And the flop remains the subject of an ever-intensifying debate led by commentators. In an article on the front page of The New York Times, Tab Ramos — a former player and assistant coach for the U.S. national team — was quoted as saying, “It’s clear that the American nature is to try and make everything fair, to try and be fair to the game. That’s just how Americans are.”
Players are taught to crumple at the slightest hint of contact.
The Boston Globe joined in, noting that American fans find the “global phenomenon of flopping” to be “perplexing” and “challenging.” Sam Borden, the Times reporter, put it even more starkly: The idea that a player would take a dive “runs contrary to the ethos of idealized American sports.”
The key word in that phrase? “Idealized.” American athletes are expert at the art of the flop.
In college and professional basketball in the U.S., it’s virtually impossible to draw a charging call without the help of a flop. Players are taught to crumple at the slightest hint of contact. Since at least the early 1990s, Duke coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski has been teaching 7-foot men to hurl themselves to the floor. Flopping reached such epidemic proportions that the NBA instituted an “anti-flopping” rule, complete with a $5,000 fine.
As the new rule was debated, some players pointed a finger at European basketball stars like Vlade Divac and blamed them for importing the flop — implying, therefore, that the flop was foreign to our sporting culture, the product of effete Europeans who had invaded our game. But the truth is that flopping has been a routine part of American basketball for decades.
In fact, fakery has become a critical part of even the most macho American sport: football. The NFL had to tighten its rules to limit physicality by defensive players. Scoring has skyrocketed, passing yardage has ballooned and pass interference penalties have become more common. The aim of many plays is to draw a pass interference penalty as much as to complete an actual pass. Consequently, receivers often act as though they’ve been mauled in order to coax a yellow flag. Even more egregious, defensive players have begun to fake injuries to slow down the no-huddle offense.
Yet soccer players from other nations get singled out for flopping. In The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten bluntly denounced soccer players who take dives: “Being a wuss is being a wuss.” Indeed, but what would you call a basketball player who purposely drops to the floor and then howls at a referee if he declines to blow the whistle?
In basketball and soccer alike, a player who flops is making a tactical decision. Which highlights what Paumgarten, Borden and legions of American fans have failed to grasp. When a soccer player encounters contact, he has a choice — either to play on or determine that his best chance at a goal is to dive and hope for a penalty kick. Stumbling through a play is tactical stupidity — not heroism.
When soccer players tumble, they too are making tactical decisions.
In the street and on playgrounds, there’s no diving. The move is a byproduct of high-stakes contests in which each goal-scoring opportunity is at such a premium. And even Americans will admit it’s part of the game. After the first game of the World Cup, when Brazil’s Frederico Chaves Guedes (aka “Fred”) took a dive and won a penalty kick that decided the game, American goalkeeper Tim Howard said, “I’ve got no problem with the Brazilian player going down. I would encourage my own players, if they felt contact, to go down.”
In short, the flop is part of soccer — as much as fighting is part of hockey, or taking a charge is part of basketball, or the effort to draw a pass interference call is integral to NFL games.
The idea that Americans are somehow above flopping is simply the sports world’s version of U.S. exceptionalism. It also operates as a convenient way to excuse our failures on soccer’s grandest stage. In fact, there is something quintessentially American about exploiting the rules — and faking it when necessary — to gain the advantage. You’ll find it throughout our culture, from many rags-to-riches tales to Wall Street.
So the next time a U.S. sports commentator condemns the dive as “un-American,” it might be time to embrace the uncomfortable truth: From the football field to the basketball court, we are a nation of floppers. Just don’t call us wusses.
Jason Sokol is a historian at the University of New Hampshire whose first job in journalism was as a sportswriter for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican.