The Question of Diving

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“I’ve seen some flops in my day. If they get the call, you actually got to kind of give them a little slow-clap for it, because it’s tough to do.” — NFL defensive end Jared Allen on flopping in the NFL, NFL Films

By now, you know what happened. It was Sunday in Brazil, and in the final minutes of a 1-1 match, the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben dribbled along the end line and cut inside on his left foot.

Mexico’s Rafa Marquez stuck his right foot into the play, missed the ball, and caught Robben’s toes with the slightest of trips at close to full speed.

If you haven’t seen the video, you can here.

Robben, of course, went flying into a theatrical dervish. The Netherlands earned a penalty in an eventual 2-1 victory. And Twitter nuclearized into a storm of moral outrage and diving jokes. I know this, of course, because I was on a flight somewhere over middle America, following the game on Twitter. For nearly two or three minutes — maybe shorter — I had no idea what had happened. All I could do was feverishly hit refresh. Robben dived. It was egregious. And how can you ANYONE enjoy a sport where a game can end like THIS?

“Just when I start to love you, soccer,” tweeted an American sports scribe who shall go nameless, “you go and pull some crap like that. Garbage.”

There was more.

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Anyway, you get it.

After the game, Robben admitted to diving — but not on THAT play. (He had actually committed a REAL dive, he said, in the first half.) The Mexican coach, as he is prone to do, lost his mind, ripping the referee. And we were treated to the usual debate about diving in soccer and the predictably annoying American reaction to said diving.

But I think something always gets lost in these back-and-forths, lost in all the noise, something that is right there in front of us. We are often told that diving is unsportsmanlike and un-American; that it is soft and unsavory and, for lack of a more nuanced word, stone-cold cheating. Diving is the thing — among many things — that keeps the casual American fan at arm’s length from the beautiful game. That’s one narrative, anyway.

But there’s something about these debates that always feels misguided. Yes, nobody likes flopping. Nobody likes the idea of a player taking a truly dishonest dive — especially one that could sway the game. Well, nobody, except Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and receiver Hines Ward, who were once captured by NFL Films clip, gleefully celebrating a bit of simulation from Ward.

“Like Danny Ainge,” Tomlin yelled, “taking a charge!”

“That’s a Vlade Divac,” Ward said.

That’s the segment from NFL Films. You have to wait a bit to get to Tomlin and Ward, because, well, there’s are lot more Robbens in the NFL than you might believe. Over-exaggerating calls might not be a major fabric of the NFL culture, but it is certainly there, and apparently even hard-asses such as Jaren Allen can appreciate it.

It’s interesting, of course, that Tomlin and Ward used NBA players as their flopping role models. But maybe not that interesting. We’re guessing Ward and Tomlin don’t watch a lot of Serie A, and the NBA has had issues with flopping for years, trying to legislate the practice out of the game.

But the real question, and one that I’ve been thinking about for the last 24 hours, is this: When is it DIVING and when is it selling a call? And can we talk about this in a way that’s slightly more nuanced than ripping an entire sport after a heady play from a world-class forward in the final seconds of a great match.

Robben was tripped at close to full speed in the penalty box, and he sold the call with a slightly hilarious flourish. And given all the evidence, he should have. So what’s wrong with this?

When Nets guard Paul Pierce was a young player in Boston, he regularly led the NBA in drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. A reporter asked him about this once, and he responded with a line that was equal parts funny and brilliant. What was his secret? Well, when Pierce met a defender at the rim, he would often scream: “AHHHHH!!!!!”

This happens in all sports, of course. Punters flop on the ground, and college basketball fans rip Duke for taking too many soft charges, and in a very distant cousin to flopping, baseball hitters theatrically leap out of the way of borderline inside pitches, a visual cue to the umpire: That was definitely not a strike.

This is what Robben did yesterday. He provided a visual cue — one that even Kobe could appreciate.

And then there is LeBron James, arguably the greatest athlete in the world. LeBron is about 6-foot-9 and 380 pounds, so you would think he could survive a little contact here and there. But during his first decade in the NBA, James has gained a slight reputation for milking calls.

Really, you say? Yeah, really.

But here’s the thing about LeBron. In nearly every one of these “flops”, there was some sort of contact and some sort of foul. But that didn’t stop James from exaggerating the contact — just as it didn’t stop Robben. Most of those exaggerated fouls on James, of course, didn’t decide a game. But sometimes, of course, they do.

And so here we are. The World Cup continues. Netherlands moves on. And more players will try to win calls in the penalty area. And perhaps Robben, a paper-machete striker who looks like he’s 47, is not the best poster-child upon which to build a diving defense.

Nobody likes a phony. People hate the real DIVING in the NBA and NFL, too.

But for the past 24 hours, I’ve been thinking about Robben and his final play. And amidst all the noise, jokes and ethnocentric soccer hate, it seems pretty clear: What’s more American than a little bit of selling?

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