June 3, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics small forward Paul Pierce (34) is fouled by Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) during the first half in game four of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE
Right? Wrong? Fair? Foul? Whatever it is, flopping has been more prevalent than ever during the current NBA season, so Dan Grunfeld examines the controversial act, in all of its morally ambiguous glory.
There was a guy passed out in a sombrero. There was a girl bleeding from the knees. There was my buddy in the downstairs bathroom, hugging the toilet, his self-respect violently spewing from his mouth right along with his 50-proof vomit. Yep, our summer pool-party during college had gotten a little out of hand, so that night, in desperate need of some R&R, my friends and I stayed in and rented a movie.
We decided on The Perfect Score, the critically defamed 2004 masterpiece-of-crap about six high school seniors who plot to steal the answers to the SATs. We picked it solely based on the fact that Darius Miles was in it, which should have been an immediate red flag, but somehow seemed like incredibly sound reasoning at the time. In retrospect, my friends were just really hammered, and I just really love D-Miles.
So, we watched the movie, and it reeked, not unlike the breath of my aforementioned pal, but it did have one memorably corny yet oddly thought-provoking scene. Two of the soon-to-be-culprits were in a car, a guy and a gal, and the guy was trying to convince the gal to join in on the cheating scheme. The gal was skeptical about the plan's unethical nature and therefore posed a hypothetical situation: "You're driving, it's late, you get to a red light in the middle of nowhere. Do you run the light?" The guy says it depends, and when the gal inquires into what it depends on, the guy, eager to reap the benefits of a killer SAT score, pumps out this zinger, which in my mind features a dramatic head-turn and is always delivered in the low-and-raspy Christian Bale Batman voice: "Am I trying to get somewhere important?"
Boom, bam, pow! It was a hokey moment in a film of deplorable quality, but it actually raises an important ethical question: if you could gain a personal advantage by bending or breaking the rules in some way, without getting caught and without repercussion, do you do it?
As a professional basketball player, this question informs how I view the considerable increase in flopping in the NBA this season. By nature, flopping is an act that intentionally manipulates the rules of the game for a player or team's personal advantage. Though it's not technically illegal to dupe referees into calling fouls by making some arbitrary contact look like a flagrant physical affront, it's not exactly the way the game is supposed to be played, either. Flopping does not break any written rules in the NBA (as they're currently defined), but it definitely distorts the boundaries of fair play, and it's therefore something I find interesting to examine as a player, especially in this day and age, and especially during the playoffs, where the uptick in flopping is almost impossible to miss.
Just type in "NBA flops" on YouTube and see what you find. Or just think back to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and LeBron James both fouled out during overtime of a hotly-contested playoff game, all because offensive foul calls were made when their defenders hit the deck after suspicious amounts of contact. From my seat at home, I thought both of these calls were flops, meaning that the referees were basically tricked into calling what might have been series-altering fouls because two defenders (Mickael Pietrus and Shane Battier -- an amazing guy, by the way) made a little contact go a long way.
This increased propensity in today's NBA to take a strategic dive to draw a foul is certainly no secret, and it's certainly not popular. Jeff Van Gundy complains about it all the time as a commentator, and one of the best people I know in the NBA, Roger Mason, tweeted about it during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals: "Man, all this flopping is for tha birds!" It's an obvious trend, and frankly, it's pissing people off, because it disrupts the flow of the game and it's not the way most of us want to see basketball played.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a player, so I'm well-aware that it's normal to put a little mustard on the hot dog to sell a call (a grunt, a groan, or perhaps the innocent flailing of a limb are all acceptable), but blatantly pretending that severe contact has been made when it hasn't in order to manufacture a call from a referee is something different. It's a flop, and even though it's not in keeping with the truest spirit of the game of basketball, a lot of times, it works. If a foul is called (like it was against Pierce and LeBron), particularly in high-pressure or close-game situations (like overtime of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals), it creates a clear advantage, so these dramatic renditions often turn into very successful tactics. Still, when I see someone pull an obvious flop, I can't help but think about it from a player's perspective and wonder: is that the right thing to do? And on the other side of that coin, given the fact that the goal of competitive sports is to win, can I really blame Player X for doing it?
I'm going to be honest with you: these are tough questions, and I'm not sure there are easy answers. From an ethical perspective, I don't think it's fair to say that flopping is "wrong," because ultimately, there is no rule that prohibits it. It's not like NBA players are college students, like I once was, who sign honor codes stating that they will not use outside assistance on exams. In those instances, it's the students' responsibility to uphold that promise, and if they act unethically and break the code that they've signed, then it's cheating. Flopping, though, cannot really be classified as cheating, because there's no code that governs it and no rule that forbids it.
Instead, flopping lies in what seems like an ethical gray area. It's not technically forbidden, but it's definitely cheap. If you blatantly flop, you're like the guy who cuts the line at the movies. There was no rule that said you couldn't do it, and you got into the theater before the rest of us, but what you did was lame, and now all of us who are still standing in line and will be stuck with seats in the front row hate you and want to kick you in the nards. That being said, your friends (teammates) love you because you saved them awesome seats (helped them win the game), and isn't having fun with your friends (winning games) what going to the movies (playing sports) is all about? These situations are complicated, and they both fall into that murky, undefined moral area, because while cutting a line or flopping during a game are far from great crimes against society, they're not exactly on the up-and-up either. That's why we don't like them, and why people's gonads are understandably in danger as a result.
Personally, I don't believe in flopping, and I don't do it as a player, but that's not to say that I can blame guys who do. NBA basketball, like all professional sports, is about winning. That's why we play the game, and even though flopping is a cheap move, I don't think anyone can reasonably expect that NBA players will stop doing it under the current rules. In a league full of fierce competitors, amazing athletes and formidable egos, it only seems natural that certain guys will happily overlook the bush-league nature of flopping in order to capitalize on the advantage it gives them and their team. And that, by the way, doesn't make them bad people or cheaters. Rather, it just makes them guys who are willing to work the system a little in order to help themselves. Of course, we sometimes want to bash them in the nuts for it, because it's not the way the game should be played and it's infuriating to watch, but at the end of the day, in an ultra-competitive NBA where flopping is not policed, should we expect anything different?
You can answer that however you'd like, but I'm going with a realistic "no," and while I can't really blame players for that (even thought I want to), I also can't blame the referees for falling for these flops. A lot of people are very critical of NBA officials, and they're obviously not perfect, but I think their job is a lot harder than people give them credit for. In an NBA game, there are things happening all over the court at every second, and there's a ton of physicality on every inch of the hardwood. It's not surprising, then, that players are able to sell contact in a way that prompts foul calls, especially since they know exactly what refs are looking for. These movements on the floor happen in the blink of an eye, and with so much activity to monitor, refs are at a severe disadvantage while trying to ascertain the legitimacy of certain fouls, right there on the spot, without the benefit of instant replay. That's a tough job, and even though it's what they get paid for, I understand why players can fool them into calling certain fouls.
Flopping is easy to do and tough to identify on the spot, and if there are no real consequences to it, and if an advantage can be gained from it, then it's inevitable that it will happen. So where does that leave us? Clearly, it means that the system needs to change to hold players accountable for their flops. In today's NBA, the only thing stopping a player from flopping is their personal code of conduct, and that's not enough. In the end, a lot of guys will run a red light in the middle of nowhere, especially if they have somewhere important to be, so there needs to be a more tangible deterrent for players to stop the flop.
If referees who caught obvious flops were instructed to assess a technical (like in FIBA basketball), or if coaches could challenge fouls as flops, resulting in technicals if upheld, or if a committee reviewed each game for blatant flops and fined and/or suspended repeat offenders, then do you think the flopping would ease up? Again, you can answer however you'd like, but I'm going with "yes." When the NFL became disturbed by the number of violent helmet-to-helmet hits that its players were experiencing, they swiftly strengthened the rules against egregious contact, and while I don't pretend to be a football expert, I believe it's helped protect their players. Although flopping is by no means as serious or life threatening as head injuries, I do hope the rules in the NBA will be modified in a similar fashion some day, because without repercussions, flopping is here to stay. It's cheap and annoying, and it puts testicles in imminent danger, but it also helps teams win, so guys are going to keep doing it until new rules are set firmly in place. Whether we like it or not.