Diving, soccer, and cultural differences about the morality of rulebreaking

The FIFA Women’s World Cup ended last weekend (disappointingly, for the US team, at least) and I was faced with the same experience that is familiar to Americans who like soccer whenever the sport blips across our national radar screen.  Friends and family alike who talked about the WWC with me invariably steered the conversation as soon as possible not in the direction of the last-gasp heroics of the teams involved, or the individual brilliance of many of the players, but instead to a moral outrage that apparently overshadowed any merit the WWC might otherwise have had for them:  diving.

Diving, or simulation, is the practice of inventing or exaggerating physical contact in order to draw a foul on the opposing team, or relatedly of inventing or exaggerating an injury in order to waste time and let the game clock wind down (e.g., Brazil in extra-time versus the US in the WWC quarterfinal before Wambach’s famous game-tying goal).  This practice is not exclusive to soccer (one sees variants of it, increasingly, in NBA basketball), but it is certainly most prevalent in soccer, especially among certain national soccer cultures.

What interests me about this reaction to diving is how pronounced it is among some sports fans, and how subdued it is in others.  Some soccer cultures regard simulation as the sporting equivalent of murder (morally reprehensible regardless of whether you’re caught doing it), while others regard it as the sporting equivalent of jaywalking (illegal, and not a good idea, but something you might do every so often if you think you can get away with it and it gains you some advantage).  I examine this puzzle in more detail, and pose some conjectures about resolving it, after the break.

Many Americans actively dislike soccer, for reasons that have something to do with a vision of anti-globalist national exceptionalism that I don’t think makes any sense.  But even among Americans who do like soccer, the act of diving inspires a level of ire that has always puzzled me.  Soccer-hating Americans have told me that diving is the primary reason they can’t tolerate the sport.  Soccer-loving Americans were apoplectic when a member of the US Men’s National Team was suspected (wrongly, it turns out) of simulating a foul in order to gain advantage.

This moral outrage over diving is not limited to the U.S.  Diving in British soccer is regarded as an attack on the game itself.  Man U manager Alex Ferguson recently stated that “Players who cheat are killing the game.”  And British fans often express the same righteous fury as Americans do when players from South America or southern Europe (or anywhere, really) simulate injuries or fouls in international competition.

This same moral outrage does not seem to characterize soccer fans from South America or southern Europe (disclaimer:  I’m well aware that I’m making massive generalizations when speaking about these phenomena at a national level; my claim is only that they are true in my experience and at a very high level of generality).  People from these countries don’t seem to love it when opposing players seek to gain advantage from diving, and I’ve seen them express frustration at particularly egregious instances of simulation, but neither do they treat it as the ethical abomination that Anglo-American soccer fans tend to.  Why the difference?  I pose some conjectures below:

First, self-serving bias.  Perhaps the reason Anglo-American soccer culture rages so much about diving is that they stand to lose more from the practice.  For whatever reason (quite possibly related to all of the above, though), British and U.S. soccer players don’t simulate injuries or fouls with nearly the frequency that players in South America, southern Europe, and Germany tend to.  So perhaps the moral outrage is simply a reaction to concern that tolerance of diving is going to work to the advantage other countries and teams because those countries’ greater use of the practice it will allow them to gain a strategic edge that Anglo-American players will not have (though they could just start diving too, of course).

Second, a broken-windows theory.  If you live in a milieu where people jaywalk and shoplift all the time, then seeing these things happen won’t really affect you that much.  But if you live in a high-enforcement world where jaywalking and shoplifting are unheard of, then seeing someone cross against a light or pocket a candy bar instead of paying for it are going to seem a lot more outrageous.  Again, because Anglo-American sports fans tend to see a lot less diving, the moral import of the act may loom larger to them than to fans who are exposed to it regularly.

Third: different cultural attitudes about the law.  I just got back from six-plus weeks in Argentina.   During that time, several Argentine folks I spoke to who had visited the U.S. commented on a cultural difference they claimed to have observed:   That in the U.S., rules are to be followed (and typically are followed) because they are rules, while in Argentina people will only follow rules if they think are going to get caught.  So for example, one Argentine friend said that he found risible those street-side American newspaper dispensers that allow people to pay a quarter and have access to all the papers rather than just one.  He observed that in the U.S., people really do take only one paper, while in Argentina (he claimed) people would simply take them all.

If this claim about different cultural attitudes toward the law is true (big if, and to be clear at least one Argentine I spoke to about this thought the comparison rang false), then it may explain different attitudes toward diving.  In Anglo-American cultures, diving is wrong because it’s rule-breaking, and that is worthy of moral condemnation on its own terms (and to be clear, simulation is a formal offense in soccer, punishable with a yellow card), like the no-murder rule.  Murdering is wrong regardless of whether you get caught.  But in some other cultures, including perhaps Argentina, the no-simulation rule is not a moral precept reflecting an ethical imperative, but another rule that we are free to break at the risk of punishment, like a speed limit.  Speed if you want, but don’t whine if you get caught and fined.

The difference is something like that between laws that are malum in se versus malum prohibitum from criminal law.  There are also echoes of it in the efficient or strategic contract breach situation, which surfaced recently during the popular dialogue about the morality of strategic default on upside-down mortgages.

I have a guess about which of these conjectures are right and which aren’t, but I’d be interested to hear other readers’ reactions before weighing in.

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10 Responses

  1. Ken Rhodes says:

    >> In Anglo-American cultures, diving is wrong because it’s rule-breaking, and that is worthy of moral condemnation on its own terms…>>

    Goodness, thank heavens here in America we never have to see those morally reprehensible scoundrels falling to the ground in agony after punting in the NFL, or landing painfully on their backs after posting up in the lane in the ACC.

  2. David Fagundes says:

    Ha. Fair enough, Ken. But behind the sarcasm, I take the substantive point–that perhaps the empirical proposition on which my post is based is flawed, and there’s plenty of diving in US sports. This would be interesting, and would mean that those Americans who deride diving in soccer are major hypocrites, because they tolerate it in football and basketball but act as though it’s unacceptable in soccer.

    There is certainly some diving in US sports, as I indicated in my post (basketball, especially). I’ve seen many Laker games where Derek Fisher goes to the ground after a mild bump, draws the charge, and the announcers who see the ruse always laud him for “veteran wiles.” Football, not so sure–I recall last year when Cal faked injury after injury to slow down Oregon’s high-octane offense, they were widely critiqued even by fans who wanted the Ducks to lose, and I don’t recall any other team trying that tactic afterward (though it was really quite effective for Cal–they almost upset Oregon’s perfect season).

    So it’s a continuum, not a perfect binary, but I think it’s safe to say that faking injuries or fouls to gain advantage is much less prevalent in Anglo-American sports, and especially soccer, than in other countries. I see players from some countries simulating injury to drag out the clock almost every one of the numerous games I’ve watched in, say, the Argentine Primera Division.

    And regardless of the empirical reality, the real point of my post is why members of some soccer cultures react to (real or imagined) diving as utterly abominable (see the column by EPL ref Graeme Poll linked in the post above) while others regard it as a mild annoyance not worthy of comment.

  3. Justin says:

    Meanwhile, Canadians think the rest of the world is sissies. Have you ever seen diving in ice hockey or curling?

  4. Ken Rhodes says:

    David — Thank you for your quick and thoughtful reply. I think you have identified two aspects of your original thesis that have merit:

    (1) I think “diving” in popular American sports (most notably football and basketball) is focused almost entirely on fooling the officials into wrongly assigning a foul. The punter, after getting off his kick, falls to the ground if any defender gets anywhere near him. And the drawing of the charging foul is an artform in the ACC. I think Americans frequently appreciate the artistry of a con job, so the American sports fan appreciates the artistry in fooling the officials, and (perhaps rightly) blames the official for getting fooled, rather than the player who fools him.

    This appreciation would not accrue to a person who simply lies on the ground, crying “ouch, I’m hurt.” Little artistry in that.

    (2)In countries where soccer (the “real football”) reigns supreme, the fans probably resemble our own football fans–a cross-section of all economic and social strata. In the U.S., however, I think a higher percentage of soccer fans are from the higher economic and social strata, where “dishonest behavior” is frowned upon.

  5. Jake Linford says:

    Interesting post, Dave. For basketball fans, at least, there is a tendency to tie diving (which is labelled flopping in NBA circles) to the influx of European (and to a lesser extent, South American) basketball players. In that account, flopping crossed the Atlantic with Serbian center Vlade Divac, and has been perfected by Manu Ginobli of Argentina.

    Surprisingly, Canadian-born Steve Nash played soccer as a youth and is lauded for having court vision like a good soccer player’s field vision, but tends not to draw criticism for flopping. The perceived link between soccer and flopping may not be as strong as the perceived link between non-North American basketball players and flopping. Perhaps there is a nationalistic angle to the flopping question in basketball, where fans in the U.S. see in influx of risible behavior by foreigners corrupting the game.

    I see flopping as a behavior that, much like a foul or a travel, is easier to perceive among members of the opposing team than the members of one’s own team.

  6. David Fagundes says:

    Ken, there might be something to the point about artistry, though I think players from diving-friendly cultures have perfected it more than anyone else. I saw a video that praised Juergen Klinsmann of Germany as the “master of the penalty box dive” as though it were part of his skill set (and, I suppose in a way, it was–the penalty he drew to win the 1990 WC final against Argentina was really more of a “penalty”).

    Jake, I think Nash is easily explained as a product of a non-diving culture. From what I’ve seen of soccer in the US as well as Canada and Jamaica (national teams as well as players from those countries in MLS), all largely Anglophone cultures, the idea of diving just isn’t as tolerated and doesn’t happen as much. So Nash came from a soccer culture, but not a diving soccer culture, so he wouldn’t be inclined to get divey in the NBA like a “Euro” player like Divac.

    That said, I wonder if the national-origin thing is overblown in the NBA (I don’t watch enough to know). Sure, Ginobili has a rep for diving, but do other Argentine players (Luis Scola, for example?). Do the Italian or German players have that rep (Nowitski, for example)? And I wonder if there’s simply cultural bias afoot, such as where when we see a US player draw a ticky-tack foul, we praise him for intelligence and craftiness, but when we see a Euro do the same thing we attribute it to some national-origin pathology.

  7. Joey Fishkin says:

    Just thought I’d throw in a plug here in the comments for a couple of papers by my colleague Mitch Berman, who has a whole (side) research agenda built on viewing sports questions like these though a legal-philosophical lens. E.g.

    Another interesting one is deliberate fouling. Is a foul a tactic one can legitimately choose, and just “pay” the resultant penalty? (That seems to be the norm in basketball.) Or is it something more like a crime — bad sportsmanship — that one _ought_ not to commit even if the expected reward is greater than the expected punishment? The norm depends on the sport (and on the type of foul). But often I think people who are coming to a sport for the first time import norms from other sports, and those imported norms lead them to find things unsettling about the new sport (e.g. diving) that regular fans view as normal, legitimate aspects of the game.

  8. Anon says:

    I don’t watch soccer, but I do watch a lot of basketball. I think there is a lot of “diving” in the NBA, but I don’t think it is universally tolerated among fans. Indeed, over the past few years there has been a lot of talk about allowing officials to give technical fouls to players who flop. And, for what its worth, I do think there’s a widespread perception that European players flop way more than U.S.-born players. So, as a Rocket fan, I can confirm that Luis Scola (from Argentina) has to be one of the worst floppers in the NBA. I think a lot of U.S.-born players view it as being a sissy.

    Also, according to one player poll, the top three “floppers” in the NBA are foreign born: http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/blog/ball_dont_lie/post/Player-poll-rates-notorious-floppers-as-NBA-821?urn=nba-wp868. That article also includes the following:

    Some observers argue that an influx of foreign players steeped in the culture of soccer have made flopping a legitimate tactic in the NBA, but it’s interesting to note that, apart from the top three, this list isn’t exactly full of foreign players — in addition to No. 15 Sasha Vujacic(notes), six of the 15 players are foreign-born, and Barea may not count because he is from Puerto Rico and honed his craft over four years of NCAA ball at Northeastern. (Oh, and flopping is just as bemoaned by the foreign soccer press as it is in the NBA.) So, blame Europeans if you want, but it’s not as if Derek Fisher learned how to flop his way to charge calls just because he saw Varejao do it once in 2005.

  9. Pablo says:

    As an Argentine, and having had the pleasure of meeting many Americans that moved to Buenos Aires, it is amusing / strange / funny / sad (your pick), to notice that they tend to very quickly “adjust” their cultural thoughts about the law once they depart from their environment. Somehow, jaywalking, speeding and “minimizing tax exposure” are not as important as it seemed to be back home.

    I generally believe most people think and act the same anywhere. South Americans and Anglo Americans are not much different. It´s just a matter of what are the chances of actually getting caught and the harshness of the punishment. For example, in Argentina, in the event of insider trading, there are no criminal sanctions and the maximum fine that may be imposed by our local SEC is irrelevant. Tax evasion is rampant and socially accepted -on the questionable basis that if you pay taxes (i) the government will use the funds for purposes other than furthering the prosperity of the country, or (ii) your competitors, who do not pay taxes, will drive you out of the market-.

    Of course, same caveat as the original article, this is a limited conclusion from an also limited number of cases I have had access to.

  10. Jimmy says:

    Soccer is a sport that is intertwined in my DNA.