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.