Foul Play: This American Life on Flopping

This American Life’s piece on flopping in the NBA, and the story fans tell themselves about its origins. It’s one act in an excellent episode about crybabies, which you can hear in its entirety here.

Ira Glass: Sports, of course, is a place where there are some of the biggest crybabies. And in professional basketball, in the NBA, there’s a kind of institutionalized crybabying called “the flop,” which has not always been part of the game. One of our producers, Alex Blumburg started to wonder if the story that basketball fans tell themselves about the origins of the flop is even true.

Alex Blumberg: This story is almost hardened conventional wisdom among NBA fans. If you search on the internet, you’ll find all sorts of versions of this story. It’s best summed up by Bill Simmons. He wrote, “The single most disgusting NBA development of the past few years: the flopping. Slowly, regretfully, inexplicably, the sport is morphing into soccer.” And that’s because, if you watched the World Cup, you would see regularly in game after game a guy dribbling the ball, and all of a sudden he would crash to the ground, throw up his arms, roll around grabbing his ankle, writhing in pain. And then they’d show the replay and you’d see that nobody touched the guy. He’d just fall over. And that happened every single game.

Ira: And in soccer there are players known as being great floppers. The word flop really comes from there.

Alex: It’s clearly part of the game in soccer. And so the story goes that as more and more Europeans started playing NBA basketball – Europeans had been raised in the culture of soccer, they all embraced the culture of the flop, and when they started playing basketball, they brought it with them to the NBA.

Ira: So if this convetional wisdom were true, it means that somewhere there’s a patient zero, who is carrying the virus from European soccer into American basketball. Do we know who that patient zero is?

Alex: We do. I did some poking around on the internet and everybody points to one guy who brought the flop to the NBA. And that guy is Vlade Divac. He started playing in 1989 for the Lakers, then he played for the Sacramento Kings for a while, then he went back to the Lakers. And Vlade Divac is just the perfect patient zero. He’s this gigantic Serbian guy, 7’1”, the definition of a hangdog face, this long face with this permanent five o’clock shadow and these sad droopy eyes. And someone once asked his former coach, Del Harris, if he taught Vlade to flop, and he said, “Are you kidding? He brought that over here and taught the whole NBA how to flop.”

And during his heyday, he played for the Sacramento Kings. They were really good. And he was always matched up against the Lakers who had Shaquille O’Neal, the dominant, gigantic center. He’s immense, heavy, strong, super fast – he’s super-human. Impossible to guard. Except Vlade Divac had to guard him, all the time. And so the games were replete with scenes of Vlade Divac just sort of flopping, Shaq would turn around and Vlade would go flying back and the refs would call a foul on Shaq.

But the problem with the flop is that, y’know, it’s a lie.

Ira: Oh right, you weren’t really fouled and yet someone has to serve the time for you being fouled. You’ve penalized someone else.

Alex: Exactly. And also, if it takes a hold, it self-perpetuates. It’s like corruption. Once one person gets away with flopping, the incentive is raised for other people to start flopping. If they’re going to do it, I have to do it back and then it sorta spreads very quickly.

Ira: So that’s the generally accepted story.

Alex: There’s only one problem: It might not be true. I talked to a guy named Tommy Craggs, and he’s a sportswriter on this fantastic website called Deadspin, which is sorta a sports-commentary blog. And he totally disagrees with this theory.

Tommy Craggs: [pre-recorded] I don’t think flopping was born with Vlade Divac. I think what we see as the proliferation of flopping was really more a response to rule changes.

Ira: So he’s saying it’s not the Europeans who brought this to us. It’s our own rule changes. Government intervention, if you will. Poor regulation with unintended effects.

Alex: Yes, exactly. He’s saying the temptation is always to blame the culture, but really it’s the regulation that changed, and it created the culture that followed. And so the specific rule change he’s talking about is there used to be this thing in basketball called the hand-check. Let’s say you’re Michael Jordan and I have the unenviable task of guarding you. Back when Michael Jordan played, I could put my hand on you, I could put my elbow on you. I had all these tools at my disposal to try and slow you down. Even though you were faster than I could ever hope to be, you were the most dominant offensive player in the game, I had some tools I could use to help even the score a little. But then, partly because of Jordan, and other factors as well, the NBA started tweaking the rules, and they made the hand-check illegal. So what that means is say I’m a slow defensive player and I’m playing a fast offensive player, whereas before I could hold them, wrestle them around a little bit; now, I got nothing.

Tommy: The flop is the defensive player’s last resort. It’s something the player can do to gain a tiny advantage back. And the incentive to do it is incredibly high. By drawing an offensive foul, it’s a turnover and a foul on your opponent. There have been studies that have shown a small correlation between winning and teams that draw offensive fouls.

Alex: Tommy Craggs also takes issue with the conventional wisdom in a second way as well. Most basketball fans, if you talk to them about flopping they say it is a scourge upon the game. They hate it and think it’s the sissy-fying and Europe-inization of the game. Rasheed Wallace, a player in the NBA who’s also very outspoken – he’s one of my favorite players – he’s one of the players that people point to a lot as a crybaby. He constantly complains to the refs about getting fouled himself. But he hates it when people flop. He was playing this game and his opponents had been flopping and he said, “That’s not basketball. That’s entertainment.” So that’s the conventional view. Tommy Craggs, though, doesn’t mind flopping.

Tommy: I think it’s the tax we pay to have a more liberated, offense-oriented game. I think what you call the flopping era is also the more beautiful era.

Alex: It’s also the dunking era, the drive to the basket era and the behind the back era and a lot of other exciting things that people like about basketball have come hand-in-hand with the flopping era.

Tommy: Yeah. And if it means we have a more beautiful game, I can live with players occassionally doing the death scene from Little Women.

Ira: There was this incident recently where Derek Jeter was standing at the plate and pretended he got hit with the ball and got a free base. And you looked back at the video and you see the ball didn’t even touch him, but he totally faked it. And there was this debate about, Was this right? Was this what baseball should be?

Do you think at this point, because the flop exists in soccer, it exists in basketball, that now it’s basically a sort of pan-sports movement. Basically, it’s just in the culture and anyone can grab at it in any sport. And it’s just out there.

Alex: Yeah. I do. I don’t think if we [hadn’t] just had the World Cup, where you saw flopping all over the place, I don’t think Derek Jeter would have necessarily had that idea. I mean, it’s harder to flop in baseball, there aren’t as many opportunities. But I don’t think he would have done that if it wasn’t for the expansion of flopping thorughout professional sports. Derek Jeter is unquestionably one of the best players ever to play baseball, so in a certain sense, to be that good, you have to have this do whatever it takes to win mentality. There’s just no way you can achieve his level without having this incredibly competitive streak in you.

Ira: But can you imagine Michael Jordan flopping?

Alex: No. There would be just no dignity in it. No. But see, that’s not fair. That’s like, “Can you imagine God cheating on a test?” God doesn’t need to cheat on a test. You know what I mean?

Videos and links in this post were added (not created) by HIDIA. Transcript features some minimal editing & paraphrasing, with every attempt to stay faithful to the speakers’ perceived intent.

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