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This American Life and Flopping

June 11, 2012

I’m a big fan of National Public Radio’s This American Life, and think it’s probably the best podcast out on the internet. For anybody who isn’t familiar with it, This American Life is a radio program and podcast that picks a theme each week, and then tells a range of different stories relating to that theme. They usually tell 3 different stories, and their interpretations of the theme are often very creative, allowing them to have a huge range of topics covered. The only real requirement is that the stories have to be about Americans, so their variety really reminds you the diversity of experiences contained within our country.

For a lot of Americans, sports make up a big part of their daily life, and also provide a ready stream of the kind drama and outlandish characters that make for good radio. So, even a hippie-liberal-intellectual show like NPR occasionally picks sports related topics. A few years ago, they did a show about “Crybabies”, and one of their featured stories was a look at the relatively recent practice of “flopping” in basketball. Flopping is when a player exaggerates the effects of contact in the hope of getting a foul called on the opposing team, it’s most famous in soccer, where players are known to fall to the ground in agony, only to pop up perfectly healthy once its clear the referee isn’t interested.

The podcast goes into some of the history of flopping in the sport, and also provides an interesting history of the how rules changes in the NBA may have inadvertently led to the rise of flopping as a common strategy.

As This American Life explains, the commonly accepted explanation for an increase in flopping lies in the increasing popularity of basketball in European countries. As players from Europe started playing in the NBA, their familiarity with the practice caused them to bring it over to the NBA. Personally, I find the standard story difficult to believe. Players aren’t stupid, and there’s been significant competition for spots on NBA teams for years before flopping started rising in popularity. If flopping really did confer an advantage, marginal players would have exploited it to get an edge on their competition.

To represent an alternative theory, they interviewed Tommy Craggs from Deadspin, who theorized that flopping mainly came about due to the banning of “hand-checking”, basically an additional restriction placed on the amount of contact allowed that was instituted during the 1999-2000 season. This is an eminently reasonable theory. As the rules for what constituted a foul expanded, so too did it become easier for incidental contact to be considered a foul. So, the players reacted accordingly.

Tommy Craggs also notes that flopping is therefore a trade-off. The loss of the hand-check that led to an increase in the rate of flopping also gives us faster, more offensively oriented games with higher point totals which, as we all know, are more exciting. Flopping is merely an unintentional side-effect.

We could test these theories if only we had something to compare it to, and fortunately we do: college basketball. College teams should likewise be subject to the same flop-loving “european invasion” that the professional teams are, or would have been at some point in the past. If the change is truly cultural, we would expect to see the same explosion of flopping in the NCAA as we do in the professional leagues. Conversely, if there was a corresponding change to the hand-check rules in the NCAA, and we saw the same proliferation of flopping around the same time, we would conclude that the hand-check rules are responsible. Similarly, we might conclude the same thing if there is no rule change and no controversy in college ball.

While I’m not intimately familiar with college basketball news, from what I can tell no rule change and no controversy is exactly what you see. No changes to the rules have been made to penalize incidental contact, and similarly there’s no flopping controversy. The only real mention of flopping in college basketball that I could find is in reference to a single team (Duke, who many people love to hate regardless). In fact, college basketball used to have a rule that specifically forbade flopping that was instituted in 1972, and well, I’ll just let the official NCAA rules history take it from here:

An official could charge the “actor” with a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct if, in the official’s opinion, the actor was making a travesty of the game. (In 2002, this rule was deleted because of lack of use.)

The rule was deleted due to lack of use, which is just about as far from an epidemic of flopping as you can imagine. Similarly, college basketball hasn’t had the same increase of focus on offensive play that the NBA has experienced. So, if it’s a mechanical problem, why do smart people who know a lot about the game want to look for cultural answers? I imagine that it’s a general unwillingness to engage with the rules of the sport in favor of engaging with the people who play the sport. This kind of interaction is exactly why game design literacy is so important, especially among sports fans.

On a final note in the podcast, This American Life host Ira Glass notes that the ‘epidemic’ of flopping appears to have invaded other sports as well:

Ira Glass: You know, there was this incident recently where Derek Jeter was standing at the plate and pretended that he got hit with a ball and got a free base. This is a baseball game. And then looking back at the video, you see oh, the ball didn’t even touch him. But he totally faked it. And there was a debate about well, was this right? Was this what baseball should be? And do you think that at this point, since the flop exists in soccer, since it exists in basketball, that now basically it’s like a pan-sports movement? That basically it’s just in the culture, and now anybody can grab at it in any sport and it’s just out there?

Alex Blumberg: Yeah I do. I don’t think if we just had the World Cup, where you saw players flopping all over the place, I don’t think that Derek Jeter would have necessarily had that idea.

Well, I have to say I do think he would have. Having read The Baseball Codes, we know exactly what kind of history of creative rule-bending baseball has over it’s entire history. Baseball even has it’s own special kind of fake-out: the deke, or decoy play in which a player throws, catches, or tags a player with a fake ball, one that doesn’t exist. It goes to show the power of the cultural explanation bias, and also how little gaming literacy exists in the world. Any game designer knows that the player’s natural interaction with a rule set is to test boundaries, and explore exactly what is possible, often in ways that the designer never intended.

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One Comment
  1. forsarap permalink

    I’m totally obsessed with This American Life. It helped inspire me to make my own podcast.
    http://www.sarajobcast.com

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