Thursday, July 03, 2014

Injury embellishment and related on-field drama always gets a lot of press during the World Cup. Collin Garbarino recently advocated for “flopping” in soccer, arguing that it speeds up the game, boosts scores across the board, and encourages defenders to play up to the technical ability of attackers. His points may carry in part, but I have one reservation which forbids my giving wholehearted assent: I think flopping detracts from the perfection of soccer.

If sports are understood as merely part of an entertainment industry, then I think Garbarino’s arguments obtain to a certain extent. Flopping means more goals, more excitement, higher ratings, and more revenue. You cannot argue with the almighty dollar.

But, if sports are understood on their own terms, as contests (dare I say festivals) of human strength and athletic ability, then deceptive embellishment is a dilution of the game and a debasement of the character of those who play it. Sure, some deception is part of sporting. The no-look pass, the juke, the change-up—part of sport is tricking your opponent so as to gain an advantage over him. The pump-fake, the head fake, the suicide squeeze are all agreed upon conventionally by participants as expedients to victory and fall within the bounds of sportsmanship. In fact, the ability to perform these feats with greater artistic ability recommends the individual as an athlete. They are hallmarks of dexterity, agility, grace, and strength.

But in the case of deceptive embellishment, the artistry of deception does not contribute directly to the athletic art. To be a good faker, doesn’t make you a better soccer player per se. Flopping augments the player’s influence on the field for reasons other than his greater ability. By drawing a penalty, he gains an advantage that may otherwise have been unavailable by virtue of his athletic prowess. It helps the “victim” to draw penalties on opposing players (perhaps generating scoring opportunities) and to slow down the game, but I doubt that these characteristics would appear in very many lists of qualifications for a top-shelf soccer player. It doesn’t factor into his sport-specific excellence. And, strictly speaking, it’s against the rules.

Furthermore, by giving calls to those who flop, referees reward athletes for something other than for being agood soccer player. As a result, the means of evaluating preeminence on the field drifts, albeit ever so slightly, from the real substance of soccer. There are always elements of chance at stake, but deceptive embellishment adds a new factor with potentially large consequences as we saw on Sunday.

Now, might we be able to imagine a time in which flopping becomes a universally accepted custom in a refashioned sport, as with the changes that attend other sports upon the addition of equipment or technology? That is to say, do sports develop over time? Sure. Might this be a convention on the rise without the gravity that I attach to it? Perhaps. But at the end of the day, it makes the beautiful game ugly.

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