What's behind the NBA's new flopping rule?

Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

It won't surprise anyone that a Manu Ginobili fan is against the new anti-flopping rule, but aside from the obvious faults dozens of people have already pointed out, there is even more to dislike about the NBA's newest policy.

So the league will start fining players for flopping. This empty, symbolic gesture aimed at stopping "flop of the day" videos has been poorly received. If you Google "NBA's new flopping rule", you will find tons of articles with innumerable explanations of the why this rule won't actually work. Instead of rehashing the same points, let's focus on some entirely new reasons why David Stern's latest crusade is ridiculous.

Is flopping that big of a deal?

Everyone is aware that traveling is called somewhat loosely in the NBA. The same goes for 3-second violations and carrying the ball. Now, think of how many instances of disgraceful flopping are there in a game compared to the amount of times a player shuffles his feet in the post, parks his butt on the paint and palms the ball. Those violations affect the game as much as flopping (probably far more) yet no one calls attention to them. The reason for that is simple: people do not like to see big, strong men falling to the ground.

The idea of a 7-foot guy falling down when pushed does not conform to society's notions of masculinity. That simple fact is the driving force behind the whole anti-flopping crusade. It is not that flopping is threatening to destroy the game; it is that flopping has an effect in the way we perceive players. Some people proclaim it's about the principles of the matter. I've heard the "Those guys are trying to fool the ref!" argument far more often than I'd wish. As if the same principle isn't in play when players get away with pushing and grabbing off the ball, nudging players away to get an offensive board, or setting a moving screens? It is a perception thing. This is why in the NBA's own instructional video on flopping, they say that overemphasizing contact will be penalized, even if a foul occured. Boiled down, the message is that Tony Parker looks like a sissy here, and no one wants to see that.

What exactly constitutes flopping?

Even if perception alone is the reason for the new rule, trying to control flopping is not wrong in and of itself. I am all for penalizing the player one way or another in plays like this. Or this. Or, yes, even this. But how about plays that are not as clear cut?

The league announced that they were going to fine players based on this description of flopping:

"Flopping" will be defined as any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player. The primary factor in determining whether a player committed a flop is whether his physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact.

How can you possibly determine "what would reasonably be expected"? As J.R. Wilco pointed out last year, that's as outrageous as trying to determine what someone is thinking. How you differentiate between plays in which the refs are fooled and ones where the call was right? If there is no contact, then the decision is simple. But what if there is some contact? Does it really matter how the player reacts to it, if a foul really was committed? Watch the video again. There are legitimate fouls being called; yet the league wants to punish players for things that happened after the whistle, even when there was illegal contact!

As I see it, there are actually two ways the league can realistically go about enforcing this rule: a) they can go overboard in the first couple of weeks, like they did with the issue of technicals for complaining (remember that?) and then ease up, hoping the public is satisfied with the gesture, or b) they could only fine the most blatantly obvious flops. Fining players for every instance of embellished contact would result in several teams having a player or two receiving a warning after the first game of the season, and the refs would look like idiots. Speaking of the refs...

How does the new rule affect officials?

So why is the embellishment of contact such an integral part of modern basketball? The reason is simple: even if we don't like it, there is an understanding between referees and players: "If you want this call, then you'll act like this". To draw a charge call, you must stand still and fall. To draw a hand-check call, you kick your head back. That doesn't mean the ref will always call it; they still can make a judgement and decide against a call if there is not enough contact. I wouldn't go as far as saying flopping actually help refs making the right call, but I do not believe this makes their job much harder either. If there is no contact, the refs rarely blow their whistles. When there is, the official often makes the right call regardless of how much the player embellishes it. The official still has the power to award the foul or not, and the players know it.

But this new policy changes that dynamic. I hate to agree with Mark Cuban, but the no flopping rule could have "unintended consequences". Knowing there could be a review, refs could go overboard and not call any instance where there might be exaggeration (contact or not) just to be safe. Or the referees could say "let the league deal with it" and call everything. Wouldn't changing the rules to allow officials to award technicals to floppers be more appropriate since they have to deal with the problem? Technical fouls would give the referees a tool that has an impact during the game, and not after. Since only obvious flops would get penalized, why can't the refs deal with those immediately during the game?

Blame it on the players?

But the worst part of the new rule might be the way the league is trying to distance itself from the people that are actually responsible for the popularity of the sport: the players. By unilaterally and publicly making this decision without consulting the union, the league is saying that the players are exclusively to blame for the problem. The NBA could have determined a way to curb the worst instances of flopping, by progressively educating the players and referees on which plays are going to be considered unacceptable and by instituting the still unlikely to work, but actually reasonable, use of a technical issued during the game to obvious flops. Instead, the league suddenly decided that the way to go was to reach into the players' pockets for acting in a way they allowed in the past.

Lost in the PR daze is the fact that players will be fined for engaging in a practice that the league hasn't even tried to eradicate by less forceful means. I would not expect the Board of Governors to side with the players, especially after a nasty lockout. But wouldn't it be a better idea to take a more measured approach and explain to the viewing audience that, while sometimes annoying, flopping isn't that big of a deal. Instead the association is essentially accusing the players of ruining the sport. And a subtler course of action would not preclude all parties from still working to discourage flopping; it would just happen in a less public and demagogic way. No, the league chose to stigmatize flopping and play right into the worse critics' views of pampered, soft athletes that need to be reigned in by their bosses. I keep mentioning the PR angle because that is the only explanation I can find for this measure: the new flopping policy is a way for the league to seem concerned with improving their product, while making the players' union look bad.

The funny thing is this has mostly backfired. Hardcore fans that actually despise flopping see this for what it is: a half measure that has zero chance of stopping the problem it acknowledged. Finally, their pleas about penalizing floppers were answered but instead of public flogging (or a technical for the flopper or whatever other solution you can name), they received a symbolic gesture. So the new policy seems like BS to someone like me, who doesn't see flopping as the scourge of the NBA, and to people who genuinely believe it is damaging the game. This new policy alienates players from the fans by basically blaming them for wanting to act, rather than play basketball, while simultaneously making refs seem inept and in need of help from the league. But hey, we should be thankful. The league is listening to us and our concerns and is doing what it can to eradicate something we see as a problem. Thanks, David Stern!

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