Diving: Keep the Outrage!

In a recent piece on ESPN, German soccer journalist Raphael Honigstein argues that it is time to end the outrage over diving. Honigstein observes that diving “is seen as uniquely deplorable in Britain” while most of the rest of the world accepts it as a part of the game, even if ideally it shouldn’t be this way. He concludes with the following:

“…it would be wise to tone down the outrage and accept that diving is simply fouling’s cousin. They’re both pimples on the face of the beautiful game, and yes, it would be more beautiful without them. But that’s just how life is.”

For many American soccer fans, at least, diving is an embarrassment for us as we try to advocate for the sport and do what we can to expand its fanbase, as well as encourage young athletes to give it a go. As an Arsenal fan, I was disgusted by Arjen Robben’s dives over the two legs of the Champions League tie vs. Bayern Munich, but of course cases of Arsenal players “making a meal” of contact can be pointed to as well. It is a problem across teams, and across many of the world’s football leagues.

Honigstein is right that there are more serious offenses, such as using performance-enhancing substances and match-fixing, but I think diving belongs in the category of cheating and should not be thought of along the lines of the “professional foul.” The professional foul occurs when a player commits a foul knowing that it will likely earn him a yellow card from the referee, but he does so for a competitive advantage (such as stopping a quick counterattack).

Setting aside the ethics of the professional foul, one reason that diving is worse is that the consequences are reversed. In the case of the professional foul, there is a consequence for the player who commits the offense. He is willing to accept it, but he also has to walk a careful line to avoid a second yellow and subsequent red card. But in the case of diving, a player is not accepting any negative consequence, unless he is poor at it and is carded for simulation. Instead, the negative consequence falls entirely upon the opponent. When this occurs in the penalty box, a goal for the diving player’s team is the likely result. So one reason that diving is wrong is that the consequences are especially egregious.

Sportsmanship is an important value, even at the elite level of sport. It is one reason why the ceremonial pre-game handshake still occurs today. And in soccer, there are many unwritten rules of sportsmanship that are important parts of the game, such as kicking the ball out when a player is seriously injured and then returning possession to the team that put the ball out of play. Diving is not consistent with the value of sportsmanship, and this is one reason to get it out of the game. (Iain Macintosh has offered thoughts on how to do so here). In the U.S., a similar problem was present in the NBA with flopping, until the league successfully cracked down on it. FIFA should do the same, including the formation of a panel to assess and penalize divers for their acts of cheating, when appropriate.

There are many reasons we participate in and watch sports. At the elite level, we want the victory to go to the team that is able to display excellence and demonstrate superiority on the day. There are cheap and undeserved wins, of course, but what makes diving so objectionable is that it has nothing to do with athletic excellence or luck. Rather, diving is the refuge of those who put winning ahead of honor, integrity, and the rules of the game, by intentionally seeking a victory that they don’t truly deserve.

In sum, diving is wrong because it is an especially egregious form of cheating, conflicts directly with the value of sportsmanship, and undermines the pursuit of an honorable victory. Even if it is no worse than “a pimple on the face of the beautiful game,” we don’t have to accept it. In fact, a bit of proactive work by FIFA and soccer’s other governing bodies could lead to a better, cleaner, and more honorable sport.

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