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Thursday, July 8, 2010
C'mon, America: Embrace flopping

By Patrick Hruby
Special to ESPN.com

Andres Iniesta
There's a reason Andres Iniesta and Spain are playing in the final and the U.S. isn't.

We've hosted a World Cup. Founded a domestic league. Felt hosed by egregiously bad international refereeing. Thrown an even-more egregious amount of attention and cash at David Beckham. By almost every metric, our journey to the dark side of soccer nationhood is complete. In fact, there's just one more step for the United States to take -- followed by a writhing, rolling, face-grabbing aria of despair, and/or a ride on a Korean War-era stretcher.

Friends, Americans, everyone who has ever laughed at a banana peel sight-gag: It's time to embrace flopping.

I know, I know: Flopping is an affront to honest, red-blooded competition, as un-American as burning flags, dissing mom and eating moldy apple pie. Just ask Bob Bradley. Prior to the United States' round of 16 loss to Ghana, our national team coach called on FIFA to review flops -- such as the Oscar-worthy group play dive taken by Ivory Coast winger Kader Keita that resulted in the unwarranted ejection of Brazil's Kaka -- and issue harsher penalties.

"I hate to see players act like they've been hit and get away with it," Bradley said. "I would be ashamed if I were doing it."

Compared to countless American sports fans, pundits and segment-filling talk radio hosts, Bradley was being diplomatic. If flopping is the last refuge of an on-field scoundrel, it's also the first refuge of the anti-beautiful game crowd, the tip of the "soccer sucks!" spear. In a recent magazine article -- creatively titled "Why the World Cup Sucks" -- otherwise-estimable author Matt Taibbi sounds the alarm, decrying diving as an example of soccer's "ragged poverty" because "in America, we consider whining like an [expletive] even during real injuries a crime against God."

A crime against macho? Definitely.

But a crime against God?

No. No. A thousand times no. If the great referee upstairs didn't want us to flop, he wouldn't have created free will, gravity and method-acting classes.

Our collective anti-diving sentiment is well-meaning. But it's also misguided. And possibly self-defeating. For one, flopping isn't cowardly or craven. It's courageous. Ever acted in a school play? Given a pep talk to a room of antsy co-workers? It takes major chestnuts to get out there and fake it in front of a large, dubious crowd. Especially when you can earn a yellow card -- the futbol equivalent of the Apollo Theater's Sandman -- if your performance isn't convincing enough.

World Cup Stretcher
Hey, stretchers have a long tradition in soccer!

Moreover, flopping is a skill. Part science, part art. Like a little three-act play: set-up, fall, aftermath. It takes a sense of timing, knowledge of your opponents' reputations and careful study of the referees. It's theater, performance art. (In a way, it's akin to touchdown dancing, at least the elaborate kind practiced by Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.) When fans in the long-defunct North American Soccer League held up cards reading "9.8, 9.9, 9.8" after particularly flamboyant dives, they weren't hating. They were appreciating.

Several years ago, I asked a few members of D.C. United about flopping. I expected cold shoulders, raised eyebrows, angry denials.

Instead, they talked technique.

"A loud scream usually gets you something," one player said. "And a lot of facial expressions. Withering pain across one's face always increases your chance of getting a call."

"The ones who are the best are the ones who make it look real," argued another. "The guys who fall down and act like they're dead aren't as effective."

Is flopping cheating? Well, yeah. Duh. Only that fits right in with our domestic sports ethos. Always has, really.

Corked bats. Tightened rims. Stolen signals and signs. Performance-enhancing drugs. Plying college recruits with under-the-table inducements. Keeping star players eligible with academic flim-flammery. All of it commonplace. John Wooden's UCLA dynasty is venerated -- held up as the shining example of all that is right and good in sports -- despite the influence of über-booster Sam Gilbert. Notorious spit-baller Gaylord Perry has a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In American sports, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'.

To put things another way: Do you think football kickers and punters leave their legs extended an extra second to admire their own flexibility? Or are they trying to bait overeager rushers into incidental contact, the better to dive and draw a flag?

Indeed, if Americans can't condone diving as a philosophy, we could at least accept it as a useful tactic. A bit of unappetizing -- but sometimes necessary -- rule-bending gamesmanship. After all, flopping works. In the round of 16, Spain's Joan Capdevila dove his way into an ejection for Portugal's Ricardo Costa. Spain is still playing; Portugal is toast. Even when a flopper can't earn a bogus call, he still makes an impact, banishing defenders to hesitant, second-guess limbo.

Allow one of those former D.C. United players to explain:

"With a player who dives, you want to make sure you don't give him too much room or else he'll go around you," he said. "On the other hand, you can't just stick your foot in there recklessly, because you know if you get a piece of him, he's going to flop. It gets to your head."

Pure hypothetical: If the United States was playing Brazil and Landon Donovan went down like he had been shot, stabbed and traded to Real Salt Lake -- resulting in Kaka getting sent off -- would you feel ashamed to wear the red, white and blue?

Or would you want to hand Donovan an SAG card?

(Indeed, Donovan was once a notorious diver, but changed his ways and no longer flops. Stupidly. Big mistake, Landon.)

Fact is, we already flop. Take the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Or consider basketball, where it's known as "selling the call." (Making something distasteful sound respectable by likening it to salesmanship: only in America!) Think Reggie Miller, pushing off while tricking referees into believing the defender did something wrong. Think the just-completed NBA Finals, where rough 'n' rugged Ron Artest went tumbling following a Rajon Rondo hand tap. While coaching the Dallas Mavericks, Don Nelson reportedly taught flopping during practice. Former Washington Wizards guard Chris Whitney once told me he learned how to dive from Doc Rivers.

Are Nelson and Rivers devious?

Or are they simply smart?

At its core, flopping is simply an attempt to gain an advantage by influencing the officials. Which is something we accept all the time. Wide receivers gesturing for pass interference flags. Basketball coaches working the refs on the sidelines. Football coaches sending infraction tapes to the NFL league office. Any Phil Jackson press conference.

Face it: When it comes to our disdain for soccer flopping, we're either hypocrites, in total denial, or both.

America, let's stop the madness. Embrace what we pretend to despise. Join the rest of the soccer-loving world and come out of the flopping closet ... before taking a good, hard, utterly unjustified tumble to the turf. We have nothing to lose but our stubborn pride. And probably fewer World Cup matches.

Patrick Hruby is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.