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Last week, the National Basketball Association announced its new “anti-flopping” rule. The league aims to punish “any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player,” an attempted deception that could bring a $30,000 fine. Basketball’s old guard has been complaining about flopping for decades. (In an instructional video from the 1970s that now lives on YouTube, legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach voices his astonishment: “Coaches today in high school, college, and pro are teaching the players how to fall!”) NBA Commissioner David Stern told ESPN in June, “It’s time to squeeze it out of the game.”
So what took so long? Well, the flop is tricky to police. Just look at the wording of the league’s announcement: “appears to have been intended.” Judging intentions by appearances is about as subjective as it gets. This is why the league is not inserting the flop call into the game itself, but leaving it to postgame review. The office of NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson will examine questionable plays and assess fines on an escalating scale. According to the league, Jackson will distinguish between flop and fall by determining whether a player’s “physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact.”
So how difficult is it to catch a player faking a fall?
“They’re going to have to spend a lot of time reviewing tapes,” says Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent, body-language expert, and author of What Every Body Is Saying. “What you’re looking for is, there’s a part of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system doesn’t think. It reacts to the world. When you are at an ATM machine and someone gets too close, that feeling you get, that’s the limbic brain kicking in. Those feelings, those reactions, you don’t think about.” The genuine, limbic responses, says Navarro, happen immediately and with every part of the body—the limbs and facial expression—in sync.
Navarro suggests that league officials look for “staging,” or attempts to take advantage of a referee who is out of position or whose view is blocked. Peter Walton, a soccer referee in England for the past 16 years who is now the general manager of the newly formed Professional Referee Organization in the U.S. and Canada, agrees. In soccer, the term for “flopping” is “diving,” or “simulation” in the rule book. Soccer is rife with simulation, despite the long-standing rule against it.
The problem, says Walton, is that “if you are accusing a person of trying to circumvent the law, an attempt to deceive, you want to be certain you are perfectly correct.” In the increasingly high-paced sport, that kind of certainty is hard to come by, and players know it. The NBA is likely to encounter this problem as well. Do you really want to call out a marquee player for a dirty trick? Walton says good soccer refs, besides working hard to be in position to see the play clearly and knowing the risk-reward calculations likely to be running through a player’s head, study teams beforehand and know “which players have a propensity to fall over.”
Navarro offers one more tip: “There’s a behavior we do when we get away with something. It’s called a tongue jut. We stick our tongue out between our teeth. It doesn’t touch the lips. And then the corner of your lips, like, smile. Children do this. Adults do this when they get away with something or they get caught.”