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Cries of Agony, Convulsions of Hope

Posted By Brian Phillips On November 19, 2008 @ 8:46 am In Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The New York Times has a piece this morning on the phenomenon of basketball players crying out as they shoot the ball in order to convince the referee that they’ve been fouled. According to the author and the players interviewed in the piece, the roar of pain is so effective at drawing foul calls that it’s becoming ubiquitous among the NBA’s top players:

“I guess once word got out that more often than not, you make a noise going to the basket, you’ll get a foul call, it just became second nature for a lot of guys,” said the Knicks’ Malik Rose, a veteran forward in his 13th year, who cited Bryant, Vince Carter and Allen Iverson as trendsetters.

The piece goes on to compare the technique to “flopping” (the tactic of falling down to convince the referee you’ve been pushed) and to simulation in soccer:

To some extent, the cries of anguish are akin to the over-the-top acting in international soccer, where players writhe on the ground in agony, hoping to draw a foul on the other team, only to pop up and start running at full speed once the referee delivers his verdict.

I’ve always been interested in the similarities and differences between flopping in basketball and diving in soccer, largely because I’ve always wondered why diving in soccer provoked such scorn from American fans when a) those same fans didn’t really seem to mind flopping in basketball and b) European soccer fans and the soccer media are much more disapproving of simulation in soccer than basketball fans and media ever have been about simulation in basketball.

After giving it some thought, I decided a few months ago that the reason wasn’t moralistic so much as stylistic—that is, that American fans don’t mind cheating per se (which exists in both basketball and soccer); what they really mind are the contortions and theatrical agony of soccer players after a foul, which have no real equivalent in basketball.

At the time, I thought the lack of yellow and red cards in the NBA made it unlikely that basketball players would ever adopt soccer players’ exaggerated thespian agony, because there was less incentive to convince a referee that a foul was unusually violent. (A minor foul and a major foul lead to the same result in basketball, except in the case of the flagrant foul, a white whale which is very seldom sighted.)

Today’s Times piece makes me wonder, though, whether basketball is moving gradually toward more elaborate displays of fake pain. If screaming in feigned agony is already commonplace, how far are we, really, from rolling around on the ground as if trying to quench an imaginary uniform fire? And if the logic of competition dictates that basketball players, like soccer players, go to such lengths in pursuit of an advantage, what’s the likeliest result: to make American fans like basketball less, or to desensitize them to simulation so that they’re more receptive to soccer?


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