One very sunny day on a pitch somewhere in America near sprawling farms and a single loitering country road, my college soccer team was playing a tight match. We were getting kicked so high into the air we must have looked from the distance like maroon grasshoppers leaping over some malicious kids’ boots. The referee wasn’t calling anything. And, as tends to be the case when that happens, the tackles got worse and worse. But we were all doing the American thing, playing through it, shaking everything off, or trying to play through it and shake everything off. Yet it wasn’t minutes after I said to the referee that someone was going to get hurt that our best player had his tibia and fibula snapped in two, right in front of me. I remember the sound of the bones breaking: I remember his scream and then his screams and then the silence. And it’s only now, strangely, that I remember cursing my head off at the referee. Really, I was mad at us. I wish someone had gone down before then, even if it wasn’t warranted, and showed some hurt. Because sometimes that’s how you prevent something worse from happening—not all of the times, but certainly sometimes. We tried to talk to the referee with words instead of talking to him through our actions. The ambulance came and took our number 10 away. He was already the school leader in goals and assists. He’d never play in college again.
I’m not the least bit surprised that, in the midst of what has been a truly thrilling (although now slightly sputtering) World Cup, the topic of diving has managed to elbow its way in among the major talking points of the tournament. We even have our villain picked out, electric Dutch forward Arjen Robben, for falling—if not easily, then theatrically—under a challenge in the area from Mexican captain Rafa Márquez in the 90th minute of a game knotted at one goal apiece. Moments later Klaus Jan Hunterlaar took a picture perfect penalty, stinging and precise. A few half-hearted kicks of the ball remained, time ticked down. The Netherlands won 2-1. And Mexico, for the sixth World Cup in a row, was eliminated the Round of 16. The perfect penalty was instantly forgotten. The other two beautifully taken goals weren’t far behind in becoming ether, a memory that will get stirred in you someday when going over what actually happened in the game. Maybe the penalty will be your Proustian madeleine, but football exists so that you don’t have to be Proust.
I won’t turn now to the subsequent fallout regarding Robben’s fall given that as you’re now reading this you have likely followed not only that game but also the complaints, diatribes, victimization, demonization and noble suggestions for rule-changes. In short, Robben is a terrible cheat, a diver, a bad actor duping beleaguered referees with the dizzying paradox of his unapproachable speed and his resemblance to Patrick Stewart. But you know all of this, don’t you? Let’s not review it yet again. I don’t want to talk about Robben, really. I want to talk about you.
Why do you care so much?
Among all of actions in all of the sports that you may follow (and leaving out businesses and politics because let’s not start), why is this action so much worse than any other? Where does all of this moral outrage come from? Moral outrage, of all things, for this. Why? Players go down. To state the obvious: It’s a game in which people get kicked. Getting kicked is hardly ever fun and I’m not inclined to decide for someone else which kick to the shin or stomp on the heel should hurt and which should not.
We’re all Colossuses when snug in our sofas.
And yes, sometimes players go down when they haven’t been touched. But forgive me, this is part of the game not a problem of the game. I didn’t want to rehash the supposed Robben controversy—Was it a dive? Was it a foul?—but I do want to repeat this point: Going down is a part of the game. And when it comes to cheating being part of the game, color me curious as to where American, in particular, indignation begins and ends.
I grew up in New York on a heavy dose of baseball and basketball. In baseball, a catcher frames pitches outside of the strike zone so that they look like strikes instead of balls. Is the catcher not clearly trying to deceive the home plate umpire? Why is this allowed? There’s a second base umpire. Why shouldn’t his job to be to stop the game and communicate with the home plate umpire when a catcher attempts to deceive by framing pitches. That's simple. Then the catcher could be thrown out of the game. That would certainly curtail framing pitches: a ball is a ball. This would lead to a tighter strike zone and more offense.
An outfielder rushing in to catch a sinking line drive—who ends up instead trapping it in his glove—almost always tries to act as though the ball was caught in the air. This is an act of deception on the part of the outfielder and should be punished accordingly; especially now that there’s video replay. It sets a bad example.
The NBA has instituted rules against flopping and retroactive fines for players guilty of doing so. (Suspensions of this nature are given in Italy’s Serie A...and have been since before the NBA adopted the practice.) Yet basketball players still do the equivalent of what Robben did all of the time: upon feeling contact, the shooter exagerrates the impact in order to make his appeal to the referee.
None of this is considered cheating. In fact, they’re all considered smart plays. An umpire, in fact, will at times reward a catcher with a third strike for having framed a pitch so well. I suspect that far from stirring you into moral outrage you may be limbering up to write a comment about how these examples are far removed from the gross, unethical, culture-spoiling actions of a football player who falls when having been—maybe—kicked or tripped or bundled over. But before you do, I ask you to consider the way in which all of these actions are language. For example, the catcher talks with the umpire about the borders of his strike zone by way of the slight movements of his mitt—the umpire will give some and not give others—and an inning into the game there’s an understanding of what today’s strike zone is or should be. When it happens in “our” games it’s a familiar form of competition under the aegis of good old Pax Americana.
But football. Oh, my. See a player go down and a bell goes off. Get the cheat. Pity the cheated. Change the game. It’s all so Pavlovian.
Here’s a suggestion. Why not focus on the fact that the best player you may have ever see in your life almost never dives? Make him the cure. Love the little things he does, aside from all of the goals he scores—the immaculate first touch, the proper ball delivered at its proper time. Sing, “Leo Messi never goes down!” Seduce players to stay on their feet with the allure of exaltation. It will work for some, it won’t work for others. But at least your desire to see a player stay on his feet will be rooted to the game and not some exhausted principle you don’t even really believe. Or, if Messi’s too small a hero for your crusade, simply remember your lack of a reaction when all of the dirty, terrible cheating in a baseball or basketball game happens.
Your lack of reaction—or even, because you enjoy the nuances of the game, your cheers.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). His second book, Heaven, will be published by FSG in 2015. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award.