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The Ethics of Flopping

Is it wrong for NBA Players to flop?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown tired of seeing grown men flop to fool referees into believing they have been fouled when they didn’t even get touched by the offending player. Yet, it happens multiple times during every basketball playoff game. I’ve come to the conclusion that NBA players take acting lessons to learn how to flop in a convincing way. Perhaps there should be a college course – Flopping 101 – to teach these unique skills.

The question is whether flopping to get a foul called against your opponent is an ethical practice. The NBA rules say flopping is "any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player." The NBA started penalizing floppers during the 2012-2013 season fining players for repeated violations of an act a league official said has "no place in our game."

Those exaggerated falls to the floor might fool the referees and fans during the game, but officials at league headquarters take a look for themselves afterward. Players get a warning the first time, then are fined $5,000 for a second violation. The fines increase to $10,000 for a third offense, $15,000 for a fourth and $30,000 for the fifth. Six or more could lead to a suspension. From a monetary harm perspective, these fines for well-paid NBA players are the equivalent of going to Starbucks for a cup of coffee.

I have come to the conclusion that the best floppers are often the best players in the game. My favorite is James Harden, a player who needs no help to have fouls called against his opponents but has mastered the art of twisting, turning, and flopping after little or no contact.

Perhaps flopping in basketball is like a second baseman who slides by the base to get an out called on the runner. He doesn’t touch the bag but is just enough in the area of the base to get the out called. Or, maybe it’s more severe and like pitchers rubbing a foreign substance on their arm that can be used to change the direction of the ball. On May 22, Milwaukee Brewers reliever Will Smith was suspended eight games  for having a foreign substance on his non-throwing arm against the Atlanta Braves.

Flopping is against the rules so on that basis alone we can consider it unethical. However, ethics goes beyond the law. Even if it wasn’t banned, as it was not before the 2012-2013 season, it still raises questions of fairness to other players who play by the rules and enhance the integrity of the game. Floppers are looking to gain a competitive advantage. They probably do not believe fans care one way or the other, and their probably right especially if it helps the home team to win.

My theory is flopping is a manifestation of the social-media conscious society we have become. After all, people do all kinds of stupid things to make a video and have it posted on You Tube or post it on Instagram. We have been raising a generation of performers. Students perform silly acts in school and elsewhere to get their 10 minutes of fame. People make their dogs do stupid things in the hope that it might appear on Anderson Cooper’s “Ridiculist.”

Not to be too naïve about the practice,  it won’t stop unless some real penalties are assessed. For example, if referees who caught obvious flops were instructed to assess a technical (like in FIBA basketball), or if coaches could challenge fouls as flops, resulting in technicals if upheld, then do you think the flopping would ease up? Probably so, but at a cost because the pace of the game already can be painfully slow at times – critical times – when the referees go to the video to determine whether a Flagrant 1 foul should be called or Flagrant 2, which leads to automatic rejection.

The fact is a true sport depends on good sportsmanship to be true to its ethical values. Unfortunately, that message has been lost, I believe, because of the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram society we live in. All too many are motivated by being recognized by others, even if it is for doing stupid things. Basketball players are no different. They become more successful with flopping, especially because it’s often done by the best in the game, many of whom already have the referees support when fouls are called because they are LeBron James or James Harden. Any benefit of the doubt already goes to these stars. Fouls called because of convincing flops makes the game slanted towards the best and away from those who might actually be defending properly.

Flopping is here to stay. The culture of the game has been changed forever. It’s unfortunate but I don’t think anything meaningful can be done to change it. I don’t think the will is there impose stricter penalties by the league or owners.

Sophocles said:  “I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.” Somehow I think that message is lost on most people in sports today and, perhaps, in all of society.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 13, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: