Why The NBA’s New Flopping Rule Missed The Mark

Last week, the NBA formally (and finally, if your name is Jeff Van Gundy) announced plans to crack down on flopping. The new policy establishes an escalating penalty structure for violators based on postgame video review by the league office. Penalties start with a warning and scale upward. The second flop costs a player $5,000, the third $10,000, the fourth $15,000, and the fifth $30,000. After that, violators will be subject to further discipline that may include a larger fine and/or suspension. The league also indicated that a separate set of penalties—presumably harsher—will be applied during the post-season.

“Flops have no place in our game – they either fool referees into calling undeserved fouls or fool fans into thinking the referees missed a foul call,” Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson said in the league’s Oct. 3 press release. “Accordingly, both the Board of Governors and the Competition Committee felt strongly that any player who the league determines, following video review, to have committed a flop should – after a warning – be given an automatic penalty.”

Flopping is hardly a new problem in the NBA, but over the last few seasons, players have mastered the Divacean art of “selling” calls. In order to coax whistles out of referees and gain a competitive advantage, players flail and crumble to the floor after barely any contact, and once they’re on the ground, they writhe in pain and point to non-existent injuries. Some of these Oscar-worthy performances are preserved here on Dime. For their part, officials have mostly fallen for the act.

The logic of the new initiative, then, is twofold. First, referees have a hard time judging whether or not a player has taken a dive in real-time, and thus, video review post hoc is a way to correct the calls they miss. Ostensibly, instant replay technology enables the league to consider flopping incidents more thoroughly, more accurately and more consistently than a referee. For instance, a flopping ruling might consider multiple angles, and compare similar events. Second, fines directed at individual offenders operate as a potential deterrent for players who wish to keep their wallets thick. As a comparison, the $5,000 fine attached to a second flopping violation is equivalent to what players pay after accruing sixteen technical fouls.

Although postgame analysis implies a scientific method, it seems almost inevitable that violations will lean on the subjective analysis of the league. Unlike other, more straightforward rules like hand-checking, operationalizing flopping is a rather thorny task because contact (usually involving players of different dimensions and/or traveling at disparate speeds) is latent in the act, and even encouraged by referees. According to the official release:

“Flopping” will be defined as any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the
referees to call a foul on another player. The primary factor in determining whether a player
committed a flop is whether his physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent
with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact.

Physical acts that constitute legitimate basketball plays (such as moving to a spot in order to
draw an offensive foul) and minor physical reactions to contact will not be treated as flops.

This definition establishes that officials are able to impute three rather arbitrary elements through the video review process: player intent, “reasonable” reaction, and legitimate basketball plays. How this is to be done in practice is less clear. Consider the NBA’s anti-flopping instructional video, which outlines how the rule will be administered throughout the 2012-13 season and includes several examples of conduct that will be deemed a flop. The video suggests throughout that certain reactions are consistent with the degree of contact received in a collision and others are not (“over-embellishment”). What does this measure mean? And furthermore, how was it reached? There are also a few instances where the standard of inconsistency is itself inconsistent. For example, what distinguishes the launching action performed by Chris Paul, and a similar one performed by Ronnie Brewer later in the video? Both appear to be exaggerating contact from an offensive player, and yet, Paul’s act is punishable and Brewer’s is not.

In this way, the system is hardly different than a decision made by a referee in-game — except, perhaps, that the former is afforded more time. Controversial flopping fines (or non-fines), like the ones described above, will continue to be disputed by fans, players and the media. A worst case scenario can be found in the NHL (not to single out the NHL, but as a dual Canadian-American citizen I am simply familiar with hockey’s rulebook) with regard to Rule 48, pertaining to checks to the head, as every borderline hit is scrutinized and the league’s czar of player safety is regularly criticized for “unfairly” disciplining players. It is also probably worth nothing here that the NBA has not always been entirely consistent or transparent in its own adjudication of flagrant and technical fouls that employ a similar centralized methodology of regulation.

An additional concern is the effectiveness of fines as a deterrent, in general. Much of this depends on how the rule is enforced. If the NBA is routinely and publicly slapping players with flopping infractions after the fact, then we might see some success. However, if violations are less frequent, referees are missing/ignoring flops on the court and players can earn their team another possession down the stretch of an important game, then incentives still exist for players to embellish. A related point is that the new rules could actually lead to more flopping in games. As Mark Cuban told ESPNDallas.com last week, “If it just causes the refs to give floppers the benefit of the doubt knowing the league can deal with it after the fact, it could have some unintended consequences.”

Also, while the upper end of the disciplinary spectrum might be a steep price for players earning the league minimum, $30,000 is peanuts to stars — some of whom also happen to be some of the most theatrical (you know who they are). It will be interesting to see how this group of players reacts to the new legislation.

The system of postgame analysis and fines is certainly a reasonable approach to the flopping problem. But at first blush, the rule seems to lack the teeth necessary to curtail flopping in any real sense. We might see a decline in the short-term, but flopping is still a murky — and not to mention, controversial — infraction as currently defined, and there are serious questions as to the value of fines as a deterrent. It’s only a matter of time before the league’s best floppers are up to their old shenanigans (and JVG is chastising them on-air). Ultimately, if the NBA wants to tidy up the game, it will need to do so at the source, by enforcing a more robust embellishment call in the games themselves, much like the NHL’s Rule 64.1 (which generally offsets penalties by calling the initial contact, as well as a second penalty for diving) or FIBA’s technical foul.

Will this rule work as intended?

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