The NBA has announced a new policy that outlaws flopping. Calls and non-calls are subject to post-game video review. Fines for repeat violators can reach $30,000 along with game suspensions.
Many have openly campaigned for such a rule, none more openly, longer, or louder than ex-Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. So, this rule really should bear his name. It certainly reads like one of his on-air screeds turned into poorly thought out policy.
The “Van Gundy Rule” stinks of awful nativist assumptions* and an awful process, leading inevitably to awful policy.
*For the record, I’m generally a JVG fan, and I am not accusing him of nativism. But, his (partly tongue-in-cheek) jostling of international players about importing their ref-baiting practices from soccer is now encoded into policy. When this thing goes sour he better not run from it. This is his baby as much as anyone’s.
So-called “flopping” is just nativist pearl-clutching masquerading as a competitive problem
Let’s start with the basics. Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one can define a flop with much useful precision. For all the pearl-clutching about it, little consensus exists about what it is.
Put another way, I have seen far more consensus about where flopping comes from (keeping in mind that we are talking NBA geography here, which is always laughably imprecise) than what it is. I’m picking on JVG because he has been the most vocal proponent of an anti-flopping rule. In his heart of hearts all I think he could tell you is that whatever Anderson Varejao does is flopping, but whatever Charles Oakley did was not.
In practice, everyone tries to draw calls. So flopping is an act of labeling that describes people rather than actions in any precise way. A “flopper” is strongly associated with a European* (again, NBA geography) style thought to be heavily influenced by international soccer, where it is common for players to actively bait officials into calls. Some people deride that style for a variety of reasons.
*In NBA geography, “European” effectively refers to any non-black players born outside the lower 48 or Asia. Black players born in Europe or who emigrated there are only inconsistently referred to as European.
Styles, as they say, make fights. So I have no problem whatsoever with people who loathe soccer-style ref-baiting. Arguments about aesthetics are pretty much at the core of talking about sports. However, aesthetics makes a lousy basis for crafting competitive policy.
To wit, the league defines flopping in the broadest and most imprecise terms as if to ensure a policy that is as whimsical as possible.
The NBA said 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… 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.
I see at least three problems with the “Van Gundy Rule,” and all three seem intractable.
(1) Flopping is a fake problem poorly addressed — The league started with a small subset of missed calls (and ill-defined non-calls), labeled them flops, and defined them as a unique competitive problem. More importantly, game officials already have the power to address competitive problems with a delay of game technical foul or an unsportsmanlike technical foul for actions that interfere with the game. It is not at all unclear why these tools are insufficient. To the extent that official miss calls they’re no different than other misses.
But the “Van Gundy Rule” goes beyond post-hoc overkill to miss the mark entirely. The game suspension provision actually benefits an opponent who was never wronged by a flopper while leaving the opponent who was actually harmed with no recourse at all. Suppose, for example, that Paul Pierce gets his 6th flopping penalty after a bogus charge call awards him two game winning FTAs. NY loses its game on a bogus call while Philly gets to play Boston the next night without Pierce. NY gets screwed twice. How is that justice?
(2) “Flop and frisk” policies open the door to biases — Televised images generally, and slow motion photography specifically, bias movement. Modest head nods become exaggerated bobs on TV. This is important since the NBA will now use TV to determine whether movement is a reasonable response to the force exerted. This process seems wide open to unexamined biases about whose actions are “reasonable” and whose are not.
(3) Offensive players will get a pass — In the prevailing narrative, only defenders flop. Offensive players should play by the same rules but they rarely expect to.
“I like the rule,” [Kobe Bryant] said. “Shameless flopping, that’s a chump move. We’re familiar with it. Vlade (Divac) kind of pioneered it in that playoff series against Shaq, and it kind of worked for him.”
An enthusiastic supporter of the rule, Bryant’s value is now largely tied to “getting to the free throw line.” Not unlike former Knick Steve Francis, whose screaming dribble drives into multiple defenders “earned” him almost six free throws per 36 minutes, Bryant seeks out and often exaggerates defensive contact to get free throws. According to this rule, such players should be among the league’s most shameless floppers but that seems very unlikely to happen.