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Listen to ‘Thinking about flopping,” as read by the author.

With all the World Cup excitement, fans and non-fans alike continue to engage in an evergreen disagreement: is ‘flopping’ unethical or just another skill and tactic we should value? After all, fans want to know whether to cheer for a good play much as we would a good shot or save—“What a beautifully executed flop by Johnson!”—or if we should justifiably condemn such actions on the pitch. Players, of course, want to know how to play the game fairly (ahem) all in the pursuit of what has come to be known as the Beautiful Game.

Having been a long-time soccer fan and player myself, as well as a philosopher who specializes in issues in sports including my most recent book on the topic, there could be no better intersection of my interests than soccer’s flopping. By way of establishing even more credibility, I’m currently tied for first place in my family’s World Cup Soccer Bracket pool.

It’s important to note a key distinction: We’re examining something other than “embellishment,” when a player actually is fouled and falls to the pitch to demonstrate this in hopes of receiving a call they deserve. Instead, here we consider true flopping—“diving” as some call it, along with the more formal, technical term, “simulation”—when a player is not fouled yet falls to the ground, seemingly experiencing immense pain, in hopes of being awarded a penalty. It’s this sort of diving that causes such vitriol amongst those who observe it.

Flopping is cheating

The initial take on flopping: it’s cheating. Imagine you’re on the disciplinary committee at a school, needing to decipher if a student or athlete has cheated. To accurately determine this, you’d need to know if they satisfied the following conditions:

A. Act intentionally

B. Break a rule

C. Attempt to gain an advantage

D. Do so deceptively.

Unbeknown to many, flopping explicitly violates a ruleLaw 12—which results in a yellow card for “unsporting behavior”: “Attempts to deceive the referee, e.g. by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation).” A black-and-white rule violation.

Even if it’s not deceptive—i.e., if the flopper gets caught—it’s still cheating: the player’s just a bad cheater.

You’ll notice the “deceptively” criterion is not necessary: it just makes one “good” at cheating, much like a pickpocket intentionally breaks a rule to gain an advantage, all done deceptively so as to avoid getting caught. But even if it’s not deceptive—i.e., if the flopper gets caught—it’s still cheating: the player’s just a bad cheater.

Flopping is part of the game

Three-time Major League Soccer (MLS) champion and ESPN soccer analyst Alejandro Moreno frames the other side of this argument. In a recent interview, Moreno refers to flopping as an important “skill set” and an “art form.” Something to be celebrated, not condemned. He admits soccer is a “morally flawed game, where players will do whatever is necessary to win.”

Typically, this sort of cultural relativism doesn’t hold water in a discussion on ethics. My wife and I recently taught our 8-year-old daughter something to the tune of, “Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t make it okay.” If everyone’s cheating, that doesn’t make cheating acceptable.

But some consider sports as separate from non-sporting society and, as such, allow for a different class of behaviors. This is clear to anyone who watches even a modicum of sports: participants on the sports field can—and are expected to—behave differently than those off the field. So, if it’s expected and accepted by those entrenched in the respective game, that alone determines the ethical nature of the action, not some uninitiated viewer or philosopher on the outside looking in.

It is for this reason that Jose Mourinho, a highly successful professional league soccer coach for over 20 years, recently changed his position on the topic. Instead of instructing his players to remain on their feet and do everything they can to stay with the ball, he now tells them, “Be a clown the way many who dive like they’re in a swimming pool do.”

Anything goes?

As philosophers often do, much to the annoyance of some, there is nuance that needs unpacking: All done with the hopes of most optimally framing the richness of such a subtly abstract phenomenon.

No one doubts the motivation for nefarious behavior amongst athletes in a game: we often hear the moniker, will do anything to win, as though it’s acceptable to do “anything.” But we know this isn’t true given all the examples throughout sports of athletes attempting to get undeserved advantages—steroid-using cyclists, deflated footballs, trash can-banging baseball players—all elicit a clear reaction from fans and pundits (and philosophers) alike, that not “anything” is allowed.

Additionally, flopping involves an element of the human condition nearly all other morally questionable actions do not. A major part of the “art” of flopping involves convincing the referee one is in immense, physical pain, suffering in agony writhing on the ground. This puts this referee in a terrible position: does he just run past the person on the ground asking for help—a person he’s been charged with protecting—under the assumption that this athlete is simply lying to him? This isn’t how human beings work: buried deep in our brain stem, we have a visceral response to the pain (seemingly) experienced by others. To take advantage of this seems to traverse the realm of fair play.

Buried deep in our brain stem, we have a visceral response to the pain (seemingly) experienced by others. To take advantage of this seems to traverse the realm of fair play.

And interestingly, the defender is often overlooked in this whole exchange. Because in a true diving situation, the defender has played legally, by the rules, in an attempt to fairly defend against the attack. Yet he’s punished unjustly. In all walks of life, causing someone unjust punishment clearly lies outside the realm of moral acceptability.

Aristotle and Pelé weigh in

The clincher to all of this might lie outside these sound logical, moral arguments about ethical obligations, retributivism, and cultural relativism. Aristotle is famously known for his unique contribution to moral philosophy by way of Virtue Ethics. Instead of following moral rules and principles or some utilitarian calculus, Aristotle posits we should instead focus on the character of a person. We shouldn’t ask, “What should we do?” but, instead, “What sort of person do I want to be?” This, he argues, will help us to live a good life: to flourish. As William Durant famously summarized Aristotle’s opus, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

So, we can ask of our soccer players, “What sort of player do you want to be?” One who falls to the ground in a tight situation, attempting to trick the referee into giving you something you don’t deserve, only to hop up and run at full speed seconds later upon not getting what you want? Or, do we honor the approach of one of the greatest to ever play the game, Brazil’s Pelé: fight to stay on your feet, even if you’re fouled, and play the game?

English midfielder, Alan Mullery, recounts his view of Pelé in the recent book about the 1970 World Cup, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In today’s game, he says, “People fall over if you pass wind.” He continues on about Pelé, who was the recipient of constant tackles by opponents: “In those days you had to take those knocks and he took them and came back for more.” One of the things, certainly, which made him arguably the best to play the game.

There’s just something impressive—virtuous, in Aristotle’s terms—about the player who’s not constantly lying to the referee but, like Pelé, fights through the challenges to play the game by the rules.

There’s just something impressive—virtuous, in Aristotle’s terms—about the player who’s not constantly lying to the referee but, like Pelé, fights through the challenges to play the game by the rules. It certainly aligns with the “beautiful” moniker attributed to soccer: not much beauty in falling over all the time, falsely screaming out in pain while the game passes you by.

And so yes, there are good pickpockets out there, and good floppers as well. And we can empathize with them, understanding what’s on the line and why people would do this. But when we ask what we should celebrate and honor, it’s clear the flopper doesn’t make the list, even if “everyone’s” doing it.

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The author of 5 books, including Amazon Top-500, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times. Spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe. Graduated from Stanford...