My fellow sport philosophy blogger, Mike Austin, has a good post about Diving in Soccer that is well worth reading.
In general, I agree with Mike’s post. I don’t like diving, flopping, etc., in sport. It is cheap and dishonest. It is not an honorable way to compete and win. As Mike says, it “…conflicts directly with the value of sportsmanship, and undermines the pursuit of an honorable victory”.
Mike, however, also characterizes it as “an especially egregious form of cheating”. This claim gives me pause. It seems more like other (potentially) morally dubious actions in sport such as the intentional/professional foul or acts of gamesmanship. These are not normally considered “cheating” by practitioners (sport philosophers, on the other hand, are more mixed on this).
What gives me pause is that I realized I don’t know what cheating is. That is, I don’t think we have clear ways of distinguishing between what counts and doesn’t count as cheating.
(a) Cheating is an action in violation of the rules.
This is too broad. One might accidentally or unknowingly violate a rule: the accidental face mask in American football. Notice we can still punish the act even if it is not cheating. Cheating carries with it a sharp opprobrium that doesn’t fit an accident (even if it the accident is punishable under a strict liability framework such as the face mask rule in the NFL).
This definition might also be too narrow. Consider some of the MLB players that are being denied Hall of Fame votes because of their alleged PED use. Some of these players were active during a period when MLB did not have rules banning these substances. They are still considered by many to have cheated although they did not violate any rule of the game. I’m going to bracket this criticism in this post.
(b) Cheating is an action that is an intentional violation of the rules
Some intentional rule violations are not cheating. In basketball, a player cannot hold or push the player with the ball. This is a personal foul that results in the offensive player getting free throws. It also results in the stoppage of the clock and a change of possession. It is routine at the end of close games for the losing team intentionally to foul in order to stop the clock and get the ball back. In order for this to work, the foul must be called and so it involves no deception. The team that is fouled gets a chance to widen their lead with free throws. So the strategic advantage earned by the foul is not unilateral. While the morality of this kind of foul is controversial, it is not usually considered cheating even by those who a critical of the acceptance of these kinds of violations.
(c) Cheating is an action that is an intentional violation of the rules in which the violator tries to avoid detection, usually through deception, and to gain a unilateral advantage.
There are many counter examples to this formulation. It is against the rules in the NFL for a defensive player to enter the neutral zone and cause an opposing player to react prior to the snap of the ball. (A Neutral Zone Infraction). A defensive player may do this accidentally by mistiming his blitz. But he might also do this strategically hoping to either get an advantage in his movement towards the ball or to get a False Start called on the offensive lineman who reacts. In such cases, he is hoping to get away with his action and gain a unilateral advantage (either in timing or yardage). Nevertheless, it would be very strange to any participant or spectator of the NFL to call this cheating.
The “dive” in soccer (association football) seems to fall into this last category. One takes the dive in order to get a penalty called on the opposing team. Diving is against the rules (one can get a yellow card for it), so the player is deceptive in making the contact appear worse as well as making his feint more believable. The player hopes to get away with his action and thereby gain an unilateral advantage. (On a side note, Mike says “in the case of diving, a player is not accepting any negative consequence, unless he is poor at it and is carded for simulation.” This is too strong. If no foul is called (either for simulation or for contact), the team of the player that has gone to the ground is still going to be momentarily short-handed because the player has taken himself out of the action.)
Although there is nothing incoherent in saying that the soccer dive is unacceptable and the NFL case is acceptable, there is something odd in saying one is a form of cheating and the other is not. The definition picks out both activities, so one would think the concept being defined here would apply to both. This suggests something more needed for the definition of ‘cheating’ or that we need to, as Aristotle would say, start again.
It is worth bringing back the idea that cheating doesn’t necessarily involve the violation of the rules of the game. Nevertheless, cheating does require that there is some kind of forbidden act, though it is open what the source of prohibition is. Cheating also does involve a certain amount of deception and the motive is to gain an advantage. However, neither of these are sufficient for the wrongness of cheating (all actions in the context of sport are aimed at gaining an advantage and there are many acceptable and unproblematic forms of deception in sport). The wrongness seems to come from a subjective exception-making. That is, one takes for himself the right to take an action (otherwise forbidden) that he and others would not grant to anyone else.
This explains why the deception in cheating is evaluated differently from the deception in a trick play. In cheating, the deception is meant to hide the fact that you are doing something you know is not allowed and do not think others should be doing. The deception of a trick play is just part of the play. It is not meant to hide a forbidden act. Nor does one think that such a play is forbidden for others.
The unilateral advantage gained by cheating is also different from the unilateral advantage gained by some act of gamesmanship or intentional foul. In the latter there is a recognition that the other team can engage in these or similar actions to gain analogous advantages. There is, then, a kind of balance of advantages. In cases of cheating, although one might assume others are cheating, the cheater in large part depends on the fact that most don’t engage in the kind of actions he engages in to gain his advantage. When one dopes, their advantage is reduced if everyone dopes. The doper wants the doping system to catch the other dopers (just not him). In other words, the cheater wants the rules to be strictly enforced except when it comes to his actions. In the case of the intentional foul type cases, the player might hope to get away with his foul, but he doesn’t expect or require different treatment by the rules than any one else.
This brings in the important role of the referees. In the intentional foul type cases, the player submits his action (by doing so on the field of play) to the referee for determination. Even he though he is trying to convince the referee to make the call to the player’s advantage (possibly employing deception t), the referee makes the call. The third party determines whether there was a foul or not. In this sense, the fouler wants the rules applied, but applied in his favor. In cheating, this is different. The cheater does not want the rules to be applied in his case and so doesn’t want this third party involvement. The fouler lives within the rules—albeit in a cynical or strained version of them. The cheater abrogates the rules.
I do not have a good way of formulating all this into a clear definition. Nevertheless, I think we can proceed without it.
Diving is a dishonest act and one that is disrespectful to one’s self and to one’s fellow players. It undermines enjoyment by spectators. For these reasons, it fails to live up to the ideals of sportsmanship and honorable play. The game is better without it and the leagues should work (within reason) to discourage it. Yet it doesn’t fit what I have described here as cheating. The diver, although hoping to get away with his act, isn’t taking a special exception for himself. His deception is to try to convince the referee to apply the rules in a way that is favorable for him, but he is not looking for a nullification of the rules as they are applied to his actions.