Derek Jeter: Cheater or Gamesmanship?

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First of all, Derek Jeter did not cheat. He broke no rule of baseball. He simply hammed it up to get a call. With that said, it seems to me that acting/flopping/diving is diminishing the enjoyment of watching professional sports.

Few bad calls frustrate fans more. Yet, flopping is widespread. It's so pervasive in some leagues (such as Italian league soccer) as to make the games unwatchable for me. Baseball is actually one of the least affected sports, simply because the game doesn't lend itself to so many interpretive umpiring decisions involving physical contact. Yet outside of baseball, one sees flopping and "drama-queen" falls even in youth sports. Athletes compete in their drama to earn favorable calls.

What can be done? What are the options?

1. Amend. Amending the rules of sport to proscribe flopping is probably inadequate. Some soccer federations do prohibit diving, yet the call is seldom made. In the NBA, flops are expected and are usually rewarded. Players and coaches today define "defense" in part as the act of sliding under an airborne or nearly airborne offensive player and getting the charging call. It's not defense; it's not even basketball. In theory, the rules of any sport could be amended to prohibit faking, even after the fake is over and the whistle has blown. For example, in baseball players like Jeter before being awarded first base could be asked if indeed they were hit with the pitch, with penalties for answers later determined to constitute knowing or reckless fabrication. ("I had to lie; I told one for the team.") Although there seems to be a trend to make professional sports into morality plays, I would doubt we'd want to introduce a rule against perjury. So the rules of the game probably cannot adequately respond to the problem.

2. Boo. We could respond with sanctions outside of the game rules. Along with ruining the game for viewers, players who fake consequences in order to get calls are exhibiting poor sportsmanship. We could boo them mercilessly. This would mean that Lakers fans would have to boo their team of floppers for nearly the entire game. (Of course, TSLP, as a die-hard Celtics fan, might have to consider booing my favorite player, Paul Pierce, should he ever pretend he was hit on the arm while in the act of shooting. So far in his career, he hasn't, I don't think.)

3. Fight. Another plausible option is to rely on players policing themselves. This is unrealistic too. Should the Rays now throw a ball at Jeter to hit him for real? (Should other teams throw at him too? Just everybody throwing at Jeter for a couple of weeks?) Given the reward for being hit by a pitch (the batter is awarded first base), being hit is not an unalloyed penalty. Same thing on the basketball court: a player frustrated with repeated flopping is said to be "taken out of his game," and thus his retaliatory efforts might actually inure to the benefit of the flopper. Players can police their own game on big things, like overly rough play or repeated beanballs. They can't be expected to police themselves on every little instance of the numerous flops and falls. Fighting over such small events seems unreasonable.

4. Suspend. The only plausible option to rid the games of flopping is to sanction players on a league-wide basis. Game rules have to be specific and clear; league-wide rules can be expressed in greater generality, as standards. Game rules say ten yards produces a first down; league rules say players may not act in conduct unbecoming the game. Isn't flopping unbecoming? At a minimum, it's bad sportsmanship; at worst, it's damaging the product. Just create a rule that says flopping and fakery and the like will be met with a suspension, and the problem will be over. Even Little League does this for players and coaches who get out of hand. Just send them home for the next game. Why is this so hard? Suspend Jeter (the one Yankees player I like) for a game and be done with it. Suspend Kobe and yes, even Paul Pierce for a game next time they ham it up. (Just throw Anderson Varejao out of the NBA now to save the trouble.) This simple, unhurried, discretionary response by the leagues involved could go a long way to creating and enforcing an overriding norm of "good sportsmanship" that ought to be part of the professional sports landscape.