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David Stern has such obvious contempt for bad acting that he has turned his surrogate, Stu Jackson, into Roger Ebert.
In an effort to halt the flopping pandemic, the league announced last week that Jackson, NBA executive vice president of basketball operations, would review game video this season to judge whether a player had embellished contact in an effort to draw a foul in the way that, say, Matthew McConaughey embellishes his drawl in an attempt to secure an Oscar nomination. First-time floppers merit a thumb's down—a warning. Any subsequent flop by an NBA thespian will draw a fine, starting at $5,000 and hitting $30,000 for a fifth offense. Now, $30,000 seems a hefty number for a flop, but then The Adventures of Pluto Nash reportedly lost $93 million.
The initial reviews of the flopping laws are decidedly mixed. Players' association executive director Billy Hunter has decried them, vowing to launch a complaint of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board. (First the NLRB rules against Costco on its social-media policy, and now it might consider the consequences of Anderson Varejão wantonly flinging himself courtward; gosh, is there anything the board can't do?) Dirk Nowitzki called the NBA initiative "a bunch of crap," and Blake Griffin essentially branded it a scam to extract fine money, but one name above NBA marquees has given it his blessing. Kobe Bryant told Los Angeles reporters, "Shameless flopping, that's a chump move."
The operative word is shameless.
You probably recall Claude Lemieux, who appeared in 1,215 NHL games and won four Stanley Cups with three different teams. He excelled at two positions: right wing and prone. Lemieux was a renowned diver (the hockey term for flopper), a dark art for which the Meryl Streep of the rink was utterly unapologetic. In Lemieux's amoral worldview, his job was to try to draw power plays and a referee's job was to catch him. The writhes and falls of Claude Lemieux sometimes offended teammates as much as opponents—in the 1989 Stanley Cup finals, Canadiens coach Pat Burns grabbed the Montreal trainer and prevented him from aiding his seemingly stricken winger—but Lemieux could no more change his stripes than the refs could theirs. For a brief time during the 2002--03 season, the NHL published a list of serial divers as if they were johns in the local police blotter. Resurrecting the idea, the league's senior executive vice president of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, said after a Rules Summit meeting in August that players want the NHL to identify divers and have the list hung in all 30 dressing rooms and distributed to referees and linesmen. Because each team has a player wearing a C (for captain) and a few with an A (for alternate captain), sticking a scarlet D (for diver) on a uniform seems excessive.
The problem is that professional athletes don't do shame. Sheepishness, yes. Shame, not really. During a crucial late-season game against Tampa Bay in 2010, Yankees captain Derek Jeter grabbed his left elbow after a pitch struck his bat, prompting the ministrations of trainer Gene Monahan. Mesmerized by Jeter's performance, umpire Lance Barksdale awarded him first base. Jeter later explained, "He told me to go to first base. I'm not going to tell him I'm not going to first, you know?" Apparently Lee Strasberg (the Actors Studio, 1951--1982) works in mid-September even if Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals, 2010--2012) does not.
For all the noble intent, Stern is in a dodgy neighborhood here, loitering at the intersection of sportsmanship and gamesmanship. This is the place where values, and not merely bodies, collide. The block-charge conundrum that tests all referees—it is the reason the league and not the refs will pass judgment on purported flops—is simple to untangle compared to the Gordian knot that intertwines fair play and the adage often attributed to NASCAR legend Richard Petty: "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'."
Stern's aim is to prevent basketball from becoming an indoor version of the other world game. At its most exasperating, soccer is opera buffa in short pants. The constant scenery chewing in an effort to draw fouls, yellow cards and penalty kicks from credulous referees is one reason cited for America's reluctance to embrace the game. (FIFA calls it simulation, which makes it sound like a video game or soft porn.) Some of the best players are also its most theatrical. Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid striker, is felled by sniper fire in every match.
Maybe the bad acting business is a one-name phenomenon: Madonna, Sinbad, Erika. In the 2011 Women's World Cup quarterfinal against the United States, Erika, a Brazilian defender, collapsed even though no American player was in her zip code. She was hauled off on a stretcher. She should have had the decency to stay there. Without even a side trip to Lourdes, Erika hopped off the stretcher almost the instant she left the field, receiving a yellow card for the brazen performance. She deserved a Razzie.
In an age of miracles, maybe Lemieux repents, Ronaldo fights through a defender and Shane Battier remains perpendicular. If Stern and Jackson cure NBA flopping through equal doses of fines and humiliation, they will have struck a blow for righteousness. But next June, late in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, when a defender chooses not to slather on some mustard in hopes of drawing a charge, his coach will remind him, "If you ain't' feignin,' you better be explainin'."