April 11, 2011

On Diving

I was at the girlfriend’s over the weekend, so I missed DC United’s match with the Galaxy on Saturday night. But it was hard to avoid the apoplectic headlines about the game’s controversial conclusion. As the New York Times Goal blog bluntly put it:
Charlies Davies Takes a Dive
Here’s the video. See for yourself:

Now, I admit, even as a United fan, that my first impression of that video was, “wow, that’s a soft call.” I wasn’t prepared to argue that Davies didn’t dive. I’m still not willing to go that far. But all the uproar about the way he won that PK (see the comments here, for example) made me think a little harder about things.

Diving, or “simulation” as the Laws of the Game call it, is one of those things that soccer haters love to throw in the face of soccer fans. Does it happen in soccer? Of course. Does it happen in every other sport? Of course! Should something be done to crack down on the worst offenders? Certainly. Does this incident show that Davies is one of them? Before saying yes, consider two things.

First, for all the hullabaloo about Davies taking a dive, very few people will disagree with the obvious – that Galaxy defender Omar Cummings got beat for speed and put a hand on Davies to slow him down/knock him off balance. So there was contact, but was it enough to send Davies to the turf? Who knows. If anybody was in a position to know, aside from Davies, it was Cummings, who did not react in the typical, “who, me?!” way that so many defenders do in such situations. In fact, he looks like he’s more in the “oh, shit, I fucked up” frame of mind than anything else.

Fact is, while many people try to set up an either/or for every call – either it was a foul or it was a dive – the world simply doesn’t work that way. It’s actually a continuum. On one end are the really obvious fouls. Unearthing the corner flag and hitting the opposing strike upside the head with it, for example (clear red card, I’m sure). On the other end are clear dives, such as when a player with the ball 20 feet from anyone drops like he was shot by a sniper and tries to blame it on a particularly partisan groundhog, only to learn the game’s being played on artificial turf. No argument there, it’s a dive. But in the squishy middle between the two extremes there are lots of situations where two players come together and one goes down where neither a foul nor a dive occurs.

Second, it’s worth wondering whether, if the Davies incident occurred at midfield, anyone would have thought twice about calling a foul on Cummings. I’m guessing not (or at least the grousing would be limited to hard-headed Galaxians), which points to a problem that I think is very real in soccer – rules changing when the game moves into the penalty box. If a player with the ball is fouled in the box, there is only one punishment – a penalty kick, which means an easy goal most of the time.

Refs, and fans, appear lots of time to feel that a foul committed in the box isn’t really “worthy” of a penalty because the punishment is so severe. It’s the same dynamic at work in the courts when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, believe it or not. The penalty in a criminal case if the cops do a bad search is suppression of the evidence in question which, in most cases, means no more case at all. Whatever one thinks of the exclusionary rule as a general idea, the fact that it is a one size fits all penalty leads to situations where it seems like overkill compared to the violation. As a result, courts bend over backwards to not find a Fourth Amendment violation in order to avoid invoking the inevitable penalty.

The same things happens with PKs in soccer all the time. Minor trips and such in the box routinely go unpunished when they would otherwise be fouls elsewhere on the field. There’s a sense that one really has to “earn” a PK. Given that, it’s hard to fault Davies or any other player who goes down in the box on contact. No ref is going to call advantage and wait to see whether a stalwart striker still manages to put the ball in the back of the net. The answer, it seems to me, is to come up with some other option for “minor” fouls in the box, aside from a PK.

In the end, I’m not going to take issue with anyone who thinks Davies dived. It’s a fair reading of the evidence. But it’s not the only reading. And it says more about the sport, life, and the world in general than just whether them damn soccer players are all diving douchebags.

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