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Don’t hate LeBron for flopping; hate him because he’s bad at flopping

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/23/2016 Dan Steinberg
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Just about every time Jose Lobaton appears in a Nats game, the team’s TV announcers praise his ability to frame pitches. What they really mean is this: “Jose Lobaton is a liar.”

“Pitch framing is when a catcher makes borderline pitches on the edges of the strike zone appear to be in the zone,” our Neil Greenberg wrote when dissecting Lobaton’s powers of deception. What this really means: Pitch framing is trying to convince a flawed official that he saw something he didn’t actually see. This is dishonest at its core, intentionally fiddling with visuals to deceive a sport’s arbiters and gain an unearned advantage. It’s essentially a combination of acting, lying, begging, and cheating; something that runs contrary to the ethos of idealized American sports; and, as with any other instance of rule-bending or dark artistry, you just wish people wouldn’t pretend it works any other way.

Okay, time out. This, of course, is absurd. Pitch-framing is not lying; it’s attempting to manipulate your body to get a more favorable ruling from a fallible official. It’s the same thing as a wide receiver scooping up a short-hopped pass, and then making the “that’s a catch!” motion or trying to get to the line of scrimmage for a quick snap. Have you ever seen a receiver who short-hopped a catch then tell the official “Nah, I didn’t really grab it.” Or a hockey player who contorts his body to get onside then tell an official, “No, I didn’t really make it back.” Or a catcher who earned a strike on a slider well off the plate then tell the umpire “Nah, that wasn’t really a strike.” Manipulating your body to earn a favorable call — pretending something happened that didn’t really happen — is just an accepted part of sports.

Unless you’re a basketball player who falls down after less-than-lethal contact. Then you’re a flopper.

(Before you throw rotten tomatoes at me: yes, flopping is illegal, while those other things are not. The NBA in 2012 outlawed “any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player,” when a player’s “physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact.” By this definition, every drawn charge in the history of organized basketball was a flop.)

Look, I used to stew over LeBron James’s theatrics. Something like 40 percent of Washington’s animosity toward James from 2006-2008 stemmed from his tendency to fling his body to the ground every time Brendan Haywood exhaled in his direction. “They want to hurt LeBron James,” he memorably said.

Still, as yet another NBA spring focuses on yet another LeBron James flop, I’ve been reconsidering. Maybe some flopping is fine. It’s no different than framing a pitch or trying to sell a non-catch as a catch. An Argentinian pal once told me his friends would scoff at a soccer player who refused to exaggerate contact; such a player wouldn’t be thought of as noble or high-minded, but as someone who didn’t care about winning.

(This is possibly the Slate-iest thing I’ve ever written. And indeed, a decade ago, Slate published a piece titled “Why Diving Makes Soccer Great.”)

(Although the real Slate-ist thing I’ve ever wanted to write would be this: Isn’t it just amazing how many people were horrified at the two horses who died at Pimlico on Saturday, but less horrified by the tens of thousands of fans at the race track eating chicken strips and hamburgers? Why is it so sad that Homeboykris died on the track at the age of 9, but not at all sad that Kelly the Chicken and Sammy the Cow were slaughtered so they could be sold, with fries, to people wearing flamboyant blazers and drinking overpriced cocktails? Homeboykris at least made it to middle age, in horse years. Sammy the Cow would have been thrilled to live ’til middle age, instead of wasting his young life just to be made into some cheap racetrack hamburgers. Mourn for Sammy, just as much as you mourn for Homeboykris. Now that’s the Slate-ist thing I’ve ever wanted to write.)

But while logic tells us to be cool about flopping, we are decidedly not cool about flopping. James, as you know, took a blow to the face during Game 3 against the Raptors, and went down possibly harder than he needed to, manipulating his body in an effort to earn an edge. How was he to know the blow came from a teammate?

This was just like Flyers forward Ryan White in the first round of the playoffs, recoiling in pain when his own teammate’s stick hit him in the face, thus earning a power play for his team. White’s instinct was to throw his head back when he got hit in the face with a stick;  James’s instinct was to grab his head and go down when he got hit in the face with an arm. Both were helping their teams.

No matter. The mockery poured down.







Why does LeBron’s flopping draw such an angry response? In part it’s because of his physical makeup. He’s a Greek God, but a stray finger turns him into a Greek salad, like lettuce in the wind. It’s one thing for a poor college kid to snag a free refill at McDonald’s, but it’s another thing for a lobbyist with a seven-figure salary to do so. Like my editor Matt argued, this is LeBron’s physical superiority working against him: Steph Curry’s flops are kind of cute, while James’s are an outrageous affront to the system.

Also, framing a pitch is a positive action, trying to turn a bad pitch into something better. Taking a dive is the reverse, trying to turn an acceptable bump into something more egregious. So fans (and writers) are turned off by the game’s most physically dominant player playing the victim card against lesser opponents, because it feels unsporting.

Still, you could argue that every player should grab every advantage he can, optics be damned. That refusing to react after a blow to your head is the same thing as keeping your catching glove off the plate when a slider slides wide: good sportsmanship to the point of self-harm.

The bigger issue is that some floppers are like Lobaton: subtle and effective at their craft. LeBron James, on the other hand, is horribly obvious at this dark art; he’s overly dramatic, unsubtle, and not effective at all. He grabs his face with too much agony, tumbles to the ground with too many flailing limbs, and makes you focus on his absurd reaction more than the cause of it, which defeats the whole point. LeBron James is very bad at flopping, in other words, which is something different from flopping being very bad.

“Everybody sells calls,” admitted Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll, who has criticized the officiating in this series. Of course they do. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be trying to win. Until there are robot officials, there will be athletes who manipulate their bodies in an effort to make those human officials think they saw something they didn’t actually see. That’s not ignoble dishonesty; that’s just playing sports.

(Note: For some reason, I still hate flopping. That means I probably don’t believe any of this. But it makes logical sense, so I’m not sure why I don’t. Probably because there’s some weird idealized notion of toughness that isn’t offended by a wide receiver pretending he caught a pass he didn’t actually catch, but which is affected by LeBron James pretending to be hurt worse than he actually is. I’m gonna try to reprogram my mind.)

LeBron James falls down. © By Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP LeBron James falls down.
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