Why we tolerate soccer dives and political lies

July 1, 2014, at 7:05 AM

I like soccer plenty, but it took me a while to get diving: Why it works so well, why it's so tolerated, and why even when the best players in the world, like Ronaldo, are famous floppers.

There are floppers in every sport. But flopping in soccer has reached pro-wrestling proportions.

So: a player wants to work the ref. Refs will give free kicks to players who have been tripped, or otherwise physically fouled. There's only one ref. It makes sense, if diving is tolerated, for players to dive in just about every circumstance imaginable. No instant replay. No challenges. The rules encourage performance. Cheating.

What happens when Player A comes into contact with Player B: first, the player calls attention to himself by throwing his arms up. This happens regardless of whether the player has been legitimately knocked down or is teetering. Then, if the player is indeed standing, he will fall down. Actually, he will flop down, because the action he's taking requires more kinetic energy than the potential energy created by the foul. Then, he will grab his head, even if his leg was clipped. Then, he'll grab his knees. Then, he will roll. Once, maybe. Twice, sometimes. Then, he will cry out like a kitten looking for its mother.

Referees can penalize players for obvious dives. But from a distance, a trip looks like a trip. Refs realize that they're going to get some calls wrong, but I couldn't imagine, given how seriously the sport is taken, why, aside from some token adjustments, no league or international body really cares.

It turns out that my general ignorance of the culture of soccer is to blame: Dives are a fundamental part of the sport. They're so fundamental, so critical to strategy and tactics, even, that change will never come. This type of cheating, in other words, is normal.

Politics I know something about, and an hour doesn't pass where politicians and sausage makers don't dive in some form of another. The ref, here, is you. You get to vote, so you're the one who must be influenced dishonestly. Consider:

- Those outraged emails you get from interest groups seeking money. (The level of actual outrage felt by everyone who writes them is much lower than the email text implies, because if not, the number of high-profile politicians who fall victim to on-the-job heart attacks would jump.)

(Here's the subject line of one, from Rep. Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida. "Our Party. Our Country. Our Last Chance." There's no way in the world that could be true. But... )

- Deliberately taking different positions on one issue in a primary, and then changing your mind when the electorate is larger and more moderate.

- Dogwhistling: using code words and phrases to incite, energize, or annoy.

- Using Congressional staff for political and campaign purposes. (This type of cheating will be basically endorsed by every member of Congress in a tight race. They'll dispatch staffers to their home states, and the staffers will basically spend 90 percent of their time working on the re-election.)

- Not admitting to being human (i.e., doing things for political reason).

Hannah Arendt understood that truthfulness was not part of what constituted political virtue. The ability to generate and sustain conflict is much more politically virtuous, and practitioners of politics are more likely to reward unrepentant liars than truthful mediocrities. What's interesting is that after hundreds of years of politics, the public does not seem to agree that truth and politics lie in separate spheres — or that the successful practice of politics is incompatible with the truth. Our Bulworth fantasies remain vivid.

A political scientist, Martin Jay, has postulated a number of reasons as to why we prize truth and don't reward it. Here's one:

Our major parties are composed of loose coalitions and fragile alliances that need to rally around a candidate or a platform, even though there is a great deal of residual competition and even hostility. The public knows that enemies in primary fights, who accuse each other of the most unforgivable sins, will unite to face a common foe, quickly forgetting the accusations they made in the heat of the previous battle. At some point, either before or after the alliance is forged, someone is varnishing, if not utterly betraying the truth of what they believe and feel. But we give them a pass because we know that a genuine consensus based on rational deliberation is highly unlikely, and yet democratic politics requires building a winning coalition. Built into the process, in other words, is a meta-level understanding that truth-telling is not always the best policy in even the most democratic of political contexts. [The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics]

There are truths, in other words, with different sized orbits. Often, smaller untruths can combine to create a machine that works towards a "genuine" truth.

It may also be that we lack the tools as citizens to incentivize politicians differently.

Or perhaps, as in soccer, the ubiquitous lying and cheating might simply get us off. It's what makes us participate in the first place.






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