As I have noted here before, for me the World Cup always brings with it a wealth of nationalist material to reflect upon—and this go-round has certainly not disappointed so far. The latest point of interest for me is this analysis by Sam Borden, which builds a case for American (and, incidentally, Anglo-) exceptionalism upon Fred’s shameless, yet effective flop in Brazil’s opening match against Croatia. Apparently, according to Borden, Americans just are not good at cheating, since their natural and national sense of fair-play and determination prevents them from doing what most of the rest of the world does—namely, flopping or diving, that is, either manufacturing a foul by falling or, more frequently, by exaggerating the results of contact with another player in order to elicit a foul-call by the referee. Citing current US Men’s National Team assistant and former player Tab Ramos’s statement that “the American nature is to make everything fair,” Borden presents this inherent American honesty as a sort of noble burden.
Borden’s turn to World Cup diving to shore up an American exceptionalist position is coupled with a second, intriguing exception to the alleged global rule that soccer players dive without scruples—America’s former colonial master, England, also proves to be literally too upright to dive. Citing Simon Kuper’s argument in Soccernomics that “the long refusal of English players to dive” has hindered them from winning, and that they should have learned from “Continental Europeans” how to win penalty calls through theatrics, Borden paints a portrait of Anglo-American players as the last bastions of honest, straight-shooting, ethical competition, with their World Cup chances dim in the face of a globe that is otherwise filled with shameless thespians who will dive at a moment’s notice.
Besides being tiresome in its nationalist, utterly anecdotal assessment about American (and, in its ancestral earlier form, English) culture being somehow too honest and courageous to include diving in its soccer strategies, as well as in its reiteration of the truism that soccer is not the top sport in America because its alleged uniqueness in inviting flopping goes against a masculinist and upright American spirit, Borden’s article simply seems grossly uninformed about American sports. For one thing, flopping is as deeply ingrained in NBA basketball as it is in international soccer, with my favorite video evidence of this being the official 2012-13 NBA video explaining the different types of thespian activity that would incur fines. When Borden cites Kyle Martino using “taking a charge” in basketball as an example when he argues that no other American sport makes an athlete risk being condemned for cheating, it became clear to me that neither Martino nor Borden watches must basketball: “taking a charge” more often than not is perceived as flopping, and the NBA’s flopping problem has become so epidemic as to have finally inspired a fine system. This May 2, 2006 article by Patrick Hruby gives a nicely amusing assessment of NBA flopping traditions, while this December 31, 2013 Ric Bucher article updates recent developments in NBA players’ increasingly unabashed dramatic flair. The steroid scandals that have made the baseball record books become filled with very damning asterisks also speak strongly against Borden’s nostalgic, nationalist imagination of American sports as an oasis of fair play in a world—again, except for our stalwart cousins in England—beset by Machiavellian trickery and athletes who are primarily actors.
While I am never surprised to hear and see nationalist sentiments voiced by fans in stadiums and bars and living rooms throughout the World Cup—and indeed I rather think that events like the World Cup and the Olympics might in some ways be a fairly innocuous, if not very healthy outlet for patriotic passions, given how small the stakes seem to actually be for anyone but the players and management involved—I was quite shocked to see this sort of impressionistic, and—dare I say—jingoistic analysis in the New York Times. Perhaps things will prove to be precisely as Borden imagines it to be on the pitch throughout the rest of the tournament—and stone-faced, always upright American players will mirror their English counterparts, as the lone ethical sportsmen in a World Cup peopled otherwise by shifty foreigners whose victories will always be tainted by their theatrics—but somehow I doubt this. And I do think the sort of analysis Borden offers can be very unsavory, feeding xenophobia. In terms of NBA coverage, we can see this in the frequent claim, seen in this NBA news brief and in Bucher’s piece, each of which speaks of those who link the increase of flopping with the increase in the number of “international players,” that flopping is something that is particularly prevalent among foreigners, whose presence threatens to infect otherwise upright Anglo-American athletes. The New York Times might exercise a bit more care in giving sports analysts free rein in discussing ethnonational dispositions.