Gaming the system - NBC Sports

Gaming the system
Arjen Robben's non-dive typical act among team-sport athletes
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June 30, 2014, 12:15 pm

The biggest sports story in the world over the weekend was probably the foul called when the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben fell to the ground after some sort of tangle with Mexico’s Rafa Marquez. The foul led to the penalty shot that led to the Netherlands' stunning come-from-behind victory over Mexico. Replays, like art, will be interpreted different ways by different people. Many feel sure that Robben took a dive.

Here’s something crazy: Robben would ADMIT taking a dive in the game … but not that one. That’s precious, isn’t it? Robben has a reputation of being — as the superb ESPN announcer and Everton manager Roberto Martinez would say — “fragile.” Even the slightest touch can send him sprawling, especially if he happens to be in the box. This hardly makes him unique among gifted players; you have probably seen the many YouTube videos mocking Cristiano Ronaldo’s diving tendencies, including this classic one: How to dive like Cristiano Ronaldo (a tutorial by a 2-year-old). Neymar is a glorious player; there’s a Neymar Top 5 Dives compilation on YouTube too.

Robben admitted that earlier in the match he had taken one of his Robben flops — “I have to apologize — in the first half I took a dive, and I really shouldn’t do that. That was a stupid, stupid thing to do.” He then insisted that in extra time he really was fouled. And that the sky WAS falling.

Was it a dive?

Well, we can argue about that forever — it does seem that Marquez stepped on his foot, which can be called a foul. And it does seem that Robben then went into a crazy, stretching, “Help! I’ve been shot!” plunge. My guess is that the more orange in your eyes, the less of a dive it seems.

But there’s something else I find more interesting, something seemingly unrelated that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks.

OK, so you will remember at the U.S. Open, Martin Kaymer went into Sunday’s final round with a five-shot lead. No golfer had blown a five-shot lead in almost 100 years — and Kaymer certainly would not blow it. But while we were looking up the history of blown leads, we found that the last man to lose a five-shot lead at the U.S. Open was a golfer you probably never heard of named Mike Brady (not the one busy with three boys of his own). He was a gifted golfer who was sometimes called “King.” He lost the lead to a golfer you probably have heard of — the great Walter Hagen.

There are a million Hagen stories, and we could get sidetracked for days if we start telling them, but I think the one that is representative comes from 1926 when Hagen was to play Leo Diegel in the final match of the PGA Championship, then a match-play tournament. The story has been told many times in many different ways, but the basic plot points are these: Hagen was out partying the night before, like he always did. Hagen is the man credited with the saying, “Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.” When Hagen got back to the hotel the next morning, still teetering, he ran into a startled fan.

“Mr. Hagen, the fan said in disgust. “Do you know that Diegel has been in bed since 10 o’clock last night?”

“Maybe he has been in bed,” Hagen said. “But he hasn’t been sleeping.”

Hagen beat Diegel, of course. That was later. In 1919, Hagen trailed Brady by five shots going into the final round of the U.S. Open. Brady then fell apart. Hagen actually had a putt to win on the 72nd hole and, being Hagen, he stopped the action and and asked for someone to get Brady to come out so he could watch the winning putt go in. Brady did come out, and Hagen lipped out his putt. There would be a playoff.

The night before the playoff, Hagen partied with Al Jolson and others while Brady was in bed, probably not sleeping. Then came the match itself, an 18-hole playoff, and Hagen held the lead by two shots going into the 17th hole. There, though, he hit a miserable shot that got lodged in a mud bank — it was planted so deep in the mud that Hagen might never have found it without the good sportsmanship of his competitor. Brady found the ball and pointed it out. Hagen walked over; he could barely even see the ball in the mud. This was a bad situation. The tournament was suddenly very much in doubt.

What to do next? Walter Hagen was more than just a wonderful golfer … he was a crafty guy, the most successful professional golfer in that age when professionals were viewed as hustlers and amateur golf reigned as respectable golf. According to the book “Sir Walter: Walter Hagen and the Invention of Professional Golf,” Hagen approached officials and declared that his ball must have been stepped on by a spectator — how else could it have lodged so deeply? The problem with that theory was that nobody stood anywhere NEAR that golf ball. So that one didn’t work.

What next? Hagen came up with an ingenious little idea. He announced that he wasn’t sure that this was his golf ball. One of the more obscure rules in golf is that if you are not sure about the identity of the golf ball, you are allowed to pick it up and identify it — this is to prevent players from hitting the wrong golf ball, which is an automatic two-shot penalty.

Of course, the spirit of the rule insists: There must be some doubt about the golf ball’s identity. And in this case, there was almost certainly no doubt. Everybody had seen it fly in that general area. It clearly wasn’t Brady’s ball. Yes, there was the tiniest chance the ball had been lodged there from earlier in the week — but realistically nobody thought that was the case. Hagen was at least 99 percent sure it was his ball, probably 100 percent sure. But the officials could not prevent him from identifying his golf ball if he chose to invoke that rule. He pulled the ball out of the mud, identified it as his ball, replaced it in a way where he could actually hit the ball. He made double bogey on the hole and won the playoff by one shot.

What fascinates me about this story is … it’s only a story because it’s golf. In every other sport, more or less, Hagen would have been EXPECTED to mess around with the rule to gain an advantage.

This is because in other sports, players take little-to-no responsibility for self-officiating. The division is clear. Players play. Officials officiate. Umpires umpire. Only in golf would Walter Hagen’s decision to play the rules to his advantage be viewed as even a little bit shady or unsportsmanlike. We don’t just accept players and coaches to play fast and loose with rules, we often celebrate them for it. We admire NFL coaches who teach their players how to get away with holding. We nod at the craftiness of NBA players who draw a tiny bit of contact on three-point shots so they can get three free throws. This is how the games are played at the highest level.

When we begin playing sports, in the neighborhood, we obviously officiate ourselves. We call our own fouls on the basketball court or soccer pitch. We call our own lines in tennis. We determine ourselves if the defender touched the ball-carrier with two hands or one, we make our own out-safe calls in baseball or kickball or stickball or punchball. This often leads to arguments and sometimes even the abrupt ending of games, but generally speaking we find ways to work it out because it’s more fun to play than to argue.

As time goes on and the stakes get higher, though, we lose that responsibility. Coaches will try to make sure things are fair. That seems the first level. Various lightly trained people will umpire little league games or referee youth soccer. In these situations, the players still have SOME responsibility for keeping the game fair.

But as the umpires get better trained and (presumably) better paid, that responsibility recedes. High school officials are better than youth officials. College officials are better than high school ones. Professionals are expected to be something near perfect. And, of course, in most sports we now have another level above officials — we have instant replay. It becomes the officials and umpires job to call the game, not the players.

When you divide the game like that — when you put ALL the responsibility of keeping a game fair with the umpire, referee, official — the players role changes. He or she now has no culpability whatsoever for keeping the game fair; that’s the official’s job. It gets to the point where even if you KNOW the official made a mistake that benefited you or your team, you are not supposed to say so. It will all even out in the end, or so we tell ourselves.

But it goes even beyond that. It becomes acceptable for the player to try and FOOL the official. It becomes more than acceptable. It becomes part of the game.

This seems most true in soccer, where players flop to the ground repeatedly in order to draw fouls that are not fouls. There’s something I’ve noticed a lot in this World Cup; it might not be new, but defenders will fall down on the ball and put their hands on it. This puts the official in a severe position. If he does not believe the defenseman was fouled — and often they were not — then this is a deliberate handball which should draw a yellow card, perhaps even a red card if it prevented a breakaway. But as a friend of mine says, if a referee ever ACTUALLY gave out a yellow card on one of these plays, it would be a worldwide incident. So the referee always just calls it a foul, even if he suspects the defender dived.

But this diving stuff is true in every sport. The NBA has put in anti-diving rules, which seem to have helped some. In the NFL, punters will dive if anyone happens to get anywhere near them, but also defensive linemen will often exaggerate an action in order to show the referee that they are being held. In baseball, players will pretend to get hit by pitches when they were not. There are all manners of subtle and not-so-subtle referee-delusion in the NHL. Then it isn’t just diving. College coaches try to intimidate officials into giving them favorable calls — it’s called “working the ref” and it’s absolutely expected. Catchers try to get umpires to call outside pitches strikes by subtly moving their glove over the plate and holding it there; this is called “framing pitches” and it’s an art form. Tennis players have long tried to get an advantage by browbeating the umpire.

Well, what else can you expect when the players are told that they bear almost no accountability for the game being played in a fair way? Roberto Martinez clearly thought Robben dived but, at the same time, credited him for putting the referee in a position where he had to make a decision. This is at the heart of our games; only Robben knows for sure if he dived. But the sport does not ask him to take any responsibility for that. The sport asks a referee to make his best guess.

Golf has cheating too, of course, and it has people who cynically bend the rules to gain an advantage. Human nature is human nature. But for the most part, golf is a sport judged by conscience. At the highest level, there are countless examples of players turning themselves in for some minor violation or gallantly accepting a penalty that seems absurd and extreme. At the 1968 Maters, golfer Robert De Vicenzo lost his chance at a playoff because he signed a scorecard (added bp by Tommy Aaron) that gave a him a score one shot higher than he actually had. His self-effacing response (“What a stupid I am!”) is legendary in the annals of sportsmanship.

Every now and again, you will hear people talk about how golf should lighten up on some of these rules or it should spend more time sending out rules officials or supervising the game using modern technology. But I like what Tom Watson has to say about that. He says that golf is special BECAUSE it has those sometimes onerous rules and because the game largely relies on the players’ honor. The penalty for cheating is knowing that you cheated. In golf, for most, that’s still a penalty.

I think of the line in “Quiz Show” where Dick Goodwin is telling the story of an uncle who told his wife about this affair he’d had years before.

“Why did you tell her?” Goodwin had said to his uncle. “You got away with it.”

And his uncle said: “It was the ‘getting away with it’ part that I couldn’t live with.”

Did Arjen Robben get away with something? Only he knows for certain. I suspect he’ll have no trouble living with it.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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