Retroactive Bans Won't Stop Diving in Soccer

Under a new rule, diving that results in a penalty or red card will be punished with two-match retroactive bans. But the benefits of flopping still outweigh the costs.

by Aaron Gordon
May 22 2017, 1:15pm

On Thursday, the Football Association approved retroactive bans for diving if it results in a penalty or red card. If a three-person panel—consisting of a former referee, player, and manager—unanimously agrees on the dive, the offender will receive a two-match ban.

The theory behind this shift is sound. The current benefit of diving, particularly in the penalty area, far outweighs the costs. Best case: penalty and an almost assured goal. Neutral case: no call, play on. Worst case (which also happens to be the least frequent outcome): foul and yellow card for diving. Increasing the cost of diving should reduce its frequency.

Problem is, the cost-benefit balance of diving is so far in favor of taking a fall that a few retroactive bans are unlikely to change much. It's worth noting just how insanely effective diving is, in part because it's insanely safe. In a 2011 study, researchers analyzed 2,800 falls in 60 professional soccer matches across 10 professional leagues. Among the findings: approximately six percent of the time a player goes to ground, he is diving, and referees reward dives approximately one-third of the time. (The area of the pitch and the score drastically affect those percentages).

The study also found that of the 169 observed dives, none were punished by the referee. That sounds about right, considering only a handful of yellow cards are given for diving in any Premier League season. Meanwhile, seven players were called for diving when they did not, in fact, dive. So, according to this study, a player is more likely to be punished for diving when they don't dive than when they do. The study also provided ample evidence that players respond to the game situation. They dive more when the score is tied or their teams are losing, and if they are in or near the box.

Oh, the humanity. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of dynamics at play here that are worth considering. The study cited above was using diving to test signaling theory, which dictates that the more common diving becomes, the less effective it will be. It's basically a technical way of saying referees will get sick of the players' shit. But, to the authors' surprise, this was not the case. The more players dove, the more effective it was.

What this suggests, at least to me—as well as soccer writer Mike Goodman—is that diving is simply so rewarding that players don't do it enough, even in the leagues where they dive more frequently. Players should be diving more. A lot more.

And this is why retroactive bans won't—and don't—curtail diving. The Scottish FA has been able to retroactively punish divers since 2011-12, and according to the BBC, this has had a negligible effect. MLS has long been able to hand out fines and suspensions for diving, but anyone who watches an MLS match would be hard-pressed to notice a substantive difference in diving when compared to the EPL. Players still go down quickly on any semblance of contact in or near the box.

This brings up one final point to consider, which is really the crux of the issue: what, exactly, is diving? Is it when a player goes down with no contact at all, or if he goes down easily from contact that didn't truly impede his movement? The Laws of the Game are unclear about this, as the only definition of a "simulation" is an attempt to deceive the referee, which leaves it open to interpretation.

Consider something striker Scott McDonald had on BBC Scotland radio about getting called for a dive:

"It's a split-second, it's not even really a decision. There will be occasions where you know you are not going to get the ball on the other side. If there is fair contact made then you're well within your rights in the law of the game to take the contact."

The vast majority of "dives" are like this. A player knows they've lost control of the attack and is looking for contact, gets it, and then goes down. Moments like these are nearly impossible to legislate out of the game because they're nearly indistinguishable from genuine fouls. Hell, according to the rulebook, they are genuine fouls. Until that fundamental problem is fixed, diving will continue, no matter what happens after the game.

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