June 2013

Out on a limb: Flop watch

Jordana-twitterJordana Bieze Foster, Editor

Mark Cuban, the brash billionaire owner of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Dallas Mavericks, has pledged $100,000 to fund a study to determine if biomechanical analysis can distinguish legitimate falls during a basketball game from “flops.” The perfectionist in me really likes this idea. But the pragmatist in me wonders whether there might be better uses for that money.

As a basketball fan, I’ve always hated flopping—when a player melodramatically hits the floor, writhes, and grimaces in order to convince the referees he was the victim of a foul that in fact did not occur. Flopping is unsportsmanlike, it wastes referees’ time, it interferes with the flow of the game, and it creates a “boy who cried wolf” situation in which legitimate injuries may not be taken seriously.

It’s a big enough problem that this past season, NBA commissioner David Stern established a system by which video of all potential flops would be reviewed retrospectively and fines issued to players deemed to have taken a dive.

But those reviews are far from scientific. Cuban apparently is hoping that the biomechanists at Southern Methodist University in Dallas will use his funds, along with existing knowledge of the biomechanics of falls in the elderly and other nonathlete populations, to come up with a more accurate way to distinguish a flop from a fall that actually resulted from a hard foul.

I like that idea, I really do. Too much of basketball is subject to the referees’ interpretation as it is. The less subjective you can make the game, the better. And given flopping’s high profile at the moment, the investment comes off as a good public relations move for Cuban.

But if I had an extra $100,000 to spend on biomechanics research that would improve the game of basketball, that’s not how I would spend it.

Why aren’t we hearing about Mark Cuban’s investments in research to help prevent anterior cruciate ligament injuries, or ankle sprains, or plantar fasciitis, or to help return injured players to their former level of excellence? It seems to me that keeping athletes healthy is perhaps more important, both for basketball as a sport and for basketball as a business, than increasing the accuracy with which we can penalize a player for his dramatic skills. An investment of $100,000 might not be a lot of money to someone with Cuban’s deep pockets, but in the world of biomechanics research that kind of funding is a big deal, and in the right hands could lead to some significant advances.

In the world of reality television, Mark Cuban is one of the featured “sharks” who have the option to invest in hopeful entrepreneurs on ABC’s Shark Tank. On the show, Cuban portrays himself as a selective investor, regularly disdaining undocumented products featuring magnets, nutraceuticals, or other examples of what he calls “pseudoscience.” But every once in a while, he will make what appears to be an impulsive investment that leaves the other billionaire sharks shaking their heads.

Maybe investing in flopping research will turn out to have a big payoff. But my guess is that, unfortunately, it will turn out to be more of an impulse buy.

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