Here’s a sports riddle for you: What do Derek Jeter, Greg Paulus, and Jon Scheyer have in common?
They cheat openly and unabashedly, in a way that is further eroding the integrity of their respective sports.
By now everyone has heard about Derek Jeter’s shenanigans during a critical late season game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Locked in a fierce battle for the American League East division title, Jeter took a seventh inning inside pitch off the bat handle with the bases empty. His team trailing 2-1 and seeing a free pass to first base in the making, Jeter immediately dropped the bat and treated the crowd to an extended, Oscar-worthy performance. He doubled over, grasped his arm, grimaced, and hopped in apparent extreme pain. Even the Yankees’ team trainer got in on the act as he dutifully tended to the “injured” star, methodically palpating for broken bones.
Even as replays clearly exposed the farce, Jeter ambled down to first base, having successfully sold his “hit by pitch” ploy to the umpires. Because there are no replay reviews in baseball, the umpires’ fraudulently induced decision was final. To make matters worse, the next batter homered, and suddenly the Yankees went from one down to one up. Ironically, the only person who received punitive action from the affair was Devil Rays’ manager, Joe Maddon, who was promptly ejected for, or all things, protesting the call.
To his credit, in post-game interviews, Jeter was unabashed in acknowledging his chicanery. When asked what the ball hit, he calmly responded, “The bat.” Jeter went on to justify his admitted fraud. “What can I do?” he asked. “My job is to get on.” It was a classic ends justify the means analysis. As long as I reach base, the reasoning goes, I have done my job – regardless of whether I reach it legitimately or illegitimately, honorably or dishonestly.
Was Jeter a cheat or a sneak? Was it a heads-up, savvy play or a shameless, cheap ploy that will forever tarnish Jeter’s good guy image? These and related questions have percolated during the weeks since.
While opinions have gone both ways, most Americans are troubled by what Jeter pulled off. Sixty percent of respondents to a CBS Sports poll found it a dirty play with no place in baseball. Greg Eno in the Bleacher Report acknowledged that baseball players have pushed the envelope for years, some with spitballs, some by stealing signs. Eno, however, distinguished Jeter’s con job as a form of cheating that has no place in baseball. “What Jeter did id in Tampa on Wednesday was a blatant attempt to hoodwink an umpire,” Eno wrote. “And it worked.”
To me, it is not a close call. We are not talking here about a missed false start, an uncalled push under the basket, or a missed pass interference call. Those are all missed calls by officials, which no doubt are part of the game. Jeter’s “play” is not in this category, nor is it comparable to a fielder’s “deke” or to a fake punt in football. Tricking the opponent is indeed part of the game that is to be expected. But to con an official by completely feigning contact is a dishonest act to its core. It’s the same concept as faking a fall in a grocery store for the purpose of recovering an undeserved cash settlement. Jeter’s fraud was, in short, a shakedown completely devoid of integrity.
But there is a larger story here that is escaping the sports public. Why are so many people so offended by what Jeter did when the same grossly dishonest conduct has polluted college basketball for years? I am referring here to the growing practice of faking contact by opponents for the purpose of duping game officials into calling fouls and obtaining an undeserved trip to the free throw line.
While all schools make use of this cheap tactic, none does it more frequently or more extremely than Duke University. Three years ago, Duke point guard Greg Paulus became the poster child for this bush-league scam. As his team was losing its first round tournament game to underdog Virginia Commonwealth, Paulus, while attempting to defend a three-on-one fast break, slid laterally towards the path of a VCU player. Even though the offensive player dished the ball to a teammate and avoided all contact, Paulus contorted his body and fell over backwards at the official’s feet. From this pathetic display came a youtube clip, complete with canned laughter, that will forever live in basketball infamy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0upQDkY-pg&NR=1
Paulus’ fraud failed to elicit a foul call because the absence of contact was simply too obvious. Usually, however, the fast pace and bang-bang nature of the play prompt officials to call an offensive foul. The Duke team is so thoroughly trained to resort to this regularly rewarded tactic that it is common so see Duke players fall anywhere on the court – near the basket, at mid-court, in the backcourt, sometimes while the offensive player is simply dribbling laterally, making no effort to move towards the basket.
This practice of faking contact, or grossly exaggerating the effects of negligible contact, by falling over is known in basketball parlance as “flopping.” It is, in all relevant respects, the basketball equivalent of what Derek Jeter accomplished with his histrionics.
Duke is one of the few teams to put flopping to offensive – pardon the pun – use. J.J. Redick debuted the ploy during a game at UNC when he ascended for a mid-range jumpshot, which he made over light resistance from Bobby Frasor. After releasing the ball, Redick jerked his body as if overtaken by a violent seizure and plopped loudly onto the floor. Replays showed no contact, other than perhaps a grazing of Frasor’s leg, which Redick himself initiated as he straddled his legs in an effort to “draw the foul.” This infamous play was again captured by youtube at the following address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqBtrVXyDdM&NR=1
From there, later Duke players perfected the fraudulent play with far greater success. Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer forged their careers around it. Both players habitually straddled their legs and held their shooting arms extended long after the shot so as to maximize the opportunity for any contact with defenders. With the slightest brush, Scheyer and Paulus would fall to the floor, only to be rewarded with free throws, usually three. Unlike Jeter, Scheyer reached the point where he did not even sell the contact persuasively. Instead, he would essentially sit down, slowly, as if even he realized he was going too far.
Jeter’s con-job was bad enough inasmuch as it gave him an undeserved base. But the consequences of the basketball counterpart are far more dire. The successful flop results in a turnover and, more importantly, a foul on the opposing player. When executed by the offense, the play sends the player to the free throw line, where ninety percent shooters like Scheyer thrive.
In fairness, Duke is far from the only offender. Wisconsin seems well-schooled in the flop, and virtually all teams resort to it from time to time. Robert Horry and Dennis Rodman before him, took flopping to notorious levels in the NBA. But no other school regularly resorts to such blatantly fraudulent displays, particularly on the offensive end of the court. Why the sports public has accepted this dishonest play is beyond me.
Large, growing segments of American sports fans despise the Yankees and Duke basketball. Defenders routinely attribute the enmity to sheer jealously. Dick Vitale and many others suggest that people hate Duke for the same reason they hate the Yankees: because they win. Thanks to Derek Jeter, we now see the true common denominator.