Is Diving Ever Morally Justified?

Is Diving Ever Morally Justified?

Ethics, Strategy & The Integrity Of The Game

By Professor Jim Parry (Charles University)

June 10, 2015         U.S Pacific Fleet/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique Exclusive The Philosophy of Sport In Practice Part I: The FIFA World Cup.

It’s been a great game of football – fast, thrilling, end to end, both teams playing well, individuals exhibiting a wide range of effective and exciting skills. Tension rises as the final whistle nears. Then … oops … a striker goes down in the penalty box, as if fouled. Most of the crowd can see that it is a dive, and that no contact was made by the defender, but the referee is deceived and gives a penalty. 1-0, game over. In a trice, the game is won and lost – by a bit of clever and successful play-acting. Doubtless you can think of many ways to fill in names, dates, circumstances and outcomes. Such incidents are not that uncommon. Don’t you think that this seems an unsatisfactory outcome – not only unfair but, in some other way, just … wrong? But, if so, why? What, exactly, is wrong with diving?

The hard case against diving (and, by extension, against all forms of cheating) has been well presented by Cesar Torres (2009): that it threatens the integrity of the game. Football itself is compromised when diving occurs because, like all other games, football is created and regulated by rules, which establish the goal of the game and the means allowed to accomplish it. They prohibit the use of some physical skills (for example, handling the ball, hacking opponents, or diving) in order to test proficiency in a complex set of ball control and kicking skills. Since diving clearly falls outside the means allowed to accomplish the goal of soccer, it undermines what the game is meant to test. That is, divers fail to honour the game’s excellences, instead of cultivating and celebrating them, which is what they are supposed to do.

I agree that ‘illegitimate means’ is the reason why (for example) shirt-pulling threatens the integrity of the game, and is therefore wrong. One player is seeking, by skill and physical prowess, to evade or go past another, and the other is resisting his moves unfairly, by means prohibited by the rule against ‘holding’. Shirt-pulling in this context ruins the possibility that one player’s attacking skills can be tested against another’s defending skills. Rather than the better footballer winning, the better shirt-puller is likely to win, unless detected. Shirt-pulling skills are fine in rugby; but not in football, because football doesn’t test for that.

“Since diving clearly falls outside the means allowed to accomplish the goal of soccer, it undermines what the game is meant to test. That is, divers fail to honour the game’s excellences, instead of cultivating and celebrating them, which is what they are supposed to do”

Think of all those other actions that are outlawed in football – those examples of fouling that introduce illegitimate physical skills, such as hacking, handball, pushing, overguarding at corners, etc. These are all football-like actions, that might have been permitted, if we wanted football to be different. For example, handling skills are treated differently by rugby football, American football, Australian Rules football, and Gaelic football. The hacking code was popular in the 1880s, the tackle from behind was tolerated in the 1960s and shielding the ball was regarded as a kind of obstruction, the goalie had to bounce the ball if he wanted to run until the 1970s, the back-pass pick-up was outlawed in the 1980s, and so on. We make and interpret the rules so as to make the game we want to play and watch.

However, diving is not quite in the same category as shirt-pulling, and we can bring out the difference in two ways.


1)  The Laws of the Game

Firstly, let’s look at diving by considering offences under the laws of the game. Not all offences are fouls. Law 11 covers offside offences (that are not fouls), and Law 12 covers both fouls and misconduct.

Within the category of fouls, we can distinguish three kinds:

– an honest foul is a (fair) tackle or challenge gone wrong (a ‘constitutive skill’ gone wrong). Here there is no intent to foul (although the tackle/challenge is an intentional one). Typically, this brings a free kick.
– an intentional foul, which we regard as more serious, regardless of harm (e.g. intentional hand-ball, tactical fouls, etc), which are not necessarily deceptive – often the player ‘calculates’ that the inevitable punishment is worthwhile. (Of course, the attempt to deceive may often play a role, too – if I can get away with it, so much the better!) Typically, when detected, this brings a yellow card.
– a foul intending harm, which we regard as even more serious.Typically, this brings a straight red card.

Diving, however, is not a foul in any of the above senses, but rather ‘misconduct’. Simulation is mentioned only once in the Laws, when it is defined in Rule 12 as “attempts to deceive the referee by feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled (simulation)”.


2) Simulation

So, secondly, let’s look at diving by considering the wider idea of simulation. Since simulation can only work through successful deception, I shall regard it as an example of an ‘essentially deceptive offence’. Feigning injury or pretending to have been fouled are both forms of deceptive play-acting. These offences are of a very different kind from shirt-pulling.

Diving is not a ‘skill’ that could possibly progress the game (apart from the reward it might bring in the form of time-wasting, an undeserved free kick, or getting an opponent in disciplinary trouble.) That is to say, diving is not a potential footballing skill – it cannot contribute to performance in a footballing sense. The fact that you can gain an advantage by diving is not an objection to the above point, because there are many ways of gaining advantage by cheating that employ non-game-related skills (such as bribing the referee, threatening players, doping, etc.)

Diving, for example, is not a skill that helps in the tussling for position or for the ball. It’s play-acting that negates all reference to the skills of the game. Players who dive are not exhibiting a potential or possibleskill of the game (that we outlaw by rule, so as to distinguish football from, say, rugby) – but rather some play-acting skill that has nothing to do with football. If I decided to take out the opposing centre-back with a machine-gun, this would not best be described as a case of the use of an illegitimate skill, but rather a negation of the game.


Conclusion to be drawn from (1) and (2)

I conclude that diving is a completely different problem from shirt-pulling. It’s wrong for a completely different reason. Shirt-pulling threatens the integrity of the game because it is an example of the use of an illegitimate skill, but diving threatens the integrity of the game because it negates the contest.

“Players who dive are not exhibiting a potential or possible skill of the game (that we outlaw by rule, so as to distinguish football from, say, rugby) – but rather some play-acting skill that has nothing to do with football”

Last week, Celtic went through to the next qualifying round of the Champions League at the expense of Legia Warsaw, who were punished for unintentionally fielding an ineligible player for the last 4 minutes of the second game, having won the tie 6-1 on aggregate. This seems harsh, but eligibility is foundational to competition, such that ineligibility negates the contest. In this case, we have hard documentary evidence of an offence.

So: I too think that there is a hard case against diving, but this is not because it introduces a skill that we come to regard as illegitimate, but rather that it negates all the skills of the game by deception. My best example is that of Rudi Voller’s outrageous dive that won the penalty that won Germany the World Cup in 1990. It was not as though the referee had missed a bit of shirt-pulling in a tussle – this was a full-out con job that made a mockery of the skills contest that had preceded it. However, the hard case holds only for clear cases of genuine diving: that is, when no foul occurred, but was simulated. The problem is that we very often have no hard evidence of an offence. The big question is: when is ‘diving’ really a case of diving?


What is Diving?

When playing football, sometimes we slip or fall. Sometimes we ‘allow’ ourselves to fall, and maybe roll or slide. Sometimes (often!) we are knocked down, bowled over, tackled to the ground. But now, imagine that you have been tripped, but that you could possibly save yourself from falling. Is there a duty to ‘stay on your feet’? If so, to what extent? Or, if fouled by tripping, do you have the ‘right to fall’? Is allowing yourself to fall the same thing as diving?

What about the skill of ‘riding a tackle’? One way to get away from an opponent is to accept his challenge (to ‘allow’ him to make his tackle attempt), confident in your ability to ‘ride’ the tackle, stay on your feet, and continue forward, as his momentum is lost in the tackle. But, sometimes, if you don’t successfully ride the tackle, and you are brought down, accepting a challenge can look like ‘buying a foul’ – leaving your body in the way so as to invite a challenge, and then going easily to ground claiming a foul challenge. So, sometimes, an attempt to ride a tackle looks like a simulation.

Or what about ‘jumping’ (out of the way)? Players often ‘jump’ out of tackles, for reasons of self-preservation. If you see danger arriving, it is best to be ‘in the air’ when it arrives. A foot planted firmly on the turf might translate into a broken leg, so players often jump as injury avoidance. But jumping can easily look like diving, especially if the danger does not arrive quite as expected.

Or what about the ‘clarifying dive’ – an intentional fall or fail that reveals, indicates, claims, exaggerates some contact so as to bring the referee’s attention to a foul he has not (yet) seen? Does this count as a dive?

To my mind, none of the above is a dive. Diving is about pretending that something happened when it didn’t.


Do we ‘know diving when we see it’?

Some people say that, although diving might be difficult to define (so let’s leave that to the philosophers), they know it when they see it. And there’s some evidence for this. For example, Morris and Lewis (1)claim to have identified ‘recognizable traits that can often be observed when a player is diving’, such as:


– a separation in time between the impact and the simulation,
– a lack of ballistic continuity (the player moves further than would be expected from the momentum of the tackle) and
– lack of contact consistency (the player nurses a body part other than where the impact occurred).
– the “Archer’s bow” pose, where the head is tilted back, chest thrust forward, arms raised and both legs bent at the knee to lift both feet off the ground to the rear, is recognized as a characteristic sign of simulation, as the action is counter to normal reflex mechanisms to protect the body in a fall.


However, it seems to me that diving is really quite easy to define. The difficulty lies in recognizing it for what it is. Although deceptive intentions might to some extent be manifest in behaviour, deception would be impossible if it were always simple to detect. (Note the use of the word ‘often’ in the Morris and Lewis claim above.) The whole point is that this is simulation – players are seeking to manifest deceptive behavior, and to avoid its detection.



Torres’ objection is an objection to a game-related skill. The reason why kicking, tripping, pushing, striking, etc., are explicitly mentioned in the rules is that these are actions that are similar to, or close to, those actions required for successful participation in the game. They are prohibited precisely because they are unacceptable versions of (or extensions of) legitimate practices – those which are permitted in order to encourage the exercise of the skills internal to the game. Foulers are still playing football.

Divers, however, are not. They have given up on the idea of winning by playing football, and have taken up play-acting. The wider definition of simulation helps us here. When a player feigns injury (such as acting as if he has been struck in the face), this is an acting skill, not a football skill. When a player pretends to have been fouled, this is also an acting skill, not a football skill.

We object to holding because it is an illegitimate game-related skill that directly interferes with the opponent’s exercise of a legitimate game-related skill. However, diving it is not a game-related skill. It is not a potential footballing skill. It is a strategy for gaining undeserved advantage (undeserved by our exercise of the skills of the game).

If I followed AJ Ayer, and were an emotivist on ethics, I would say: Divers – boo!

Footnotes & References:

(1)  Morris, P.H. and Lewis, D. 2010. Tackling Diving: The Perception of Deceptive Intentions in Association Football (Soccer). Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, March 2010, 34, 1, 1-13

Jim Parry
Jim Parry
Jim Parry is currently visiting Professor at the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport at Charles University in Prague. He has co-authored many books on the philosophy of Sport, particularly Olympic sports. His publications include 'The Olympic Games Explained' (Routledge, 2005) and 'Sport and Spirituality' (Routledge, 2007). You can learn more about the ethics and politics of the Olympics by watching the following lecture, delivered by Professor Parry, at Gresham College, London:
Recent Posts
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search

Italy's Giorgio Chiellini shows his shoulder, claiming he was bitten by Uruguay's Luis Suarez, during their 2014 World Cup Group D soccer match at the Dunas arena in Natal June 24, 2014.  REUTERS/Tony Gentile (BRAZIL  - Tags: SOCCER SPORT WORLD CUP TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY TOPCUP) - RTR3VJOI