A three-person committee quietly assesses after each week of the season what amounts to the biggest in-game ethics violation plaguing college football. They watch movies of players pulling muscles, breaking bones and sustaining concussions.
Then they have to decide whether what they just saw was real or not.
The little-known group was put together in the off-season by the NCAA Football Rules Committee as the next evolution in the fight against flopping. The term refers to the practice of faking injuries, usually on the part of a defense with the hope of delaying a counterattack.
The tactic has been around for years. It’s wrong, distasteful and against the rules.
Don’t try to convince yourself – or anyone else – that you really did it seen flop.
“It’s just hard to prove with any degree of certainty,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, a current board member of the American Football Coaches Association.
That lasting uncertainty gnaws at the spit. It is incredibly difficult to accurately measure flop intent. Forget counting offenses as if they were penalties on a stat sheet.
Then there’s the ethics of flopping. Some coaches like Shaw wouldn’t practice the craft if their buyout depended on it. Others clearly enjoy the tactic, installing it in secret and breaking out a refined version to mislead opponents and officials on Saturday.
The game’s overseers literally raise their hands in frustration at what to do.
“I say this and I mean it,” said Steve Shaw, national duty coordinator and NCAA secretary-editor of the rules committee. “If you’re in bed tonight and come up with the perfect solution, give me a call — because we’re looking for it.”
Flopping is an accepted subterfuge in football. Defenders in basketball are rewarded for drawing sometimes embellished charging errors, although that sport has tried to ban this from the game.
In American football, flopping is a version of cheating – or not – that is almost unique to the college version of the game. That raises questions about whether a young athlete is actually injured.
“Is [flopping] good for college football?” Penn State coach James Franklin asked rhetorically earlier this month.
The answer is reflected in the work of that small committee set up in the off-season to deal with flopping. It consists of Steve Shaw and two others he will not name. Their job is to assess potential flop situations and alert the athletic director of the offending school if necessary.
That’s happened twice this season, which speaks to the gray area of defining flops. Any punitive measure taken against a coach is up to the AD.
“What does it look like? What does it look like? There’s never anything absolute. You can’t watch a video and know with absolute certainty, but you have a pretty good idea,” Shaw explained.
That was the reaction ahead of the 2021 season, when the NCAA Rules Committee deemed flopping a point of emphasis. Flopping, as stated in the NCAA rulebook, is officially referred to as “sham injury.” It is considered a violation of “The Football Code”. Rule 5B under the heading “Injury Timeout” says that “faking an injury” is unfair, unsportsmanlike and unethical.
The topic came up again this month in the Penn State-Iowa and Ole Miss-Tennessee contests. In every game, Iowa and Tennessee fans would sometimes boo when an opponent went down.
That’s why Franklin got so emotional. In that game, a 23-20 Penn State loss, he saw starting quarterback Sean Clifford (for that game) and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher (for the season) sustain legitimate injuries.
“In my 12 years as head coach, that has [flopping] show up?” an excited Franklin asked reporters after the game. Franklin is also a member of the AFCA’s Ethics Committee.
So why does flopping – and the discussion surrounding it – seem so widespread? Give coaches an opening and they will exploit it.
In any case, the ‘strategy’ goes back to the development of up-tempo offenses this century. A few years ago, in response to those hasty offenses, Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “Is this what we want the game to be?”
Not too long after that, Saban became one of the leading practitioners of the uptempo offensive that seeks to combat flopping.
“[Flopping] has resurfaced in the last few years after almost disappearing for a few years,” said David Shaw. “I haven’t seen it that often in the Pac-12, but it’s more common.”
As early as 2010, former California defensive assistant Tosh Lupoi was banned for instructing players to fake injuries. In 2013, then-Washington coach Steve Sarkisian accused Stanford of doing the same. David Shaw reacted angrily.
“We don’t do fake injuries. We never have. We never will,” he said in October. “I don’t care what Steve Sarkisian thinks he saw.”
In recent years, rules have been developed to give defenses time to replace if hasty offenses switch personnel immediately. The response was that fouls were simply tied to what they had on the field to tire the defense.
But flopping has never left the public consciousness. And when it was blatant, the result is a general disconnect from the Internet.
Booing seems to be the latest wrinkle in defining flops. For some fans, it has gotten to the point where they simply assume that the opponent is going down on purpose.
“Basically, fans are pretty smart people, aren’t they?” said Steve Shaw. “They recognize whether there is a sham injury; there they start screaming. Now it is just handed over to [that’s the default reaction even if players are actually injured].”
There is no general agreement on whether the number of flops will increase, but there is a consensus that something needs to be done, probably as early as the 2022 season. That has been an active year for the Rules Committee, which only makes major changes every two years .
Shaw’s committee was established as a general initiative to allow conferences to address issues this season. Steve Shaw and David Shaw, plus AFCA Director Todd Berry, all agreed player and/or coach suspensions could be the next step as early as 2022.
“We kind of demanded that we take action on something along those lines,” Berry said. “If there is no accountability and no consistency, then there is no rule.”
Aside from those suspensions, there is a general rule that will keep players out of a certain amount of play if they go down. Players must already finish a game when their helmet comes off. What would happen if a quarterback who twists an ankle and goes down — but can still play — would have to sit out four plays with one minute left in a tie under the rule?
Steve Shaw is concerned that players will go through real injuries to avoid having to sit out because of the perception of flopping. For now, he and his committee meet every week to establish the true definition.
One thing is certain: Faking injuries remains a moving target.
“We haven’t reached the sweet spot yet,” Shaw said. “It’s very difficult to find the right place.”
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