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Game Theory in Professional Sports: Flopping

How Sports Flopping Illustrates The Prisoner’s Dilemma – Game Theory Tuesdays

In contact sports, drawing a foul has clearly, as of late, become a habitual practice of many athletes. A foul can be defined as any player’s action that violates the rules of the game, ranging from unintentionally colliding with another player to deliberately shoving them to slow their play. When a player draws a foul in Soccer, he or she either gains possession of the ball, or is rewarded with a free kick. Similarly, in Basketball, if a player draws a foul, he or she may gain possession of the ball, or be granted free throws. In the context of both sports, the motivation for a player to draw a foul is obvious to say the least; doing so puts them at an advantage in the game. The benefits to be reaped from being fouled in some cases, have encouraged certain athletes to act and pretend as if they have been the victims of an illegal act of some sort, so as to deceive referees into presenting them with an advantage of some sort as a penalty to the supposed perpetrator. The practice of misleading game officials as such is referred to as “flopping”. Flopping is not a strategy without risk; if a player is caught flopping, they are often penalised, in many cases with a some sort. As a pastime, many sports fans enjoy watching compilations of athletes such as Lebron James or Christiano Ronaldo diving, hopping, and slipping in hopes of getting away with drawing a foul. What a casual sports fan may not realize, however, is the complexity and conflict of incentives involved in flopping.

The success or failure of flopping is dependent on uncertain conditions. The article, “How Sports Flopping Illustrates The Prisoner’s Dilemma – Game Theory Tuesdays,” analyses this uncertainty whilst considering game theory. Game Theory is a concept that can be used to analyse competitive situations in which the actions of individuals affects the outcomes for one another. For the purposes of this evaluation, it should be noted that in situations in which both players involved in contact in a play flop, it is typically more obvious that they are acting, and hence more likely that they are both penalised. Suppose player A and player B make physical contact in an in-game scenario. Both players have the option to brush off the contact and continue player as per the rules of the game. At the same time, however, either player has the option to flop, which if successful, would put them at an advantage. The flopping would only be successful, however, only if the other player would choose not to flop, which would put the latter at a disadvantage. In the scenario that both players flop, they would both be put at a disadvantage and penalised. If a player knows another player is going to flop, they would have the incentive to flop as well,  given that if he or she didn’t do anything the other would gain advantage, as it would ensure that neither of them gain advantage over the other. Such can be illustrated more clearly in the diagram below (derived from article).

*Player B’s outcomes are indicated by the underlined text, whilst Player A’s outcomes are indicated by the normal text. Positive numbers are indicative of advantage, and Negative numbers are indicative of disadvantage. The value of the number indicates the degree of benefit or loss.

This scenario is somewhat parallel to that of the traditional Prisoner’s dilemma, in which instead of athletes and flopping, the situation entails two prisoners, each with the options of staying silent or snitching on the other prisoner. If one prisoner snitches and the other remains silent, he or she serves a minimal or no sentence whilst the other gets a longer sentence. If both snitch, both serve relatively long sentences. If neither of the two snitch, then they both serve short sentences.

Returning to the original topic of flopping, it can be determined that it is most reasonable for both players to choose not to flop, as although such does not bring about any reward, it also keeps both of them free of risk. Although in theory, this may seem like a rather straightforward conclusion to make, many athletes chose to take the risk of penalisation and flop nevertheless. A study referenced in the article estimated that a mere 37% of people in games play a cooperative role, as would a player who chooses not to flop, in many cases resulting them ending up on the disadvantaged end of flopping.

Given that many players, as the statistic would suggest, struggle to trust the other, the situation can often play out with both players flopping and incurring a loss, a situation that seems like it would be rather easy to avoid, if both players simply chose not to flop. It can be inferred that it is the untrusting characteristics of certain players that so often causes players to make the decision to flop, only to incur a loss.

The application of social and economic theory in form of Game Theory is clearly vast. This article, and evaluation evidences its utilisation in a non-traditional context of Professional Sports. Investigation in this context, can lead one to conclude that human irrationality, in this context being embodied in form of a distrust for one another, can often lead individuals to put themselves in easily avoidable disadvantageous situations.


Other articles read:

Why Flopping is Destroying the NBA


Works Cited
“How Sports Flopping Illustrates The Prisoner’s Dilemma – Game Theory Tuesdays.” Mind Your Decisions. N.p., n.d. Web.
Krell, Lewis. “Fixing Flopping in Soccer: Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game.” The Huffington Post., 30 June 2014. Web.
“Why Flopping Is Destroying The NBA.” Millenial Influx. N.p., n.d. Web.


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