Scientists Study the Physics of NBA Flopping

Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics loses the ball after colliding with Amir Johnson of the Toronto Raptors during a regular-season game on March 13, 2013. (Photo: Jared Wickerha/Getty Images)

When the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh sailed to the floor in Game 4 of the NBA Finals last week, his lanky arms flailing, referees called a foul on the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan. But after the game, thanks to the league's new "anti-flopping" policy, Bosh was fined $5,000 for dramatizing his distress (watch a video clip of the play below).

The NBA isn't alone in its quest to stop flopping, the practice of athletes faking falls to draw penalties on their opponents. In fact, a team of biomechanics experts at Southern Methodist University is now formally studying the problem in basketball as well as soccer, hoping to improve both sports by helping referees get better at spotting floppers.

"The issues of collisional forces, balance and control in these types of athletic settings are largely uninvestigated," SMU biomechanics researcher Peter G. Weyand explained in a recent press release about the study. "There has been a lot of research into balance and falls in the elderly, but relatively little on active adults and athletes."

The NBA defines flopping as "any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player." To decide if a player has flopped, officials try to assess "whether his physical reaction to contact with another player is inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact." Of 24 violations in the 2012-'13 regular season, the league issued 14 warnings and five fines.

The 18-month SMU investigation will be funded by a $100,000 grant from Radical Hoops Ltd., a company owned by firebrand entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

The goal of the research, according to Weyand, is to quantify the forces involved in typical basketball collisions. He plans to stage collisions among NBA-sized volunteers, measuring the forces applied as well as the subjects' reactions. He and his colleagues hope to learn how much force is needed to cause "a legitimate loss of balance," and the extent to which players can influence the outcome with balance and body control. They'll also examine how these forces can be estimated using video or other motion-capture techniques.

Eventually, Weyand adds, this kind of analysis could help with video reviews of potential flopping penalties, by league officials or even referees on the court. "It may be possible to enhance video reviews by adding a scientific element," he says, "but we won't know this until we have the data from this study in hand."