an ethical analysis of diving

Didier Drogba: The pin-up boy for moral decency?

Let me start with an admission. I bloody love Gary Neville. He is a Mancunian Prince. Despite playing up front in my first ever football game I wore the number 2 shirt, just like Gary Neville (admittedly this is because I was a fat little fucker who didn’t fit into the coveted number 7 jersey of my hero Eric Cantona, but I still loved and continue to love G-Nev). He was a great player, ever reliable, but he is an even better pundit. Indeed, it is this glorious piece of analysis on diving that has inspired today’s post.

Diving is regularly denounced as the scourge of modern football. For a long time it was [delusionally] seen as the domain of shady foreigners who would cynically cheat their way to victory. It’s practice is now widespread, and if not encouraged at least acknowledged in dressing rooms as a necessary part of the game. Is it morally bad though? That is what I aim to find out. I will do so by throwing down the gauntlet arguably the two most renowned theories of morality: Utilitarianism, and Kantianism. 

English players don’t dive. Fact.


Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. Utilitarians believe that we should take the course of action that maximises utility. Or in simpler terms we should do what causes the most happiness. When I say the most happiness that is not just happiness to the individual, it is happiness on the whole. A classic caricature of Utilitarianism is that it is the right act to kill an innocent person if their organs can be donated to save the lives of four other people as this will maximise utility. So hopefully that explains utilitarianism to both of the readers (I’m joking, at the time of writing literally no one has read any of the posts on this blog).

So how would a Utilitarian view diving? Well as I discussed here when it comes to the big decisions Utilitarians should always want  decisions to go in favour of the big clubs as it will make the highest number of supporters happy. It could be argued that diving itself ruins the sport and thus no supporters are made happy by a players simulation. Try telling that to a stadium full of people after one of their strikers has won a last minute penalty to win a match. For football fans the ends almost always justify the means.

Only crafty foreigners


Immanuel Kant, after whom this blog is named (well him and John McEnroe, a formidable pairing I’m sure you’ll agree), argues for a rationalist view of morality. Try and bear with me now, things are about to get vaguely educational. Kant’s views are too complex to be summed up in a few light-hearted paragraphs about diving in football but I will attempt to get the basics across. His views are pretty much the opposite of the Utilitarian view that the ends justify the means. For Kant it’s all about doing your moral duty. So if, for example, you gave a bunch of money to charity, but you didn’t do it because you wanted to help people, you did it because you wanted to impress a girl who works for Greenpeace (What’s wrong with you? Dreadlocks aren’t attractive!), Kant would say that your actions aren’t morally praiseworthy. Kant is all about your intentions.

Kant’s moral theory is summed up by the Categorical Imperative, which is pretty complex and has several different formulations, and I’m only going to look at two of them here. Boiled down to it’s most simple form the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative states that we should not act if that action cannot be universalized. So, for example, we shouldn’t lie because if everyone lied our entire system of communication would break down. The second formulation of the Categorical Imperative states that no person should be used as a means to an end. So the charitable guy above falls foul of Kant because he is using starving African children as a means to the end of getting laid.

So now we return to diving. If you skipped ahead, welcome back, you didn’t miss much. If Kant were alive today it seems pretty clear he would be against diving (though he was German so if he did win any penalties he’d dispatch them with efficiency). First of all diving can’t be universalized. The act of diving is going to ground under minimal or no contact. If everyone did this then the game would be an absolute sham, with players rolling round on the floor the moment someone touched them… even more so than they currently do. Remember we’re universalizing here so anytime there was any contact a player would go to ground. Diving also clearly violates the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative as the diver is using other players as a means to the end of getting a free kick. Simple.

Definitely not English players though


We set out to find out if diving is morally bad and the results have been … well inconclusive to say the least. If you are a Utilitarian then you should have no problem with players diving, as long as that player is playing for a better supported club than the team he is diving against. If you are a Kantian then you  should be steadfastly against any sort of diving, as it cannot be universalized and it treats people as a means to an end. We could turn to Virtue Ethics for a tie-breaking vote, but come on… it’s Virtue Ethics.


3 thoughts on “an ethical analysis of diving

  1. As a cycling fan and a football hater (OK, not exactly hater, I used to like it… but just can’t be bothered with it now), I have often put this issue up against doping in cycling. It’s a way of cheating. One athlete cheating another athlete (often being penalised, sent off, banned from further games), by a dishonest act. I would happily say the growth of diving was one of the things that turned me away from football. (I agree that it wasn’t always ‘dirty foreigners’ but it’s the same as goalkeepers no longer being able to catch a ball and always opting to punch it: it was somehting in the UK game that grew with the arrival of foreign players). I once thought that diving was more accepted because it was only cheating the other team and not your own fans, unlike doping in cycling. But then I (disinterestedly) went a Millwall game and watched grown men blatently ignore the reality of what was happening in front of them, (partially no doubt due to the crowd mentality of these games). And it seemed it was also cheating their own fans too – but in such an accepted manner that it wasn’t a problem.
    Unlike doping, diving could easily be stopped. If the games governing bodies had the balls, post game replays could show that someone wasn’t touched and went down ‘voluntarily’. Also, sometimes you go down as an avoidance of a worse hit if you’d stayed up; or moving your own legs from under you in order t oavoid an absolute crunching. Fair enough. But don’t then roll around on the ground as though you’ve been shot from the book depository window….

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