Nicolas Batum's low blow against Juan Carlos Navarro was inexcusable, but his frustration is understandable. League's need to get flopping under control to defuse situations like this.
When I was a youngster, I would sometimes get a little emotional. If things didn't go my way, I might sometimes get a little upset. Oh heck, there's no easy way to admit this: I was a crybaby. I would cry over the slightest injury or insult. This tended to frustrate my dad greatly, and consequently there's a phrase I remember well from my early years: "I'll give you something to cry about!"
(I'm realizing that neither I nor my father are coming off too well in this story, but it was a different era, and spanking was a mainstream form of discipline, so please don't call the authorities or anything. And bear with me, because I do have a point.)
When Nicolas Batum of France hauled off and hit Juan Carlos Navarro of Spain in the waning seconds of Spain's 66-59 quarterfinal win on Wednesday in the Olympic basketball tournament, it seemed completely out of character. Batum has been a terrific player in his four seasons in Portland, good enough that the Trail Blazers matched a 4-year, $46 million offer sheet for the restricted free agent this summer, and he's always been a class act. However, with emotions running high in a game that France had given away down the stretch with abysmal fourth quarter shooting, Batum was fed up with what he felt was excessive playacting by the Spanish players throughout the game. If he had to give a foul to stop the clock, he was going to give Navarro something to cry about; or in his own words, "I wanted to give him a good reason to flop."
There's absolutely no excuse for what Batum did on that play. You could reasonably question whether he literally meant to hit Navarro below the belt, but he closed his fist and wound up before delivering the blow, so it was completely uncalled for, regardless of where the punch landed. It was also premeditated as his post-game comments indicated. Had the play occurred in an NBA game, Batum would have certainly been ejected and likely suspended as well. (Instead Batum was issued an Unsportsmanlike Foul, the FIBA equivalent of a Flagrant Foul in the NBA, resulting in two free throws and the ball for Spain, but no automatic ejection for Batum.) And though he was still upset in the locker room directly after the game when he referred to Spain's flopping as well as their tanking in pool play to take an easier route to the gold medal game, Batum eventually calmed down enough to realize that he had done a bad thing:
I want to apologize for my stupid act at the end, I showed a bad image of France and myself, Congrats to team Spain. — Nicolas Batum (@nicolas88batum) August 8, 2012
Flopping was a very hot topic in the NBA last season and figures to be again next season. NBA scribes, myself included, seemed to spend more time discussing it than ever before, and it rose high enough on the league's radar that during the playoffs commissioner David Stern joked about giving Oscars instead of MVP trophies.
It's not xenophobic to say that there is more embellishment in the international game. This is simply a logical consequence of players from countries like Spain and Argentina and Brazil, where soccer is far and away the most popular sport, applying their sporting culture to the hardwood. Embellishing contact, feigning injury, doing whatever is necessary to draw the referee's attention, is an accepted part of soccer. And let's face it, it's always been a part of basketball as well, but the level of theatricality and deception is steadily increasing. At any rate, an Olympic tournament that still includes Spain and Argentina in the semifinals is bound to see more flopping.
What's clear is that both FIBA and the NBA need to do something about it. The biggest single issue remains that referees are too easily duped by the playacting. It's worth noting that Marc Gasol flopped his way into a charging call against Luol Deng in a pool play game between Spain and Great Britain that had a huge impact on the outcome. The call wiped away a layup, was Deng's third personal foul, and he also got a technical foul that was his fourth personal foul under FIBA rules, all of which put Britain's best player on the bench for much of the remainder of the game. Spain won that game by a single point. If flopping works as it did so well in that case, why would players not do it? And more importantly, how did the referees blow such an easy call?
The Batum situation brings up another reality though: if leagues and their appointed officials don't do something about the issue, they run the risk that players will. I've defended Blake Griffin in the past as not being as egregious a flopper as he is portrayed to be around the league, but there's no question that Griffin does plenty of embellishing of contact around the basket. It's not too much of a stretch to postulate that Griffin's reputation as a flopper is at least one of the factors in his league-leading total of flagrant fouls received (more than twice as many as any other player over the last two seasons). Opponents may see Griffin whining to officials and think "I'll give you something to cry about."
Stern has speculated about reviewing flops and issuing fines retroactively, and that might be an effective deterrent. But surely the right answer starts with something more basic -- referees need to stop being so gullible. It's certainly not good for the game if players like Nic Batum feel they have to take matters into their own hands.