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When Fair Is Foul

There’s been a lot of talk during this post-season, about a variety of different fouling issues. It’s a common topic, starting when players are children, and following the game through to the NBA. And why wouldn’t it be? Anyone who tells you that basketball isn’t a contact sport is a liar. Any game that involves ten players in a contained space trying to keep the ball out of each others’ hands is always going to involve a certain amount of physicality. And given that, in contrast to football and hockey, these athletes aren’t wearing any protective gear, the contact needs to be strictly regulated – hence, the foul calls.

Some people complain that there are too many foul calls, some that there aren’t enough. Partisan spectators gripe about their teams getting called and the officials’ justifications. It’s touchy for coaches, who require their players to be aggressive, but need to be concerned for said players’ well-being.

Going back to elementary school-age kids who are just learning the sport, trying to explain the difference between a true foul and contact or, further, a good foul and a bad foul, is not a pleasant experience.

Fouling is a complicated topic, and I don’t want to get into a technical analysis of what a foul is and when one should be called, but rather the effect that fouling has on the game as a whole.

Most of my friends and family are very committed hockey fans, and when I ask them why they prefer televised hockey to televised basketball, a recurring answer has to do with the perceived violence.

“In hockey,” they say, “if they hit, it’s okay, and everyone keeps going. In basketball, they make contact, but pretend they didn’t.”

It’s an accountability issue, apparently, and I cannot explain how much I agree with that. How many times have we watched as a player clearly hacks an opponent to bits, and then gripes at the call? How frustrating is that?

On the flip side, during round two, Blake Griffin slammed someone to the ground, stood up, picked the other player up, and apologized for the foul.

Now, I’m not a huge Griffin fan, (I may very well be the only person in the world who isn’t) but that was fantastic. That was sportsmanship, and as a coach I believe that’s something to be prized in a player. When players take responsibility for their fouls it makes a good impression on coaches and fans, and makes the game more fun.

Isn’t it much more impressive to watch a game based on pure basketball and not petty rivalries? Sure, the snarking and sniping is entertaining at times, but a game played on the merits of the sport is always more appreciated. Watch Twitter – when teams play well, with an organized offence and an effective defence, people talk about it. When the Spurs ran roughshod over the Thunder last week, people couldn’t stop thanking them for a good, enjoyable game. When the Clippers got hit with five technical fouls in a game against the Spurs, there wasn’t much commentary.

Another point that’s often made is the sheer volume of fouls called. As mentioned above, there are safety issues involved, and we rely on officials to keep control of the game – but it gets to a point sometimes that a foul is called on every possession. It interrupts the flow of the game, and almost cheapens the effort of the players, giving them an out.

Case in point: this business of ‘drawing the foul’ – Kobe Bryant is the master of moving forward in time to get minimal contact and a chance at an extra point. What’s challenging about that? The point of the foul is to keep everything safe and fair, but what’s fair about playing the perceptions of the officials in your favour?

To add to this, the athletes in the NBA are meant to be the best of the best. They are marketed as such, are paid to be such, and yet they don’t seem to be able to take a little contact. Most fouls that are called under the basket, while they are technically illegal, really shouldn’t affect anything if these players are as strong and ‘superhuman’ as they are made out to be. There’s a difference between shoving someone to the ground, and brushing a hand against the shooter’s arm.

Perhaps, instead of the onus being on the officials to penalize the defence, coaches should focus on training their players to play in spite of contact. In a drill that requires parental supervision, I stand under the basket with a foam stick and ‘foul’ my players, and they are frequently able to get the and-one. And these are twelve year olds. Imagine how effective they’ll be when they’re in their twenties.

This trend of the whistle-happy official doesn’t only affect the offence. Defensive players are punished for their efforts, which is extremely unfortunate, as it’s more difficult in general to develop a strong defence without adding the threat of fouling out simply for doing one’s job. Perhaps drawing the foul purposely should be more often answered by issuing an offensive foul, simply for disrespect of the sport.

The issues with fouling don’t only come from the players and officials. Coaches are also guilty of taking advantage of the system. There was an article posted to this site recently by Steve Finamore, talking about whether to foul or defend in the last minutes of a close game, which covers the topic quite nicely. What I would like to comment on is the strategy demonstrated in the Western Conference Finals, nicknamed, “Hack-A-Splitter”, in which the Spurs player Tiago Splitter is fouled repeatedly. He has a low shooting percentage from the line, and so if the Thunder can rebound from his miss, they regain possession of the ball with little time off the clock and a lower chance of the Spurs scoring.

What these types of plays indicate is the weakness of the team’s defence, rather than strategic brilliance. If a coach truly trusted their team, they would allow them to play the game straight, without resorting to dirty tactics. We’re back to the notion of accountability, this time on the part of the coach, and truly, a coach is more respected on the basis of their sportsmanship than the talent of their team. A successful coach will focus on developing their team’s strengths, rather than exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses.

This is all pretty well reserved to ‘regular’ fouls, but there has certainly been some discussion of flagrant fouls and technical fouls. In the post-season it’s to be expected that everyone’s intensity would run a fair bit higher, and tempers would flare, which explains the upswing at this time of year in ‘extreme fouling’. The issue, again, is how this affects the game.

Technical fouls, for the most part, are justified, and are an excellent tool for the officials to keep control of the game. In quite a few circumstances, a point needs to be made, and many coaches and players will happily take their technical for speaking out about some perceived injustice. The only major issue with the technical is the double-technical, which arises when two players get tangled. If there’s a situation when both players are at fault, then shouldn’t something more effective be done to avoid the situation happening again? Officials should give a free throw to each team, at least, rather than resetting the whole play, or choose not to make the call and let everyone play on.

The flagrant fouls are a much more contentious issue, and here, I don’t want to attack whether or not they should be called, but rather, what should happen when one is called. Players like Metta World Peace, who foul severely and frequently, are a danger to other participants in the game. As the consequences of sports injuries are becoming better known, is it really justifiable to continue to allow serious fouling without an equally serious punishment?

True, World Peace was suspended for seven games following his flagrant foul on James Harden, but in the case of Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf during the Heat/Pacers series, neither were ejected from the game. They were both allowed to finish a progressively more physical game, at the increasing risk of other players, until the NBA reviewed the calls and suspended them.

The spirit of the foul call is to protect players and keep the game fair; how is this accomplishing either goal? Instead, is ejecting players like DeMar DeRozan (of the Toronto Raptors) for throwing the basketball in frustration meant to keep control of the game?

So, what is the final decision? Are there too many foul calls, or too few? The solution is evidently as complex as the problem, but maybe it stems from the philosophy of the foul call, and not the application. If officials have as their priority the safety of the players and the control of the game, and if they follow the spirit of the foul call rather than the letter, it would most likely make the sport more exciting and impressive.

And isn’t that excitement why we’re watching anyway?

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