Blow the whistle on the foul-out rule
Throughout the NCAA and NBA playoffs, this unspeakably
cruel rule turned great competitors into frustrated spectators
Brothers and sisters, I come to bury the foul-out rule,
not to praise it. I call on each and every hoopster to refuse to set sneaker to
court until this abomination is radically reformed or abolished.
No other sport routinely forces good players to the sidelines for long stretches
or even the duration for doing nothing more than playing the game. Shortstops
and linebackers don't have the dark cloud of foul trouble hanging over their heads.
Non-goon hockey players might pick up an occasional two-minute penalty, but that
doesn't prevent them from putting in their full time on the ice and going full-bore
every second. If Tiger Woods drives in the rough on 13, 14 and 15, he's not forced
to switch jobs with his caddy on 16, 17 and 18.
Why do we put up with this?
This cruel, capricious rule tarnished numerous NBA playoff games in 2002, including
several in what otherwise was one of the greatest series in league history, Sacramento
vs. Los Angeles. It had a major impact in Sacramento's Game 5 one-point victory,
as Shaq was limited to 32 foul-plagued minutes. It had a greater impact in the
Lakers hard-fought win in Game 6, where Vlade Divac was limited to 31 minutes
and his backup, Scott Pollard, fouled out in a measly 11 minutes. Laker Derek
Fisher, who was due for a good game, was in foul trouble from the get-go and never
got untracked. In the Game 7 overtime thriller, won by L.A., Shaq logged 51 minutes
while Divac managed but 27 in the most important game of his career.
Most every game, one or more of us ends up sitting for long stretches in abject
frustration. For what? Diving for loose balls? Attempting steals and blocks? Driving
to the hoop? Trying to deny or establish position in the low post? Last time I
checked that's what we're supposed to do.
As bad as it is in the NBA, in college it's worse.
The last few rounds of the men's NCAA tourney served up heaping helpings of foul
trouble for Caron Butler, Emeka Okafer, Jabahri Brown, Aaron McGhee (twice), Lonny
Baxter, Drew Gooden and Jared Jeffries. These outstanding players knew their team
needed them on the court, and for the most part they played accordingly. Yet in
the biggest games of their lives, they sat. Butler for seven, McGhee and Jeffries
for 10, Okafer for 17, Brown for 17 in a single half, Baxter for 26.
It is ridiculously easy to get whistled twice in the first few minutes. You jostle
for position and learn the hard way that tonight the refs are calling 'em close.
Next you go for a block and graze an elbow. The ref rightly rings you up, and
your backup reports for duty. You haven't even looked crosseyed at an opponent
or broken a sweat, yet you're out for at least 10 minutes and you'll be walking
on egg shells when you return.
Try to have an impact on a game when your uppermost thought is avoiding foul trouble.
Ain't gonna happen. Basketball is best played free and easy. Action and reaction.
Hustle and scrap. A live body swatting shots and swishing floaters. An athlete
looking to do athletic stuff.
Brothers and sisters, the problem ain't the refs. God bless 'em. Sometimes they
call 'em too tight or too loose; sometimes they make bad calls. But they're conscientious;
they do their best. The problem is this cruel and unusual rule.
We don't want a rough or dirty game. We want refs calling 'em as they see 'em
and enforcing clean play. No special treatment for superstars and no special abuse
for the scrubs. But we're not worth the sneakers we jump out of if we don't demand
a rules regime that allows players, not dumb luck, to determine the outcome.
What would that rules regime look like? Do we abolish the foul-out rule or reform
it? What other changes need to accompany either option? Flesh out your own ideas,
keeping in mind our goal: a good, clean game that makes it EASY for a good, clean
player to remain on the court for a full-throttle 40 or 48 minutes. The more proposals
we have to test and refine, the better. Here is my five-point plan:
1) Each team starts the game with three "foul coupons." The coach can cash one
in at any time to remove a personal foul from a player's total. For example, it
could be used after a player picks up a second foul early in the first quarter.
The coach would hand the coupon to the ref and the player would still have just
one foul, though the expunged second foul would still count toward the team's
total for the quarter or half. An NBA coach could, if he chooses, use all three
coupons on the same player, which would mean he would foul out on his 9th foul.
2) Downgrade non-brutal moving picks from a foul to a loss-of-possession violation
-- but strictly enforce the rule. The model here is football's two distinct face-mask
penalties, depending on the severity.
3) Downgrade player-control offensive fouls from a foul to a loss-of-possession
violation, thereby eliminating the vile practice of flopping a foe into foul trouble.
This change also guarantees that drivers -- the players that fans pay to see --
have just as many defensive fouls at their disposal as jumpshooters and non-shooters
-- the players nobody pays to see.
Related to Point 3, we players will make the refs job easier and the game more
honest by taking the no-flop pledge: "I will strive to remain upright rather than
collapsing from incidental, unavoidable contact." In turn, we call on refs to
enforce the dislodging rule. Right now, many of you punish defenders who make
a supreme effort to stay on their feet, while rewarding those who reel, stuntperson
style, from real or imagined contact. If you refs don't keep your end of the bargain,
you'll only encourage the re-emergence of the flop.
4) Ensure that teams don't benefit from excessive fouling by expanding the definition
of "intentional foul" to include obvious grabs by beaten defenders, deliberate
shoves to send a poor free-throw shooter to the line, and late-game whacks by
trailing teams trying to stop the clock. The intentionally fouled player is awarded
two points AND his or her team retains possession. Because a possession is worth,
on average, one point, the intentional-foul penalty would actually be a "penalty,"
which is what penalties are supposed to be. It would cost, on average, three points,
which is one more point than the beaten defender prevented. Grabbing is not a
skill, so let's not reward it.
But how will teams rally?
5) With tenacious defense, great shooting and ample possessions, courtesy of a
12-second shot clock in the final two minutes of each half, when time-outs are
disallowed. (Thanks to King Kaufman of Salon.com for this innovation.) Under the
current rules, the standard method of staging a late rally goes like this: "Commit
an intentional foul; fouled player shoots free throws; trailing team hoists a
quick trey; repeat preceding boring steps until the horn blows." Deliberate whacks,
free throws, time outs and jumpshots. None has ever produced a shred of excitement,
though sometimes a jumper can be dramatic. I'll trade occasional drama for routine
excitement any day. Excitement requires athletes doing creative things on the
move against other athletes doing their legal best to thwart what the offensive
team springs on them. That's just what our Final Frantic Flurry will provide.
Under my rules regime, the impact of a given call, good or bad, will be greatly
reduced. The game won't take a dramatic turn because John Stockton gets called
for two reach-ins in the first two minutes, Paul Pierce is whistled for his third
on a dubious charge call early in the second quarter, Shaq gets his fourth on
a flop at the end of the half, or Vlade Divac hustles after a loose ball with
six minutes to go and is hit with his sixth. No player ever again will have to
think twice about diving for a loose ball, swatting a shot or penetrating the
paint. He or she may not succeed, but the punishment for failure won't be a long
stint on the bench. That's good for the players and good for the refs.
Under the current rules regime, Shaq and Tim Duncan don't guard each other. How
absurd is that? This should be one of the great rivalries of our time, akin to
Russell vs. Chamberlain. Instead, its Malik Rose and crippled David Robinson vs.
Shaq, and Samaki Walker vs. Duncan. Alas, it makes perfect sense when you're coaching
under a rules regime that makes no sense.
Why don't college and pro announcers make a stink about this? Because half of
them are control-freak ex-coaches who know that the less impact the players have
on the game, the more impact the coaches have -- and the more attention they get.
They, along with most of the ex-jock analysts, are so far "inside the box" that
even if they had the courage to rock the boat, they wouldn't have the insight.
During the NCAA semifinals, Billy Packer said the Indiana coach was playing with
fire by putting All-American Jared Jeffries on Oklahoma's Aaron McGhee. Packer
was right, as Jeffries soon took a seat with two quick fouls. But here's what
any announcer worth his salt would have SCREAMED:
"What is wrong with the NCAA? Jeffries-McGhee is the matchup of the year. They
should guard each other from start to finish, playing every minute like men possessed.
A rules regime that discourages this matchup while promoting timid play and extended
pine time is preposterous."
Brothers and sisters, we, not a bunch of old men, are the game. WE should decide
who wins and who loses. If we're worth a damn, we'll fix this foul-out rule before
it ruins another game and leaves more gritty competitors wondering, for the rest
of their lives, What if?
Dennis Hans is a writer, an occasional adjunct professor
and a shooting instructor. His essays on basketball -- including the styles, rhythms
and fundamentals of free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting
News, Slate, InsideHoops.com and The Black World Today (tbwt.com). His writings
on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami
Herald, among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.