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Crying 'Foul' Over Basketball Rule Book, Time to Shoot for a Change?

by on February 10, 2015 6:15 AM

A week ago my wife and I were at our son's basketball game at Mount Nittany Middle School.

Sitting with us were my wife's parents – who have joyfully attended a decade-plus of soccer matches, swim meets, basketball games and football games between our two offspring.

Their continued attendance is an amazement to me on a physical and logistical level, but on a family-level it just speaks volumes about the type of people they are. Actions always speak louder than words.

As the game wound down in the fourth quarter the inevitable happened. For those familiar with basketball, if Team A is losing as time is running out, players on Team A begin to purposely foul players on Team B. This eventually forces players on Team B to shoot free throws, which Team A hopes are missed and allows them to gain possession of the ball. The concept being that even if the Team B makes the free throws, they only get two points, and Team A gets the ball back with an opportunity to shoot a three-point shot, thereby cutting into the lead, and hopefully winning the game.

In this case that's exactly what happened.

It was at this time that my saintly mother-in-law made a rather pointed comment about how she hated this purposeful fouling in an attempt to win the game. Yes, because it invariably, interminably, lengthens a game, but also, and mostly, because it goes against the basic tenets of fair play. That you do something against the rules and potentially get rewarded for it.

Now when "Gram," who is always the picture of poise and composure, a woman of manners with nary an unpleasant word for anyone, epitomizing the "if you can't say something nice" motto, makes a pointed comment, well, let's just say the fabric of the universe has a tear.

And the tear in this case is that fair play is at risk.

In sports and in life, when rules are violated or broken there are consequences. Or at least the threat of consequences. In football if you hold your opponent – your team is penalized ten yards. In baseball if you leave the base before a fly ball is caught for an out and don't return to the base before the ball gets there – you are out. In soccer if you go offsides – possession of the ball goes to your opponent.

In basketball however, if your team commits enough fouls, your team has the opportunity to benefit from it. And this is the part where "fair play" starts to fall apart. I can't think of another sport that encourages you to violate the rules so your team can win.

Here's a quick basketball primer for those who don't follow the game. If you illegally contact your opponent during play you are assessed a "personal foul," and your team is assessed a "team foul". As an individual you have a limited number of personal fouls – usually five – after which you are removed for the rest of the game.

The team is also allowed to accumulate a certain number of team fouls within the half or quarter – the number varies by league – before getting into a "bonus." For all the team fouls before the bonus, the team that was fouled either retains or gets possession of the ball. Sounds fair enough – you've been fouled, you get the ball.

But once a team has committed enough fouls – violations of the rules – the other team is in "bonus" and when they are fouled they now get to shoot a free throw, which if made, counts as one point. If they make the first free throw, they get to shoot a second free throw. But if they make both, they lose possession of the ball. And if they miss either free throw, they also likely lose possession because the fouling team gets the prime rebounding positions closest to the basket.

Which makes no sense. Up until that time, any fouls resulted in the team being fouled getting or retaining possession of the ball. Then, after the other team continues to progressively commit more rules violations, you would expect that the penalty would get progressive as well. And yet it doesn't.

The result, as I said above, is that if a team is losing, they will purposely commit violations of the rules in the hopes of regaining possession of the ball so they can score. Which not only seems unfair but an extremely poor life lesson for everyone coaching, playing and watching the game.

Originally the rules of basketball allowed that when a player was fouled, that player's team got to decide who shot the free throw – they could use their best free throw shooter – and they got or retained possession of the ball. Somewhere along the way the rules were changed and have morphed to where we are now.

Perhaps it's time to consider a return to the original rules – where progressive violations result in progressive penalties.

Because when Gram, with her limited knowledge of the game, clearly identifies a moral issue with the rules, maybe those rules no longer pass the 'What Would Gram Do' test and are in need of a fair-play adjustment!


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John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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