OTJ presents: Why the NBA should let players call their own fouls

On the John presents…

Play on, playa: Why NBA players should call their own fouls

Originally completed June 14, 2010

Which one of these two men would you rather watch perform their basketball-related skills?

A reader e-mailed after the 86-FT Game that he would rather watch a playoffs where players called their own fouls. At first glance, ridiculous. Within a few seconds, I started talking myself into it. By the three-minute mark, I was genuinely excited. No referees. The players policing themselves. Pickup rules for the playoffs. Hmmmmmm. That’s how bad things have gotten. An idea THAT dumb got my wheels spinning.

—Bill Simmons, May 28, 2009


…except, here’s the thing: it’s not dumb. Far from it. I don’t remember now, but it’s even possible that I am the reader in question, as I have been pitching that idea to my fellow hoops fans for three years. During these past two Bulls postseasons, my dad told me repeatedly why it was such a terrible plan: “Call their own fouls? Be realistic, Jack. You expect guys in a close game in the playoffs to be honest about a foul call? Every guy out there will become entirely self-serving. There will be more fights… sorry: doesn’t work.”

I don’t agree. In fact, I see it having the opposite effect. Games will become better officiated, better managed, and better played, all adding up to a better athletic experience for both participants and spectators. These new rules will include the abolishment of flagrant fouls, and any on-court, referee-assessed, behavior-prompted technicals. The game really only needs three officials: two on-court refs (to handle traveling, goal-tending, lane violations, and any of the other specifically-defined infractions), and one ref in a booth somewhere (to determine replay-necessary calls…did he get the shot off before the buzzer…who touched the ball last before it went out of bounds…etc.).

For the quality of the games and the efficiency of the calls, all violations of physical contact should be handled by the players.


A Question of Clumpiness

There's always lots happening under the basket.

They say there is a hold on every down. They are probably right. But while football is not perfectly officiated, it is an easier game to call because of its structure. Average plays last only five or six seconds. The interior linemen stay in approximately the same place doing approximately the same thing. Pass interference consists of one receiver in a contained space battling usually one defender, and because the penalty is only possible once the ball is in the air, an official can turn away from the other 20 players on the field. Same goes for calls like horse-collar or roughing: there will always be eyes on the ball carrier, and there will always be eyes on the kicker or passer.

Baseball holds similar officiating advantages. The game features greater spacing than football, with the ball traveling to distinct portions of the playing surface. A bang-bang play at first involves only the runner, the first baseman, and the ball. Like all calls in all sports, balls and strikes are matters of perception, but the players themselves are not physically involved. Beyond nailing all of your fielder-tagging-runner calls, there’s nothing else to actively officiate in baseball. It’s really just a question of knowing the rulebook. (Including, of course, establishing a strike zone, which should be, by definition, pre-established.)

In basketball, though, all of that spacing is lost because the action is generally contained within a 50’ by 25’ space. (The court’s width by the distance from the baseline to just beyond the three-point line.) The big men might battle for position under the glass just like offensive and defensive linemen, but those same bigs might also pop out to set a screen, or dart to the top of the key to open the lane. Officials can follow the ball as they do in football or baseball, but the ball moves in less predictable ways, changes hands with more frequency, and is often surrounded by a much higher percentage of players. There is also action away from the ball that requires officiating.

Furthermore, fouls in basketball depend on the slightest increase of physical contact. Chin music or high-sticking or a helmet-to-helmet tackle are all defined by specific physical acts. But in basketball, if a defensive player bumps the man with the ball this hard, it is legal. If he bumps him THIS hard, it is a foul. If he bumps him THIS!!! hard, it might be a flagrant. The degree of difficulty in three officials each attempting to perceive the difference in flagrancy between this, THIS, and THIS!!! is enormous.

Add to that the mass of ten rotating bodies and a ball in constant, random motion all within 1250 square feet, and it is incredible that basketball referees can officiate a game with any accuracy at all.

A Question of Perception

Players know when they've committed a foul.

The NBA’s rulebook is divided into twelve categories, from Rule No. 1 (Court Dimensions-Equipment) through Rule No. 12 (Fouls and Penalties). Rule No. 12 has two parts: Technical Foul and Personal Foul. Personal Foul is divided into ten sections with a total of 33 separate definitions of a personal foul, along with 13 exceptions to those rules, all of which must be enforced through 40 sets of penalties determined by the intensity of the physical contact.

I may have miscounted in a few of those places (that rulebook is not exactly easy to follow), but you get the idea.

The majority of the officiating that drives fans, players, and coaches IN-SANE stems from the personal foul. And if a personal foul is the most difficult call for an outsider to make, and if the ruling of a personal foul is only one 33rd of one half of one twelfth of everything this outsider must know, how difficult must it be for an outsider to make the right call?

I stress “by an outsider” because for the players themselves, there is absolutely an easy and meaningful way that those varying levels of physical contact can be quantified. You hear it all the time in any pickup game.

“I got one.”


“Did I get you?”

“No, I’m cool.”

Foul called. Penalty assessed. Done and done.

In the words of the young Alvy Singer: "What an asshole."

In pickup games, the penalty is usually a “re-do.” The offensive player gets hacked, and takes the ball up top to begin the play again. And before you argue that my entire theory is invalidated by the possible inclusion of a “re-do,” don’t forget that they already exist. “Please reset the game clock to 14.3 seconds. 14.3 seconds on the clock.” That’s a re-do, right?

Which is not to suggest we cut loose of free throws. They are a natural deterrent to excessive fouling, and natural deterrents are crucial in this scenario. The goal is simplification. By eliminating the outsider, you greatly simplify an aspect of the game that is unnecessarily complex. Outside eyes on the field of play are necessary in baseball (even adult softball leagues hire umps) and useful in football, but they hinder basketball by demanding that an outsider determine how hard one person knocked into another.


If you have ever played basketball, you know that it is easy to determine a foul. You either “got one” or you didn’t. So why maintain referees? I suppose there are a few answers to that, the most obvious being that “It’s always been done this way.” Setting that aside, let’s return to some of my father’s concerns, assumptions that are roundly accepted in the referee discussion.

“You expect guys in a close game in the playoffs to be honest about a foul call? Every guy out there will become entirely self-serving.”

Sorry Pop. Gotta disagree.

Is it a flop or a reckless offensive attack?

First of all, this assumes that players are honest with refs. When Jordan or Kobe or some other perimeter player is having a slow shooting night, what does he do? He attacks the basket. The plan is to get a higher percentage shot, either through a layup/dunk, or more likely, by drawing the foul. That is referee manipulation, and it is “part of the game.”

On the other side, we have defensive manipulation. Drawing a charge through flopping. “Oh,” the announcers laugh, “a nice bit of acting by Garnett on that play. A real veteran move.”

Thus, in the words of Hunter Thompson, we will ELIMINATE THE OFFICIALS, and they won’t be missed. With players calling their own fouls, the instincts that lead to flopping and reckless lane attacks are obsolete.

Gone as well are ticky-tack calls that players would never call on their own. Take a look at this clip from last season’s Magic-Cavaliers Eastern Conference Final, the play that begins at the 2:11 mark. LeBron receives a pass at the foul line, goes straight to the basket, and is met by Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard. LeBron leaps between them, bumps into Howard, hits the basket, and draws the foul.


This was definitely not an offensive foul. LeBron has a right to the basket. But it’s not a defensive foul either. There is minimal contact. This same play happens in a pickup game, and there is NO WAY IN HELL that foul is called. In fact, five will get you ten that LeBron would walk away from that play excited as all heckfire that he possesses the upper-body strength to negate slight bumps from men as big as Howard.

In this case, the ref makes the call and James goes to the line, because nobody is going to turn and say, “Actually, there was no foul. I’m cool.” With the ticky-tack foul called by the outsider, not only has a defender been unable to prevent the opposition from scoring, he has also been penalized for incidental contact.

The NBA should not penalize its players for being large and strong.

Beyond the frustration, getting rid of these touch fouls makes good sense from a competition standpoint. Why give a guy a free throw on a play that did not warrant one? An And-1 should only occur when the defender’s contact forces the man with the ball to adjust and make some kind of athletic, acrobatic play. (Compare the Howard-James foul to this Deng-James foul from this season’s playoffs that starts at 2:25.) The frustration from being pegged for an otherwise inconsequential bump is the kind of emotion that, eventually, builds into Ben Wallace shoving Ron Artest. With guys calling their own fouls, a purer athletic competition is established.

Moving on with the self-serving arguments…

When considering an NBA in which players call their own fouls, you have to account for the enormous change this would create in player mentality. The outsider’s foul standard differs entirely from the players’ foul standard. As self-called fouls became the norm, the mindset that accompanies this newfound autonomy would overtake the old mindset.

But fine, let’s say a dude abuses the new system. There are a few natural deterrents to this behavior, coming both from insiders (players, coaches, team ownership), and outsiders (fans, media, and David Stern’s office).


In this no-ref world, players are responsible for their own behavior, and that of their teammates and opponents. Should a player begin calling too many self-serving fouls, a swift forearm across the brow on his next layup will surely set him straight. With no flagrants or T’s from meddling officials, you will be free to enact revenge as you see fit, so long as it falls within the framework of a basketball move, i.e. Rondo’s swipe across Brad Miller’s face during last season’s Game 5.

Any thrown punch or kick will be an automatic ejection and ten-game suspension. Entering the stands in any provoked, aggressive confrontation will carry the same penalty. Any fan entering the playing area uninvited will be subject to fine and ticket/stadium suspension. All other physical contact between players will be handled by players and coaches.

Okay... that was kinda funny.

Hopefully things won’t progress to those stages, because the team captains and the head coach should be able to keep their own guys in check. Post-game fines and even suspensions can be assessed by teammates or, in extreme cases, the Players Union. My guess: players would enjoy the new freedoms and would work to maintain them.

And don’t think for a second that players will let teammates behave however they please. We saw in Game 6 of the Lakers-Suns series how the Lakers chewed out Sasha Vujacic after he elbowed Goran Dragic, and it was not long ago that Ben Wallace and other Bulls voted to suspend then-rookie Joakim Noah for disrespectful engagement with assistant coach Ron Adams.


A player might not mind boos from a certain fan base because of personality (Dennis Rodman in Utah), star power (Karl Malone in Chicago), or specific circumstances (Kobe Bryant in Denver). But no player wants to be known as “that punk who calls all of his own fouls.”

If he doesn’t care, we return to the playground analogy: his teammates and opponents call him out for his selfish behavior.

…only this time, that playground game is being attended by 20,000 spectators, and reported on by professional media members and new-media journalists. Weigh the gains and losses: how much does a player gain on the court by granting himself cheap foul calls, and how much does he stand to lose through the total enforcement response of his teammates and coaches, his opponents, the media, the fans, his friends and family, and in extreme cases, action from the Commissioner’s Office? I truly believe that given the freedom to enforce their own fouls, the better nature of the players would prevail.

The Punch.

(And if it didn’t? If certain players were unapologetically selfish despite pressure from teammates, opponents, fans, and journalists, at least we know more about who that guy is as a person and player. Isn’t that part of the joy in watching sports? To “know” what a guy is really about? Wouldn’t you like to know if Player X is “that jackass who called all of his own fouls”?)

But fine, just to roll with you on this, let’s break down issue number two.

“There will be more fights.”

Again, don’t think so. In fact, with no referees, the big fights that most terrify the NBA’s brass will be replaced with little fights of little consequence.

Now, outside of boxing and immediate self-defense, striking someone with your fists is dumb. However, as anyone who has played sports surely knows, and as Simmons covered in his story, a little bit of physical confrontation is natural during athletic competition, especially in hoops, a sport without the violent structure of football and hockey but with significantly more sustained player-to-player contact than baseball, soccer, lacrosse, or ultimate Frisbee.

Curiously, basketball is the only one of the Big Four in which fighting is, in all situations, viewed as an unacceptable activity. Baseball and hockey have designated fighting rituals, baseball with the entirely stupid yet standard manager-umpire jawing matches (purely theatrical, 100% useless on a practical basis), hockey with actual fist fighting. Football players get flagged for throwing punches, but the pads and helmets combined with the sport’s natural violence means these donnybrooks are viewed as more comical than anything.

Only in basketball is fighting not viewed as theatre. There are three reasons for this:

1. Unlike those other three sports, when a fight breaks out in hoops, there is a legitimate possibility that the action could spill into the stands. (The operative word here is “spill.” That crazy Boston Bruins brawl with the fans at MSG required the Bruins to actually climb over the glass. Same goes for the Chad Kreuter fight at Wrigley against Cubs fans in 2000.)

Those other sport instances aside, fans are closer to the players in hoops than in any of the other three, and it would be (and has been) very easy for a player to enter the stands or a fan to walk onto the court prior to security involvement.

2. The Kermit Washington punch and the Artest brawl each put David Stern and the NBA on edge when concerning violent player conduct.

3. The fighting problem taps into the NBA’s largest and most longstanding concern: the perceived image problem that comes from selling a mostly black sport to mostly white fans.

The Foul.

Because the threat of fighting is taken so seriously in the NBA, refs tend to err on the side of strict enforcement on personal fouls. But this creates an unwanted loop: the NBA is afraid of a monster fight, so they tell the officials to crack down on fouls, which actually leads to more frustration and ultimately a fighting spirit.

For a finer understanding of this mindset, let’s take a look at the Pacers-Pistons brawl. This incident took the NBA’s concern with fighting to new extremes, and yet it was created in part by the officials.

It started with Artest’s hard foul on Ben Wallace. Wallace shoved Artest in the neck, at which point Wallace continued jawing with Artest as Stephen Jackson began jawing with Wallace. The referees tried briefly to squash the ruckus, before backing away and placing their hands on their hips as various players and coaches tried to separate everyone.

Even without having watched the game, I can assume fairly that Pistons-Pacers in Detroit was something of a beat down. Detroit was the defending champs, the Wallace brothers were physical bangers as was Artest, the Palace is a naturally crazy arena, and this was their first meeting since Detroit upset Indiana in the 2004 East Finals. Two technicals were called during the game (one on Sheed, one on Jermaine O’Neal) — another element that, were officials abolished, would lessen the frustration among players.

With no referees, teams that play physical ball — those 2005 Pistons and Pacers, for instance — set their own standards. That eliminates the anger and annoyance from presumed intrusion by an outside party and from T’s and flagrants deemed stupid or excessive. Indeed, with no referees, there is no one for Rasheed Wallace to bark at, and hence no one to hit him with technicals that are basically authoritarian “don’t disrespect the officials” demands.


Hard fouls.

In a world without refs, would we get fights like this?

Would the number of hard fouls increase in a no-ref world? Maybe… but the catalyst behind a purposeful hard foul is usually frustration. A guy is fed up with getting whistled for touch fouls, and then decides: “Screw it. If they’re going to tag me with these stupid fouls, I might as well get my money’s worth.”

With no referees, the frustration from officiating (all game, all season, all career) does not boil up and bubble over, which means that Artest probably doesn’t throw such a hard foul on Wallace at the end of the game, and even if he does the players now have the autonomy to halt their own fights without worrying about T’s for leaving the bench. Gone is the frustration with officials for leaving them impotent in the face of threats.

Foul-related disqualifications.

For a league so dedicated to their stars, the idea that players can foul out of games is unfathomable to me. We just had an NBA Finals game in which six players were tagged with three fouls in the first half, while five ended the game with at least five fouls. This includes Artest, who fouled out with five second half foul calls against him.

And then, in last night’s crucial Game 5, Kobe Bryant picked up his fifth foul on a bogus bit of forced contact from Paul Pierce, leaving the league’s greatest active player hesitant to play ball during the game’s final minutes.


How does this improve competition? Can you imagine if a left tackle were thrown out of a game for committing three holding penalties? Or if a shortstop were chucked for committing three errors?

As long as we’re letting players call their own fouls, we can eliminate foul outs too. Just a dumb, dumb rule. We will have fewer personal fouls called anyhow, since a player ending up with six personal fouls in a self-officiated game seems unlikely. We can keep the team foul tally, with six fouls still putting a club into the bonus. That’s penalty enough, and is a natural deterrent that re-enforces the value of Team.

Time-related fouls.

Here’s another dumb rule I never understood, and one that would be quickly fixed under the new rules. Fifteen seconds left in the game, Team A trailing by six. Team A cuts the lead to four, and now they will foul Team B and hope Team B misses their free throws. EVERYONE playing, coaching, officiating, reporting, and watching knows the foul strategy. And yet Team A must grab and hack Team B before the official will whistle the foul.


As long as we’re changing rules, let’s allow Team A to declare their intention to commit the foul through some kind of hand signal, the same way we allow punt returners to signal for fair catches.

End of game fouls.

Sorry Bryon.

Perhaps the trickiest aspect of allowing players to call their own fouls is end-of-game situations. No ref wants to “decide a game,” so what happens when players call their own fouls? When the Heat are down two with ten seconds left, and Dwyane Wade is working for a game-tying shot, and he has the option to call a foul in his own favor… will he do it?

I don’t know. The defender will certainly be playing as clean as possible, but that’s the case now. The question concerns the offensive player, and my guess is that the prevailing mindset in a call-your-own-fouls league will be to just play the game, to accept the fact that you will take a few hits, and to attack victory through skill, not bail outs.

And just think: if players called their own fouls, the 1998 Finals may well have gone to a Game 7. That would have been one hell of a show.

Copyright 2010, jm silverstein

Check out this officiating breakdown of Game 5 of the 2010 Finals from former NBA ref Tim Donahy at deadspin.com. Interesting stuff.

And if you didn’t feel like reading this whole story, just watch this…


4 Replies to “OTJ presents: Why the NBA should let players call their own fouls”

  1. A pretty good argument. It’d be interesting if you could find some hard data to back up some of your assertions, though I’m not sure where one would find that.

    Mainly, though, I would like to make a suggestion that would maybe find a bit more of a middle ground between your idea and the status quo. Namely, to more or less institute your idea, but to have some mechanism to allow players to challenge calls. Now, the idea wouldn’t be to allow them to challenge every call, but maybe something similar to what we have in the NFL, where you get a certain number of challenges per half or quarter or something. Further, you could institute a rule such that if one players calls get overturned a certain number of times in a game, or maybe a certain number of times over a period of games, he gets some kind of penalty (one game suspension, can’t play for a half, something like that). So, for example, let’s say John Smith calls three fouls on opposing players, and all three get overturned in a challenge, then he, say, is thrown out of the game, or suspended for the next game, or what have you. As you can see, I haven’t thought through this in too much detail, but I think your idea could be a good one, but only if there is at least some official mechanism to keep in check a player who gets out of control

  2. Here’s the thing: I can’t stand the NFL challenge system. REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY DISLIKE IT. Referees are human too, and if you lose a game because a ref made a bad call, that’s your fault for not converting that 3rd and short in the 2nd quarter that led to your opponent’s field goal at the end of the half, etc. etc.

    If a sport needs refs, then you need to trust the refs. NFL challenges take up SO much time… coaches use them to bail out their players on fumbles… I don’t have the data, but just from watching football (and you might agree), the number of obviously bad calls rectified by challenges is miniscule against the number of either-way calls held up, and the good that comes from the challenge system is miniscule (in my opinion) against the time spent boring EVERYONE with shots of the official’s back as he peers into that little camera theatre with the curtain over his head like some kind of 19th century photographer.

    Like injuries and weather, refs are a part of football. Refs are also needed in hoops, but only for traveling, lane violations, time management, ball out of bounds, illegal defense (if they ever outlawed the zone again), etc. Personal fouls are best left to the players.

  3. First, well done. I had to read this column twice. The first time reading it, I felt like Prosecutor Hamilton Berger who only won one case in nine tv seasons against Perry Mason. Berger’s case would evaporate against the arguments of his more knowledgeable, creative opponent. I jumped from my seat at the end of the column, turned to Jack/Perry Mason and confessed my crime. I’m guilty. I pooh poohed the “limited refs” argument. But then I read it again and thought about your major premise: public behavior (the player on the court) will be modified by the player’s internal moral scruples and regulated, too, by a vigilant community (teammates, coaches, fans, the media) that exudes moral persuasion against incorrect behavior (by the individual player). That’s the big question mark. Will strong players ala LeBron laugh off having their forearm hacked as they fly to the basket? If they make the shot, says Jack, yes. If not, the strong player will complain and take the ball out again. I dunno. We’d have to play several ref-less NBA games and see. Finally, I must take issue with your Hard Fouls assumption; that these are a result of players’ frustrations over being called for inconsequential fouls throughout the game. But this argument goes against your larger belief that a player’s sense of fairness will cause him to self-regulate: that is, do the right (fair) thing. Anyway, it’s an interesting theory you’ve articulated and very well done indeed. Your detailed command of the game is impressive.

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