If you’ve ever played basketball, or watched anyone play basketball, including your kids or just some folks at a local park, you’ve heard someone say this phrase – “that was a foul.” Now if you’re like me, it’s part of pretty much every offensive play, which begs the question, if everything’s a foul, is anything really a foul. But leaving aside the philosophical, that’s something you yell when you think someone either hit your arm, or pushed you, or something against the rules that kept you from free play – and usually when you trying to score. Determining when that actually happens is the role of the basketball official, who has the arduous job of deciding what constitutes a foul and what’s simply physical but fair basketball. Or what’s an offensive foul, which is a whole other discussion. But given the nuance of that determination and the bias that every player has when they’re on the court, deciding what is and isn’t a foul can be one of the most challenging, and determinative parts of any close basketball game.
Just ask Baylor women’s basketball player DiJonai Carrington, who may have a strong opinion right now about what is and isn’t a foul. That’s because Monday against UConn trailing by one with five seconds left and a trip to the Final Four on the line, Carrington took a shot from about 10 feet from the hoop that would likely have won the game. And, by many if not most accounts, she was hit on the elbow and perhaps the face and body by two UConn defenders. That typically constitutes a foul, which would lead to two free throws and a chance to win the game. The officials didn’t see it that way, and held their whistles as the ball fell far short of the basket, UConn recovered, and were soon cutting down the net on the way to – well, it’s a bubble, so basically staying where they are – but now it’s the Final Four.
There was a lot of angst and energy when it was all said and done, most conceding that it was a blown call. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey was a bit more blunt in her assessment, as she often is. She told reporters, “I’ve got still shots and video from two angles. One kid hits her in the face and one kid hits her on the elbow.” UConn head coach Gino Auriemma framed it differently. As he put it, each team gets away with a few calls a game. And particularly at the end of the game, it’s the nature of sports.
Whether you believe it was or wasn’t a foul, and it was, Gino is right on one thing. There is a long and storied history, or at least an assumption thereof, of games being called differently when it’s all on the line. One the most common things you’ll hear a coach or analyst say about foul call with seconds left is that you can’t make that call at the end of the game. Which also means, by default, that you can at some other point. By that logic, what is a foul and free throws in the first half is solid defense at the buzzer. Meaning, the rule book is not a code of law, but instead a framework of guidelines for interpretation. That can be disheartening to anyone trying to teach young athletes the fundamentals of the game. Because at some point, the answer is simply, it depends.
There’s obvious reasons for this discrepancy. In basic terms, we tend not to like to watch people win games from the free throw line – although I’ve watched a whole lot more teams lose from the line than win. More to the point, we tend to believe that teams should have to earn the win. And the only way to earn the victory is to go through the gauntlet of the best defense the opponent has to offer. Which, not surprisingly, will be far more physical than, say, when the score is still in single digits. So whether it’s fair or not, a whole lot of people think that yes, a foul in the first half is not a foul at the end of the game. And that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. And, for better or worse, I tend to agree.
Now, whether the refs concur is dependent upon your belief in conspiracy theory. I don’t have a good answer, other than in the end of the day, everyone is human. That, and DiJonai Carrington was definitely fouled.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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