Time To Call Foul On Basketball Players Fouling Out

By Alec Moore
September 16, 2020

Basketball Foul

Major League Baseball has returned, but with several rule changes. The most noteworthy and controversial so far is that each extra inning begins with a runner already on second base. Well, if baseball can change the rules just like that, it’s about time basketball makes a rule change too. Why should NBA players automatically be tossed out of a game once they commit six fouls (or five at the college level)? There is already a penalty when they commit the foul; their opponents get to shoot free throws. Even if it’s a non-shooting foul, they still add up, and eventually, the opponents get to shoot free throws on non-shooting fouls.

What if movies had a rule that if the bad guy kills too many people, he has to sit out the climax? And some backup bad guy with a much less dramatic snarl, who you have to learn to hate from scratch, fills in?

In soccer too, there are fouls. But they do not count personal fouls, and they do not affect whether the players who commit them get to continue to play. There is not much about soccer that I would say is better than basketball, but they seem to have gotten this one thing right. Well, this, plus Megan Rapinoe.

When star basketball players have to sit out with foul trouble and/or when they foul out altogether, the only beneficiary is the opposing team. But the fans never benefit from seeing a superstar sit out. Maybe the fans of the opposing team benefit because their team is more likely to win, but it is still not as fun to watch, nor can victory be as sweet when your team did not have to face the other team’s best. The NBA is a star-driven league, and their many national telecasts are watched mostly by fans not of one of the two competing teams, but by fans of the game itself, and often of those stars. If the league wants to continue to market its stars and appeal to this broad cross-section of fans, it should do what it can to ensure those stars can remain on the court.

Even when players do not foul out, the coaches’ terror at the mere spectrum of having their guys foul out means they bench them for long stretches if they are simply “on pace” to foul out. So a player who picks up a few early fouls may sit most of the first half, and then could conceivably end the game with only those three early fouls, but still have sat for half the game. I remain unconvinced that saving the best players to play at “crunch time” is the best strategy. You can lose a game in the first half when your star sits just as easily as you can lose it later. But that is an argument for another day.

It is especially egregious when players foul out in overtime or a multiple overtime situation. In a double or triple OT game, there are typically numerous players who foul out. This should be the most exciting part of the game, but when four or five of the best players are forced to sit, it dampens the excitement. And it is also silly that even though the game suddenly adds extra minutes for overtime, the players do not get an extra foul. If players get six fouls in a 48-minute game, why on earth should they not get a seventh foul when the game goes an extra 10 minutes?

Okay, I have to go now. There is an exciting NBA game on TV that’s going to double overtime and I want to catch the end. Oh wait, LeBron and Giannis have fouled out. Never mind.

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