When a Foul is Not a Foul

What is our reluctance as officials to call intentional fouls? It has to do with three common rule interpretations.

While watching an NCAA Division I basketball game last season, I witnessed an interesting series of events that I’ve had numerous “energized” discussions with my colleagues about foul-calling philosophy.

It has to do with three common rule interpretations …
  • Incidental Contact
  • Intentional Fouls
  • Fouling to Stop the Clock (toward the end of a game)
The game went something like this.
The visiting team (B) was ahead by a fourteen points with just around 1:30 left in the game.  The home team (A) had just made a field goal to cut the score to a 12-point deficit and set up to employ a full court defensive press.  Team B’s plan was clear — inbound the ball and play keep away — as they preferred to run some time off the clock before being forced to the free throw line.

But Team A had other plans, and what happened is typical of what occurs at all levels of play.

Team B inbounded the ball to a speedy guard that was well ahead of the defender who made “incidental contact” with the dribbler at the EXACT time the trail official was “loading up” his whistle to rule a back court foul.

My first impression was the dribbler was hardly touched and it was obvious Team B did not want to be fouled and had designs on running some precious time off the clock.  My thought was – “was that a foul in the first 10 minutes of the game?”I doubt it was.

So why put the offensive team (B) at a disadvantage here??


By rule incidental contact is clearly defined by both NCAA and NFHS. Incidental contact  is contact with an opponent which is permitted and which does NOT constitute a foul per NFHS rules.  NCAA is similar; whereas contact that does not hinder the opponent from participating in normal defensive or offensive movements shall be considered incidental.
But the story gets better.  Team B is already in the double bonus and misses both free throws. On the second of two – Team B gains possession of the rebound and the player from Team A “intentionally” wraps two arms around the waist of the player to quickly foul again.  The center official rules a “common foul” vs an intentional foul.  Even the announcer is amazed.
Well you can probably guess the outcome of this story.  Team B misses a bunch of free throws in that remaining minute and the home team ties it up with just seconds to go.  The contest does go to overtime and the visiting team did eventually win … but it was a bit harder.
I do wonder the following questions:

What is our reluctance (as officials) to call intentional fouls (NFHS) or flagrant 1 personal fouls (NCAA) at the end of a game …


when the coach is yelling to foul and the defender makes no attempt to play the ball and is trying to stop the clock?
What is our rationale for “anticipating” a defensive team fouling — and rewarding this practice by quickly calling that foul, that many times is simply incidental contact – gaining no defensive advantage?
A recent NFHS Poll is asked our opinion on such topics.  One suggestion is to allow the defensive team a choice of shooting free throws or inbounding the ball again, when fouled in the bonus.  The other is to change the definition of “intentional foul” to add severity and take the subjectivity of “intent” out of the equation.
My only take away here is … if you have a patient whistle during the end of a game, you are more likely to allow incidental contact to occur without “blowing.”  This might not be inline with the thinking of the basketball purist but it will keep a closer balance between offense / defense in the closing minutes competitive game.
Your thoughts and stories around this topic are welcomed below.
Rule References
NFHS 4-27,  4-19-3, 4-28-4  NCAA 4.29.2c, 4.40

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1 thought on “When a Foul is Not a Foul

  1. After 25 years of officiating I have heard this explanation more times than I care to remember – at the end of the game when the defense is trying to foul, in the interest of player safety, don’t make them foul “hard” to get your whistle. I agree contact needs to be genuine for the foul as opposed to the “ghost” foul we sometimes see, but in this day and age where safety reigns, I don’t see the advantage/disadvantage issue as being significant.

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