Intentional Fouls

Don’t be boxed in by the wording of the NFHS Intentional Foul rule.

“But I Know It When I See It.”

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart spoke these famous words 50 years ago on a ruling pertaining to the classification of certain adult material as hard-core pornography.

The wise justice explained that while he would not attempt to define all of the X-rated content that could fall under such a subjective category, Justice Potter did state unequivocally that he, ‘knew it when he saw it.’

And so is the case with NFHS Intentional Fouls…You may find it challenging to explain precisely ‘the shades of gray’ that turns the dial on player contact and what ratchets it up from a common foul to an intentional foul, but you better know it when you see it.

The inconsistent rulings on this matter were likely part of the reason Intentional Fouls have been an NFHS Point of Emphasis the last two seasons.

We at REF 60 always try to provide reality-based insight and commentary that will help you be a more effective game manager, which will improve your standing with coaches, your assignor and your fellow official, so in this post we look at Intentional Fouls, and suggest that you be mindful to not be too literal in your interpretation of NFHS Rule 4-19-3.

Dissecting the rule, we read in part that an Intentional Foul “may or may not be premeditated…and is not based solely on the severity of the act…”

The sole mission of every team when they are playing defense is premeditated: to not let their opponent score….So every bump, clutch and grab is done with the ‘intent’ to prevent a basket from being scored against them, and to regain possession of the basketball as quickly as possible.

This means you need to be able to distinguish between a A-1 grabbing B-1 as B-1 tries to slash to the basket; and A-1 desperately grabbing B-1’s as B-1 has created ample separation and is about to receive a pass for an easy attempt at a layup.

And you need to be able to make the distinction between common foul or intentional foul in warp speed time.

You have to know it when you see it.       

And while the rule advises not to only focus on defensive fouls that are severe; you would be wise to put your judgment in hyper-drive when there is contact that brings the offensive team’s coach and its spectators to their feet in righteous protest.

The calling official will gain precious extra time to decide whether to rule an Intention Foul as he/she runs with a raised fist to the tangled bodies on the floor. While you are separating the combatants, you are reviewing the play in your mind’s eye. Your partners may offer some quick insight, and then its time to move to the reporting area and let everyone know if what just transpired rose to the level of being ruled an Intentional Foul.

Was this foul different than all of the other common fouls called in this contest?

Officials might be aided if the NFHS would consider adding a new signal to indicate an “excessive foul.”  This would provide more clarity as to why the referees are awarding two free throws and the ball for the scenario of a clean competitive play that results in a hard foul.

It would certainly go a long way to reducing the wailing of, “he/she was playing the ball!!” by coaches, players and fans.

Rule 4-19-3 also counsels us about, “contact that neutralizes an opponent’s obvious advantage…contact away from the ball….and contact designed to specifically stop the clock,” and all call for steady, consistent and big picture judgement.

  • An obvious mismatch (small vs tall) can bring about a ‘deliberate’ foul, without it being an intentional foul.
  • A defensive foul away from the game action can be ‘deliberate’ without it being intentional.
  • And a foul in the final minutes of a game can be a deliberate strategy that does not warrant an intentional foul.

You just have to know it when you see it.

So it to that end that we suggest you strive to find that perfect balance between the theory of the written rule, and the reality and context of its application in a competitive, heated moment.

While authors and editors are largely correct in their challenge for all officials to muster their courage and call an Intentional Foul when it warrants such a call; you would be wise to tread cautiously and not misinterpret rule book language that will damage the game at hand, and your future reputation.

A proven strategy for success in any walk of life is to model people who have already achieved the level of success you desire. And I would suggest if you monitored the work of battle-tested veteran referees (your cable TV package offers a plethora of college games almost every night for this exercise) you will see officials who use great discretion when it comes to dropping an Intentional Foul on a team.

Think about all of the close games you have watched that became a parade to the foul line in the final minutes as the trailing team employed a tactic of fouling with the obvious intent of stopping the clock and the hope of regaining possession after a couple of missed free throws…

How many of those games can you remember an Intentional Foul being called?

It’s my guess, not too many…

The point is to exercise a solid common sense, reality-based officiating mindset so as not to get buried because you dug too deep into NFHS Rule 4-19-3 on Intentional Fouls.


About the Author

25 thoughts on “Intentional Fouls

  1. As an official of another sport (football), I find reading your column interesting and try and incorporate some of your philosophies on the field. I like the term “excessive”. Some would say all fouls in basketball are intentional. I like your theory of knowing it when you see it. Every game has its own flavor. It is tough to tell young officials this.

  2. It is kind of funny that this year we are finally calling fouls as fouls and the author is telling us to not call deliberate fouls. BTW, deliberate is not in the rule book.

  3. I have told coaches on close games, during halftime, to be sure that their players are making a play for the ball if the game is close and fouling is part of their strategy, or we would call intentional fouls.

  4. I have notice coaches are getting the message when they yell terms such as “fire” or “red” as an indicator to their players to foul, rather than yelling “foul” which makes our decision much easier when questioned as to why we call and intentional. By the way, great column guys. Interesting topics!

  5. The “intent” of the article was to suggest that officials should exercise caution before determining that a common foul was indeed an intentional foul…

    The use of the word of the word “deliberate” was offered as a synonym to indicate you could have one (deliberate) without it automatically being the other (intentional)….For example, B-1 steals the ball from A-1 and B-1 has a clear path to the basket and while A-1 attempts to regain possession, he/she subsequently fouls B-1 resulting in a sideline throw-in for B-1.

    Likely a ‘deliberate’ foul; but not an intentional foul.

    Also, the article does not suggest officials shrink from the responsibility of ruling a foul as intentional; it simply advises referees to be sure that the contact rises to the level of the penalty (two FT’s, even if the ball goes in the basket, and possession) before dropping such a heavy hammer.

    To be clear, EVERY intentional foul should be ruled as such, EVERY time. The game and your officiating career will benefit from such courage and steady judgment.

    However, what I don’t believe will stand up to close scrutiny is a marginal intentional foul ruling in the final minute of a close game that plays a critical part in deciding the outcome.

    That strategy, I believe, is not a long-term formula for officiating success.

    “60 Seconds on Officiating” always strives to present content that is informative and helpful for referees to be better game managers. We do that by offering a point of view on interpretations of specific rules, and by modeling the game skills of officials who have already achieved a high level of success in our chosen avocation.

    1. Tim:

      Great article that has obviously resulted in a good exchange of ideas.

      We all struggle with fouls at the end of the game, but I have always done well with the following: If there is contact near the end of the game that I would not have ruled a foul on in the 1st quarter, or that I would not have ruled an intentional foul in the 1st quarter, then I will not rule any different. The key is consistency: an intentional foul is the same in the 1st or 4th quarter.

  6. Tim

    Great timing of this article. I just witnessed a game with 4 seconds remaining and the team with the possession on the throw training by a point. Location of throw was just inside division line of front court. The player,A1, receiving pass broke past defender, B-1, who had reached for ball and missed but grabbed A-1 around waist with other hand. At this point clock was at 1.6 seconds when foul called. Official calling foul did not rule it itintentional. Coach was furious. Comments. Game ended after coach called time-out and last play unsuccessful.

    1. This play is a clear example of what SHOULD be called intentional. This one on one situation presents a defender with the goal of stopping the clock “legally” (by making a legit play on the ball) and an offensive player trying to catch and dribble to avoid the clock stopping contact of the defender. As stated By Tim, the offensive player prevailed, gaining the advantage as the defender failed to reach the ball and the clock continued to run. As an attempt to make up for his defensive failure, the defender reached out to grab the offensive player around the waist, illegally stopping the clock. Often times this is not a hard foul and certainly there was no excessive contact. But the defender failed to “legally” stop the clock and his waist grab MUST be recognized as an intentional (effort to stop the clock) foul.

      Failure to make the correct call, rewards the failed effort of the defender and seriously disadvantages the offense. Have the stones to make the correct call. Maintain the intent of the rule.

  7. “while A-1 attempts to regain possession, he/she subsequently fouls B-1” note: “while A-1 attempts to regain possession” — s/he’s making a play on the ball. However, if it’s a jersey or off-ball arm grab to get a cheap shot at an obvious advantage or stop the clock it must be rules intentional. It only takes a few seconds to remind coaches at your meeting “If your players want to stop the clock in the event of a close game, make sure they are making a play on the ball and not the player”.(Coaches, “Uh, OK”. If a coach complains that you “intentionaled” that slight push on the back “But they’re trying to foul!”, you should tell them they agreed to it at the meeting. ’nuff said. The offense has worked hard to get a few points ahead. The officials should not now give an advantage to the defense by allowing them to foul off-ball while the offense is working hard to keep the ball away and run the clock. If not called correctly, the officials have an impact on the game by giving the defense an advantage they have not earned. Especially at lower-level and HS games, a player will push on the back of a player trying to keep the ball away in a clear effort to foul and stop the clock. He is taking advantage of the official’s reluctance to call an intentional. That must be called — and it will teach the player, team and coach to not employ cheap tactics.

  8. An Intentional Foul should not be confused with a Flagrant foul, an Intentional Foul is any foul that the official feels is intentional for whatever reason. It could be a grab and hold or it could be a light pull on a jersey just to stop the clock in order to put their team on the FT line giving them, the fouling team, the opportunity to rebound a missed FT and have the potential to cut into their lead. The officials job is not to be a pawn for the team who is fouling intentionally to stop the clock. There are too many officials who have become willing to do their part to HELP the fouling team gain the advantage by stopping the clock and then not ruling the foul as intentional. It has made a mockery of the game and we as leaders and officials need to get back to making these decisions as the rules of the game are intended, not by a philosophy that fits the coaches attempt to circumvent the rule. The coaches will adapt to how the game is officiated if we as officials demonstrate the intestinal fortitude and the integrity to rule these intentional fouls, no mater how seemingly minor, as intentional. Two free throws and the ball out of bounds will put and end to this problem.

  9. As far as “upgrading” from a common fould to intentional (excessive contact), I like to teach that if the contact causes something other than the victim’s shoes to return to the floor first then we’d need a good reason NOT to rule the contact excessive. This takes juadgement out of these plays and makes them more balck & white for learning officials. For strategic fouls at the end of the game, if the fouler cannot possibly reach the ball from their defensive position, or worse – not even SEE the ball when they commit the contact foul, this is a key factor in ruling that a fould is likely intentional as opposed to deliberate/strategic.

  10. As an assignor for various leagues, I meet with the coaches of those leagues at the beginning of each season to update them on the new rules. One of the things I stress is that they should never yell at a player to foul at the end of the game because it will only force the official to call an intentional foul since everyone in the gym is aware of what the plan is. Instead, they should come up with some code word or talk about it during a timeout. I also tell officials who are working games with very young players to anticipate a foul at the end of a close game and call the slightest contact right away before the player commits a hard foul to get the official’s attention.

  11. Intentional fouls have never and will never be called the way they are supposed to be called. Intentional fouls are called during the game but they are not being called at the end of games. Why? Because most officials believe that, at the end of the game, teams are going to foul and it is up to the offensive team to make their free throws. They are called free throws for a reason. An official will look at contact, at the end of a game, and say to himself/herself that was not flagrant and it was not meant to hurt the opponent so why give the offensive player two shots and the ball. The penalty is too severe for the foul.
    This is no different than the rule on a player intentionally going out of bounds. A few years back, the penalty was changed to a violation instead of a technical foul since officials weren’t calling it because the penalty was too severe. It was changed to a violation and all of a sudden it is being called.
    To make the rule in line with what is actually being called or not called, there should be an exception added after Rule 4-19-3 that states the following:

    EXCEPTION: It is not an intentional foul to contact an opponent, in possession of the ball, with the purpose of stopping the clock and no excessive force is used and no such act is flagrant in anyway.

    There is too much pressure on officials to make intentional calls when the penalty is not warranted. Two (2) shots and the ball is not fair when the whole world knows that the strategy is to have the offense make shots to preserve the win. As long as the fouls are not flagrant, that is the way the game should be and is officiated at this point in time. Just call it the way it is written and you won’t have a problem is what some officials would say. But, it will NEVER happen. So, do we keep pretending we will call it as written or will we keep calling it as we have forever?

  12. It sounds to me like the author is suggesting that fouls in the last minute of close game should be ruled differently than fouls in the first, second, third and most of the fourth quarter. And, officials should not make decisions which might effect the outcome of the game. This is an example of exactly what creates confusion in the minds of new officials. Any training organization that teaches this philosophy based officiating is doing harm to the sport in which they represent. This is why IAABO has the motto of ‘One Rule, One Interpretation’, and why there should be no such thing as a NO Call in officiating. The game should be officiated the same way from start to finish and if an official does not have the backbone to make the ruling as he/she sees it, they don’t belong in officiating. As an evaluator/observer and former official, too many times I see otherwise excellent officials swallow their whistle at the end of a tight contest and destroy the game and the image they had established. I do agree that there needs to be something done either with the Intentional foul rule OR states that leadership in officiating demands that officials adhere to the rules of the game whether they agree with them or not. Maybe the rule change should be that all fouls in the last two minutes on the team which is behind will be two FTs and the ball out of bounds. Whatever the rule, officials should be expected to follow the rule, not their own personal philosophy.

  13. Thank you for the great comments by everyone who expressed a point of view on this important topic…

    The goal of every post on REF 60 is to offer some helpful tips to call on in the heat of a game to help referees be better game managers; which will in turn make you a valued partner for any crew, a more in demand official by coaches and assignors…

    Also, I would respectfully suggest to those who commented above about, “having the courage to call the intentional foul,” that too much misplaced “courage” in the final minutes of a close game will have a negative impact on an official’s career.

    I’m a believer in modeling the work of successful people in the fields that interest me, and for referees, that likely means emulating highly-regarded Division I officials.

    I wonder if anyone who saw the exciting overtime finish of the Duke-Syracuse game, believes this respected crew demonstrated a “lacked the courage” on their decision to call a common foul, and not an intentional foul, on the Duke player who desperately grabbed the Syracuse player from behind?

    The crew I believe chose a path of common sense and great judgment and let the players decide the outcome.

    Good people can have honest disagreements about officiating philosophies, and REF 60 expresses a point of view that attempts to model the work of our game’s most accomplished officials.

    We believe this approach does not demonstrate a lack of courage or integrity, and we will never recommend a strategy that would leave a referee as the most courageous official sitting home on game night.

  14. Tim:

    I agree with you and your philosophy but why not make a change in the rule that would finally make what officials have always been doing correct by rule? I am only talking about a foul, at the end of a game on a player with the ball, that is done to stop the clock. If it is done with any force or flagrant that is a simple intentional or flagrant foul just like always. All other intentional rules remain the same. But, just a touch foul to stop the clock should be a common foul as it is called 99% of the time.

  15. Tim: I agree as well with the expressed philosophy and with Jay’s take on that. My concern lies with the fact that officials are passing on that end of game foul even when it is clearly intentional or flagrant to the point that it ends up as a “no call” – too often I have heard the expression (just yesterday again) “I wasn’t going to call that and decide the game.” Players and their actions or inactions decide the game and it is our role to bring the “fairness” factor to the game. My local officials have been reminded time and again that these chase and touch contacts are incidental contact. To call the foul is to place the offense at a disadvantage whether they go to the line or not. They want the clock to run out and as long as play stays within the rules structure they deserve that privilege if they can achieve it. If the contact goes beyond incidental, prevents the offense from its freedom of movement, then step in and call the foul – if excessive we are going intentional or flagrant. I see it as an integrity thing if an official passes on an obvious foul to cover his b— in hopes of moving on to bigger and better. I see the most respected officials working within the rules and clearly able to explain their call or no call. That’s the difference between the successful and wannabe official.

  16. I also always have found it very interesting over the many years and couple of decades that I have been officiating and advocating calling closer to the rules…so we keep the contact down…that others try to stop it in its tracks whenever it comes out -because it does not fit into their mental picture of the game they “Used to do” or “do under their interpretation of things”. I do not believe either in being excessive – but this is not about that. It is about getting the foundation in to regain control of the game legally and by rule. And it does not tell us to be absolute, but it does insist on and direct us to be more to be more compliant and change ourselves to enforce these issues of hand-checking and intentional-fouls more freely and more professionally and more regularly – like the rules committee calls us to do. And they basically call us wimps for not calling fouls the way they have written them – yes they were previously in the Points of Emphasis but others thought that was a “suggestion” when it was not! And it has been in the case books but we ignore it under those ridiculous “advantage/disadvantage” and “no harm/no foul” cliches to the point of being failures of our craft. And then – when they actually incorporate them into the rules like with this years changes and tell us to “Grow a Pair” and use them. The first thing you see is the “Old Guys” as indicated in Referee Magazine and other places start writing articles about “how it really is” or “what they think about the rule” or “we better be careful in our enforcement of it – as written – and then talk about “reality” and “On the court” stuff. Well, I see “reality” and the courts are becoming messy at the high school and middle school levels and I am “on the court” and I for one am very glad the Committee “Grew a Pair” and put it into the Rules and said “Get with the Program” officials & get Control of these Bumper Car Games again. It is too bad that at times the left behinds try to convince us that once again we should ignore the demand and directives to Call The Rules the way they are designed & written and to just leave it as it was in bygone days or with just the old Status Quo of the past -for their own peace of mind and unwillingness to change. It is true what the recent Referee article said when it pointed out that if anyone will have the hardest time adjusting to this necessary improvement and part of the game for the future – it will be the “Old Salts – the Long Timers and the Old Timers”. As for me I am going to pregame it with coaches and players and call it as intended.

  17. As a coach I get frustrated when officials don’t seem take into consideration the events of the game. Tonight I witnessed the worst officiated game of my life. With 30 seconds left we were down three. I told our players to foul after we scored. However, we scored and then stole the inbound pass to go up one. When they threw the ball in one of our players grabbed one of their players thinking we were still fouling. He grabbed him lightly with two hands. The referee gave them two free throws and the ball out. We lost. I understand what those here are saying about not calling things different in the last minute but I played all through college and I promise you no player wants referees to take the game out of the players hands like that.

  18. I wish this would be removed. There is a lot of bad advice given in this article. The rule is very specific and should be called as written, not “I know it when I see it”.

    NFHS Basketball Rule 19.4.3.- Intentional Foul

    ART. 3 . . . An intentional foul is a personal or technical foul that may or may not be premeditated and is not based solely on the severity of the act. Intentional fouls include, but are not limited to:
    a. Contact that neutralizes an opponent’s obvious advantageous position.
    b. Contact away from the ball with an opponent who is clearly not involved with a play.
    c. Contact that is not a legitimate attempt to play the ball/player specifically designed to stop
    the clock or keep it from starting.
    d. Excessive contact with an opponent while the ball is live or until an airborne shooter
    returns to the floor.
    e. Contact with a thrower-in as in 9-2-10 Penalty 4.

  19. It is simple and I don’t understand any other thinking. An intentional foul is just that. If a player “intentionally” fouls another player, then it is intentional. Why would it not be? Because the offense gains a greater advantage of getting two free throws AND the ball? Well, that is what the rule book says is the consequence, so be it. If the defense doesn’t want that to happen, then don’t intentionally foul. A foul that is committed with the purpose of stopping the clock is an intentional foul. Period!

  20. Intentional fouls are easy to call: this official is like most: doesn’t have the balls to make the call.

  21. Zebras also don’t have the balls to call a flop “trying to draw a player control foul” (flopping to draw a charge) It’s a technical foul: unsportsmanlike conduct.

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