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How to fix the cruel foul-out rule
by Dennis Hans / May 25, 2003

The most dumb and cruel rule in all of sports — the foul-out rule — reared its ugly head again last Wednesday. Dallas superstar Dirk Nowitzki was whistled for three fouls in the first seven minutes. He then sat and watched for nine minutes as the Spurs widened their lead, then came back and played cautiously — and even less defense than normal — the rest of the half as the Spurs blew the game wide open.

I think San Antonio would have won the game even if Dirk hadn’t had a whiff of foul trouble. But I’ve seen many playoff games this year where foul trouble or foul outs — affecting good, smart players playing a good, clean game — impacted the outcome. A fifth (and dubious) foul on Tim Duncan in the fourth quarter of Game 1 Monday sent him briefly to the bench and may have been the key to Dallas’s come-from-behind win.

The foul-out rule even affects who guards whom.

The two greatest big men in the game today, Shaquille O’Neal and Duncan, squared off this year in the second round. Both are in their prime, and both are masterful low-post scorers and defenders. This should have been a Clash of Titans, a modern-day Chamberlain-Russell donnybrook.

Just one problem: No matchup. They almost never guarded each other. Duncan used and abused Robert Horry and Mark Madsen, while Shaq did the same to Mr. Robinson and someone who looked like Malik Rose, though I can’t be sure because he was completely blocked out of the camera shots by a Laker three times his size.

If you have a rule that discourages a Best vs. Best confrontation, you tear up that rule. Ali fought Frazier. He didn’t beat up on Frazier’s sparring partner while Frazier did the same to Ali’s sparring partner.

Deion Sanders and Darrell Green would always guard the other team’s best receiver. They wouldn’t want it any other way.

Ric Flair never ducked Dusty Rhodes. Like he told Dusty and countless other challengers, “To be the man you have to beat the man.”

If I were an NBA player, I simply wouldn’t accept a ridiculous rule that routinely — and seemingly arbitrarily — turns gritty competitors into frustrated spectators. If the players anoint me executive director of the Players’ Association, I’ll lead them in a strike until that abomination is fixed.

Let’s be clear: The problem isn’t with the refs. The officiating needs improvement, but the refs do their best. Their job is to call ’em as they see ’em for 48 minutes. It is not their job to keep key players on the court. That’s a job for the NBA rules committee. Sadly, it hasn’t been up to the task.

As one of many bright and brave souls who’ve been campaigning against the foul-out rule for years, I was delighted to hear Jeff Van Gundy Wednesday night add his name to the growing chorus. It’s time to put practical solutions on the table, so we can change the conversation from “Shouldn’t we get rid of this rule?” to “Here are some sensible plans to fix it. The season doesn’t start until the players and owners agree on one.”

To get that conversation started, here is my five-point plan:

1) Each team starts the game with three “foul coupons.” The coach can cash one in at any time to remove a personal foul from a player’s total. For example, it could be used after a player picks up a second foul early in the first quarter. The coach would hand the coupon to the ref and the player would still have just one foul, though the expunged second foul would still count toward the team’s total for the quarter or half. An NBA coach could, if he chooses, use all three coupons on the same player, which would mean he would foul out on his 9th foul.

2) Downgrade non-brutal moving picks from a foul to a loss-of-possession violation — but strictly enforce the rule. The model here is football’s two distinct face-mask penalties, depending on the severity.

3) Downgrade player-control offensive fouls from a foul to a loss-of-possession violation, thereby eliminating the vile practice of flopping a foe into foul trouble. This change also guarantees that drivers — the players that fans pay to see — have just as many defensive fouls at their disposal as jumpshooters and non-shooters, who nobody pays to see. (We’ll also make it considerably more difficult to draw a charge; click here for my analysis on why the current interpretation is grossly unfair to drivers and bad for the game.)

Related to Point 3, the players will make the refs job easier and the game more honest by taking the no-flop pledge: “I will strive to remain upright rather than collapsing from incidental, unavoidable contact.” In turn, we call on refs to enforce the dislodging rule. Right now, many of you punish low-post defenders who make a supreme effort to stay on their feet, while rewarding those who reel, stuntperson style, from real or imagined contact. If you refs don’t keep your end of the bargain, you’ll only encourage the re-emergence of the flop.

4) Ensure that teams don’t benefit from excessive fouling by expanding the definition of “intentional foul” to include obvious grabs by beaten defenders, deliberate shoves to send a poor free-throw shooter to the line, and late-game whacks by trailing teams trying to stop the clock. The intentionally fouled player is awarded two points and his or her team retains possession. Because a possession is worth, on average, one point, the intentional-foul penalty would actually be a “penalty,” which is what penalties are supposed to be. It would cost, on average, three points, which is one more point than the beaten defender prevented. Whacking and grabbing are not skills, so let’s not reward them. As for vicious intentional fouls, the penalty is a 10-game suspension served in Australia as a marked man on a last-place rugby team.

But how will teams rally?

5) With tenacious defense, great shooting and ample possessions, courtesy of a 12-second shot clock in the final two minutes of each half, when time-outs are disallowed. (Thanks to King Kaufman of Salon.com for this innovation.) Under the current rules, the standard method of staging a late rally goes like this: “Commit an intentional foul; fouled player shoots free throws; trailing team hoists a quick trey. Repeat this boring process until the horn blows.” Deliberate whacks, free throws, time outs and jumpshots are never exciting, though sometimes a jumper of free throw is dramatic. I’ll take excitement over drama any day. Excitement means great athletes doing creative things on the move against other great athletes doing their legal best to thwart what the offensive team springs on them. That’s just what our “Final Frantic Flurry” will provide.

Under my rules regime, the impact of a given call, good or bad, will be greatly reduced. The game won’t take a dramatic turn because Baron Davis gets called for two reach-ins in the first two minutes, Paul Pierce is whistled for his third on a dubious charge call early in the second quarter, or Duncan gets his sixth halfway through the fourth on an attempted swat. No player ever again will have to think twice about diving for a loose ball, swatting a shot or penetrating the paint. He or she may not succeed, but the punishment for failure won’t be a long stint on the bench. That’s good for the players and good for the refs.

And that, my friends, is good for the game.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball — including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting — have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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