Jeff Kearney is the Assistant Director of Campus Recreation at Northeastern University in Boston.
All of us realize that there is going to be contact in the game of basketball. One of
the major responsibilities of a basketball official is to make rulings as to whether
or not the contact is within the spirit and intent of the rules. The rule book does a
nice job in explaining allowable contact, better known as incidental contact (Rule
4, Section 27). To become successful, a basketball official must develop the skill
of knowing when the fine line that separates incidental and illegal (rough) contact
has been crossed. The dividing line between the two centers on
advantage/disadvantage. We know the rules allow us to penalize a player that
has placed an opponent at a disadvantage due to illegal contact. Much emphasis
has been placed on this over the past few years through such theories as the
Tower Philosophy and others. Unfortunately, too many of us have stretched the
definition of incidental contact and misused the Tower Philosophy to not call fouls
when the rules really warrant one. The emphasis needs to be examined closely
m light of the fact that some type of rough play has been a point of emphasis in
nine of the last twelve years at the National Federation level.
Why have we as a group, officials and supervisors, allowed such lack of enforcement? Have we got caught up in all the hype, espoused at other levels
and promoted by the media, to "let ’em play", "no harm, no foul", "we didn’t pay to
come watch a foul shooting contest", etc.? Perhaps we should turn our focus
back to Rule 10, Section 6 (Contact) and reacquaint ourselves with what the
game wants, via its rules. In addition to the disadvantage aspect, an equally
important purpose of the rules is keep players from committing acts that might
lead to roughness. Quite frequently we see action, especially off ball, that may
appear to have no affect on the immediate play, but leads to further roughness if
Following are some of the acts that lead to roughness, and thus need to be
addressed by all of us. We can no longer afford to have some of us "subscribing"
to one version of the rules on contact and the rest of us to another. Some
guidelines are also offered in hopes of getting us back to the spirit and intent of
the rules - a game that places emphasis on finesse and athleticism along with
insuring equal opportunity between offense and defense, the small player and
the big player.
Hand checking is not incidental contact. There are numerous advantages gained
by a player that is allowed to use their hands in an excessive manner - quicker
starts or stops, stopping/slowing or altering the movement of a player, displacing
a player, controlling or anticipating an opponent’s next move. These pertain to
both offense or defense, on or off the ball. Our guidelines:
- Address these at the beginning of the game and stay consistent throughout.
- If a player puts a hand on his/her opponent and leaves it there - IT IS A
- If a player puts both hands on an opponent - IT IS A FOUL!!
- If a player continually "jabs" an opponent - IT IS A FOUL!!
- If a player uses hands or forearms to guide or direct an opponent - IT IS A
This is another use of the hand that allow players to gain an advantage not
permitted by rule. This occurs when a player legally extends an arm into a space
and an opponent reaches out and pulls that arm down (or up) in order to place
their arm into that space. Defensively this occurs an offensive player wants to
give a "target" for a possible pass and the defense wants to replace this "target"
with an arm to cut of the passing lane. Offensively this occurs when a defensive
player legally places an arm in the passing lane and the offensive player
"knocks" this arm down (or up) in order to open up the passing lane. This is not
incidental contact. Our guidelines:
- Officiate in your primary coverage area. Don’t watch the ball when it is not in
- Observe the entire play. Officiate the defense.
- Know who made the first contact, don’t be satisfied with just getting the
retaliation. If you don’t know who started it and now both players are taking turns
doing this then a double foul might be in order.
- If a player uses the "swim stroke" arm movement to lower (or raise) the arm of
an opponent - IT IS A FOUL!!
Low Post Play
Quite frequently the cause for "rising temperatures" in a game is due to undue
physical contact in the low post area. We need recognize deteriorating conditions
and jump on them immediately. The rules do not want this area to be one in
which "only the strongest shall survive". Some tactics that leads to the unraveling
of the status quo include: bumping an opponent to get control over a certain spot
on the floor, using the knee as a "wedge" to subtly move a player. These
situations can be controlled by:
- Officiating in your primary coverage area. Don’t watch the ball when it is not in
- Observing the entire play. Officiate the defense.
- Anticipating the play, but not the call.
- Knowing that when the defensive player wedges a leg or knee into the rear of
an offensive player, and subsequently displaces that player - IS A FOUL!!
- Knowing that when an offensive player dislodges a defensive player by
bumping, pushing or "backing in" - IS A FOUL!!
- Calling a DOUBLE FOUL when both offensive and defensive players get into a
"tug-of-war" as they resist each others' pressure.
- Knowing that a push-off by an offensive player in an effort to catch a lob pass -
IS A FOUL!! Also knowing that defensive support on this type of play must be
Over the past few years loose balls and players diving to recover them has led to
contact that is not allowed by the rules. The incidental rule definition (see below)
on dealing with loose ball situations is very clear. However, many coaches and
players seem to think that it is "open season" on the ball, and that all the rules
regarding contact are temporarily suspended. In some of these situations the
officials should be issued flags to be used for "piling-on" purposes as the play
more resembles football than basketball. There is great potential for injury here
and thus we need to become more diligent in our rulings concerning illegal
contact. Guidelines include:
- Knowing what the rules say about contact in these situations - "Contact which
occurs unintentionally in an effort by an opponent to reach a loose ball, or such
contact which may result when opponents are in an equally favorable positions
...., should not be considered illegal, even though the contact may be severe."
- If contact occurs because a player tried to "go through" or "piled-on" an
opponent -IT IS A FOUL!!
Some of us have adopted an "anything goes" attitude during rebounding
situations. As a result much more illegal contact is permitted. Granted when there
five or six big, strong bodies in close proximity to one another there is going to be
contact. However, with the "anything goes" philosophy players are now "moving"
opponents out of legally obtained positions near the basket in anticipation of
securing a rebound. Players from behind are using the "knee wedge" to push an
opponent under the basket. Players on the inside are dislodging opponents
behind them by leaning into them and then pushing them backwards to get them
away from the basket. in order to make the proper rulings in these situations we
officials need to:
- As trail (and center), be sure to step toward the endline to obtain a better angle
so as to see if the player is "over the back" (NO FOUL) or "on the back" (FOUL)
- Know how a player got "on the back". Was he/she "put" on the back as a result
of a player "backing into" an opponent, or did he/she "put" themselves on the
back of a player that had obtained a legal position on the floor first?
- Know that when a player wedges a leg or knee into the rear of an opponent,
and subsequently displaces that player - IT IS A FOUL!!
We all must take a serious look at affect roughness is having on the game of
basketball. Will "brushing off’ more and more contact situations as incidental help
or hurt the game? The answer can be found in the rule book. If the game wasn’t
concerned about the affect contact would play it wouldn’t have devoted so much
detail in its rules in helping officials to establish the line between incidental
contact and illegal contact. If rough play is ignored we have only ourselves to
blame if (and when) the game of basketball suffers a serious "illness". The
remedy is simple - Let’s not "Let’em play", but rather "Let’em both play"!!