How to Fix the NBA's Flagrant Foul Problem
These NBA Playoffs have been impacted by flagrant fouls and their consequences like no other. Isn't it time we found a better way to understand flagrant fouls?
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
A huge part of basketball's appeal, and that of sports in general, is the way its rules give shape and order to chaos. The game's churning wildness is a big part of what and why we watch, but we can only understand it in black and white because of the strictures that govern it. On the floor, within the game itself, results are binary: the ball either did or did not go through the hoop after leaving the shooter's hand before or after the buzzer. We know what we are watching, because we know its boundaries.
Except when it comes to hard fouls. Although the official NBA rules about flagrant fouls weight intent as just one factor in assessing the severity of a foul—it's in the mix with severity of contact, positioning, the move's legitimacy as a basketball play, and others—intent plays a major role in how a particularly egregious foul is interpreted by the public. Slow motion can make things look worse, imparting a false sense of intention or theatrical overreaction. When Metta World Peace clocked James Harden with an elbow in 2012, the discussion about it after the fact centered largely on whether it was an intentional attack or an accident in the midst of celebrating a dunk. Most recently, when Kelly Olynyk dislocated Kevin Love's shoulder and knocked him out of the remainder of the playoffs, there was debate about whether Olynyk was actively trying to hurt Love or just making a basketball play. Love said, "I have no doubt in my mind he did it on purpose." Olynyk said, "I don't think I could dislocate someone's arm if I tried. I'd never intentionally hurt someone."
Sometimes this sort of thing is more clear cut than others. There is no way in which Giannis Antetokounmpo was not aggressively trying to bodycheck Mike Dunleavy into the courtside seats in Game 6 of the first round series between the Bulls and Bucks. (Then again, it does appear that Dunleavy was instigating the physical play in that game.) It's equally hard to interpret the foul/assault on Boston's Jae Crowder that got J.R. Smith suspended for the first two games of the Cavaliers second round series against the Bulls as anything other than a spinning backfist worthy of Guile from Street Fighter.
Much of the time, though, egregious fouls fall outside of simple ideas about intention. But what if there's a different way the NBA could look at these fouls?
In the American legal system, there exists a space between the premeditated and the involuntary, which recognizes that intention is not a black and white issue. The space is reserved for acts of reckless indifference that put another in peril, giving juries the option of a guilty finding for a person who wasn't trying to hurt someone, but was acting in such a way that harm and even death was a possible and understood outcome of his or her actions.
Dialed way, way back from actually ending a life, this understanding of intention seems an apt definition for the circumstances surrounding many, many hard fouls in the NBA. Was Kelly Olynyk trying to hurt Kevin Love? I personally doubt it, but he wasn't not trying to hurt him. The intensity of a game, and especially a playoff game, demands a kind of unconscious approach to play, a falling back on instinct, on reaction, on making decisions in an instant; to be anyplace but in the moment would be overwhelming. Ask Chris Paul what he planned to do on the game-winning layup he made against the Spurs and I doubt he would say he was planning every step he took on his way to that shot falling away from the basket. The moment was there, he was in it, and he seized an opportunity.
A lot of the hard fouls we're seeing come from the same place. I doubt Smith was literally trying to coldcock Jae Crowder. It seems much more likely that he swung his fist with the sense that if Crowder got in the way, he'd be fine with it. Looked at in this way, even accidental contact has some degree of intent when it's clear that a player's recklessness can have damaging consequences.
The NBA, to its credit, actually seems to understand this when it comes to meting out punishment. Olynyk will be suspended for one game next season and Smith has already served out his two. But beyond fan bias for one team or another, the public seems to make a decision about these calls entirely based on what a player meant to do: he either meant to hurt someone or didn't.
Perhaps this owes to the black-and-white nature of sports and all those old comforting in-or-out binaries. There is, too, a core human desire to see things in that Manichean way. As much as we love the clarity that wins and losses and rings give us, the players playing the games are often operating on the tips of their nerves, in a place where traditional ideas about intent don't make sense. Accepting a little more gray in how we talk about plays at the margins of the rules would go a long way toward a better understanding of the chaos that can happen within the precisely prescribed boundaries of the court.