Are Basketball Fouls Really Arbitrary?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain basketball fouls? They seem totally arbitrary to me.

Thanks,
Otto


Dear Otto,

If we were more cynical on this website, we would say that NBA foul calls aren’t arbitrary, they only seem arbitrary because we don’t know which team the refs have gambled on!

In all sincerity and seriousness though, you are not alone. Basketball fouls are extremely difficult to read. They happen very quickly and there is often very little difference between a foul on one player or the other. Here are probably the three most common fouls to look for.

What is a Reach-in Foul?

A reach-in foul is somewhat self-explanatory. When a player tries to steal the ball from another player, he’s got to be pretty careful. If he touches almost anything other than the ball — an arm, a chest, a face, etc. — it’s a reach-in foul. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be your hand that’s reaching in — it could be any part of your arm (or all of it like in the photo to the left.

The one exception to this rule is that when someone has the ball and their hand is actually on it. When this is the case, like when dribbling or shooting the ball, the player’s hand is considered part of the ball and can be struck or slapped without penalty.

What are Charging and Blocking Fouls?

Charging and blocking are two fouls that can be called in situations that look almost identical. When you see two players collide and a whistle blows, it’s usually either of these two fouls. A charging call is always against the offensive player and a blocking foul always against the defensive player.

Charging and blocking are like the cheese plate at a party or an intersection with a four-way stop sign — it’s all about who gets there first. When two players collide the player who has the foul called on him and the one that gets the call in his favor depends basically on who got there first. If the defender got to the place where the collision was and established himself there (this part is a bit hazy; usually it means that the defenders feet aren’t moving anymore but it could also be that his torso is static even if his feet are still moving a little) before the attacking player arrived then it is a charge and the foul goes against the offensive player. If the defensive player is still moving when the collision happens then it is a block, and the foul goes against the defender.

Trying to guess where an attacking player is going and establishing yourself there so that they run into you is a pretty common defensive strategy. A player doing this is said to be “trying to take a charge.” Sometimes this strategy backfires if the defender guesses wrong or is not quick enough. Sometimes you will see what looks like a defender sliding sideways into a collision. This is a sure sign that the foul will be called a block and go against the defender… except, of course, if the ref has some money riding on the defensive team… Just kidding!

Sincerely,
Ezra Fischer

Why the fuss over Lance Armstrong?

Dear Sports Fan,

I thought Lance Armstrong was just the guy who rode a bike married Sheryl Crowe. Why is the U.S. Government investigating him for stuff that happened a decade ago?

Thanks,
Saoirse

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Dear Saoirse,

Cycling is very much a niche – read, rich, white and primarily European people – sport.  The only time Americans become interested, as with most international sports, is when an American dominates the field.  Lance Armstrong dominated cycling for years and won the Tour de France something like forty years in a row.

As it turns out, even professional cyclists don’t find it particularly easy to ride a bike 125 miles a day through a mountain range in crippling heat. So they look for every advantage they can find. Stunning fact number one: some of them probably cheat. Stunning fact number two: most of them get away with it, because of stunning fact number three: the powers that be can’t keep up with doping technology.

Now, lots of people in the sport were (are?) doing it – but Lance Armstrong won a lot, got famous and married Sheryl Crowe, so he’s all over the feds’ radar. His urine is probably the most studied liquid in history, and it’s always come back clean.….but now his former teammates are telling 60 Minutes (and, one assumes, the Feds)  that he not only took the illegal drugs, he trafficked them and basically dealt them too.

Sincerely,
Dean Russell Bell

My friend's favorite team is out, why is he still watching so much sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

My friend’s favorite team was eliminated from the playoffs a few weeks ago but he seems to be watching as much sports as he was when they were still in it. What’s up with that?

Thought it was over for the year!

Jane

 


Dear Jane,

There’s a few reasons why your friend might still be watching as much of the playoffs now as he was before his favorite team was eliminated. Some people are fans of a team and some people are sports fans; some people are both. Your friend sounds like he is both. So, while he’s likely to be upset by no longer having his team to root for, rooting for “your team” is just one way of rooting.

Once your favorite team is gone you are free to root for other things. People root for close games, for exciting players, for games to get to overtime, for a seven game playoff series to make it to the most exciting seventh game. Everyone who watches sports wants to be able to say they were watching when something great happened.

Fans also tend to create miniature morality plays out of games and playoff series’. For example — the Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat series has been cast as a battle between a group of selfish mercenary stars (the Heat) and a young team built around an unselfish star (Derrick Rose) who are respectful of basketball history and play ‘the right way.’ In the last round of the NHL playoffs, the San Jose Sharks barely beat the Detroit Red Wings in what was an incredibly compelling series in part because it took on the plot of a great Western film; the old, veteran gunslingers (the Red Wings) are outgunned by the younger challenger (the Sharks) but through sheer force of will, guts, and the treachery of old-age try to stave off the inevitable advance of time.

It’s not always clear how much truth there is in these little plots but you can find out a lot about the character of a sports fan by noticing what side he or she takes when watching a game that doesn’t involve a favorite team.

Hope this helps answer your question.

Sincerely,
Ezra Fischer

 

I'm so confused about NASCAR. Help!

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain the popularity of NASCAR? How can people watch a four hour race?

Sincerely,
Confused in Washington D.C.

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Dear Confused in Washington D.C.,

There is no satisfactory explanation for NASCAR’s popularity which, thankfully, seems to be fading. Driving is not a sport. Driving barely qualifies as an activity. There are only two possible scenarios that should lead a normal human being to consider throwing four hours of his or her life away on a NASCAR race.

1. Drinking and driving: Adding alcohol tolerance to the other talents required to be a successful NASCAR driver – ability to turn left, having a large bladder and being slightly insane – would add an element of uncertainty that might make the race worth watching. This could work a couple different ways. One idea is to require every driver to take a shot of whiskey every time they make a pit stop.  A twist: require every member of the pit crew to take a shot every time their driver completes a pit stop.  Bonus feature for this approach: all kinds of new sponsorship opportunities. Jack, Jim Beam, Red Stag – and, if they’re smart, MADD.

2. Throw in a right hand turn every once in a while: One thing you’ll learn as you venture into the world of sports is that most sports require you to go both left and right in some way.  It keeps things interesting and demonstrates an additional level of skill that separates the pros from the rest of us. NASCAR? Not so much.

Barring any of these changes, you should not trouble yourself with NASCAR. You may have a hard enough time figuring out why people like sports that actually matter – and from our perspective, it’s worth investing the time to do that for some sports, cause enjoying them with other people can be a very rewarding and satisfying experience.

But you should not waste a moment of your life trying to relate to anyone who follows NASCAR. If someone in your life – a brother, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a boss – is a die-hard fan and continuously tries to get you into it, we suggest you practice your blank stare and your vacant smiling and nodding. Or disown/break-up with them.

Thanks for your question,
Dean Russell Bell