Why does an NFL ref throw his hat on the field?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching the football game between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers last night and noticed that a ref had thrown his hat on the field. I know what i means when refs throw yellow flags, but why does an NFL ref throw his hat on the field?


Dear Ana,

Being an NFL ref is not a full-time job but it can be fun — for one thing, they do get to throw a bunch of different objects! As you mentioned, the most common thing for a ref to throw is a yellow flag. This symbolizes a foul that he has seen and intends to call. At times, you may also see refs throw a small, blue bean bag onto the field. No, it’s not the 1990s again, the ref isn’t about to sit down on the bean bag! The bean bag is thrown to the spot where a change of possession happened, because a penalty called after that time will often refer to that spot – i.e. five yards from the spot of the interception, fumble recovery, or kick return. Throwing things is fun, as is explaining why NFL refs throw things, but you didn’t ask about flags or bean bags, you asked about hats. Let’s get down to the hat.

The simplest reason for a ref to throw her hat is because she’s already thrown her flag! That’s right. Instead of carrying a backup flag, if a ref sees a second penalty to call after throwing his flag for the first one, his only recourse is to throw his hat. This is simply a brilliant move. Not only is throwing a hat a fun thing to do, but it’s also what cartoonishly angry people do in old comedies or cartoons to show their anger. I love thinking about the original ref who believed so firmly in law and order that he got super angry at seeing a second (a second!!) foul on the same play that he threw his hat in anger… and it became the standard for dealing with that situation. You might ask what happens if a ref sees a third foul. I don’t know, but Jerry Markbreit and Alan Steinberg’s book Last Call: Memoirs of an NFL Referee suggests an amusingly scatalogical solution.

Seeing two fouls on one play does happen, but more frequently the cause for an NFL’s hat throwing is something different. Football players are expected to stay on the football field while play is going on. This is not normally a problem, except perhaps with very young children who are prone to wandering. Sometimes though, a player running down the sideline, especially someone on the offense who is trying to get in position to catch a pass, will step out-of-bounds inadvertently or in an attempt to get around a defender. When this happens, that player becomes ineligible to catch the ball. Just stepping out-of-bounds is not against the rules, so no flag should be thrown, but if the player who goes out-of-bounds catches the ball, then there’s a penalty. So, in order to help remember that the player has gone out-of-bounds, the ref watching him throws his hat to the ground and later, if the catch is made, throws his flag. The one exception to this rule is if the offensive player has been pushed out-of-bounds by a defender. In this case, he is allowed to catch the ball as soon as he re-establishes himself in bounds by touching the field with both feet or some part of his body other than his hands. No hat need be thrown in this situation.

What other sport requires their officials to throw so many things! Ah, football.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How do suspensions in soccer work?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain to me how Clint Dempsey was supposedly suspended from games but is starting tonight? I’m confused. How do suspensions in soccer work?

Brian Cadavid

Dear Brian,

As we now know, Clint Dempsey did play in last night’s Gold Cup match between the United States men’s national team and Honduras. It’s a good thing for the team that he did, too, because he scored the team’s two goals on their way to a 2-1 victory. It was a bit of a surprise though. Last night’s game was played less than a month after Dempsey was thrown out of a game he was playing for his club team, Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders, after grabbing a referee’s notebook out of his hands and tearing it up.

This violation, as silly as it seems, by the letter of the rules, qualifies as assaulting the ref. A violation of this type is supposed to come with a minimum of a six game suspension. If Clint Dempsey had received a six or more game suspension for assaulting the referee, he would have been banned from taking part in any official soccer while serving the six game suspension. Since the Sounders only had three games between Dempsey’s infraction and last night’s USMNT game against Honduras, a six game ban would have excluded Dempsey from participating. SB Nation’s Sean Steffen wrote a post about this logic before the ruling had been handed down. When the ruling came, it was a major surprise: only three games. As Doug McIntyre wrote for ESPN, “It’s good to be a big-name star like Clint Dempsey in Major League Soccer.” Crisis averted – Dempsey would be able to play in the Gold Cup.

The way that this suspension worked is the exception, not the rule in global soccer. In the vast majority of leagues, and even in the MLS for non-assault based infractions, yellow cards, red cards, and suspensions that a player receives do not bleed over into other forms of competition. This is important because soccer players, way more than players in any other sport, play in different competitions simultaneously. In the course of a month, a player may play for a national team and for his or her club team in a league game and in one or more cup or tournament games. For example, Clint Dempsey was playing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup when he earned that red card. His team’s next game was a normal MLS league game. And then, as we know, he went and played for the national team. The same trichotomy exists, perhaps even more, for players who play in European club soccer. Each league and cup and tournament has its own rules about suspensions. Although they are all quite similar, thanks to the octopus-like international soccer organization, FIFA, when it comes to suspensions, they each have mostly separate jurisdictions. A yellow card picked up in the Champions League does not carry over into the British Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. A suspension a player gets during an international game for their country usually only pertains to international games.

The fact that if Clint Dempsey had been suspended for six games for his “assault” on a referee, his suspension would have applied not just to games played for the Seattle Sounders but also to games played by the U.S. men’s national team is the exception that proves the rule. Most suspensions in soccer only apply to the form of soccer being played when the player commits the act that gets him or her suspended.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What is a good foul?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. Sometimes while watching a game on TV, usually basketball or hockey, I hear the announcer say something like “that was a good foul.” What does that mean? Is it a moral judgement? A stylistic one? What is a good foul?

Just wondering,

Dear Ronnie,

I love the idea of a foul being morally good. And while I’d love to invent scenarios where that is the case, the most common usage of the phrase “good foul” refers to a foul being good in a tactical sense. Tactically speaking, a foul is considered good if it benefits the team committing it by either increasing the likelihood of their scoring or more likely decreases the likelihood of the other team scoring.

Here are some examples of common good fouls from different sports:

  • In basketball, any foul that prevents a player who is close to the basket from making a dunk or a layup is thought to be a good foul because the team that has committed the foul trades a close to 100% chance of giving up two points for giving up two free throws. With the league average free throw percentage right around 75%, this clearly a good trade. One danger of trying to commit this type of good foul is that if the foul doesn’t actually keep the player from making that easy dunk or layup, they could be given the two points plus a single extra free throw. This is called an “and one” and a foul that results in this is always a bad foul.
  • In soccer, there are two similar but slightly different types of good fouls. There is a subtle, non-dramatic foul that stops a team which looks like it is about to generate a scoring chance in its tracks. There is also an obvious foul once a team has a clear and extremely threatening scoring chance. The first type is generally not penalized with a card, or if it is, it’s a yellow card, but the latter almost always is. Even if the player committing the second type of good foul gets a red card, and their team is forced to play a player down for the rest of the game, the foul is still generally thought of as good if it prevented a goal. That’s how important goals are in the low-scoring sport of soccer. These intentional good fouls are sometimes called “professional fouls” in soccer.
  • Good fouls in hockey are similar to soccer, with one additional category. In hockey, a violent foul that doesn’t affect a scoring chance may sometimes be called a good foul for reasons of morale. Hockey teams are often thought to run on emotion, maybe even a little bit more than other sports, and a player can stir up their team by roughing it up or even fighting with a player from another team. This type of emotional effort is retroactively judged to be good if it works, but if the player’s team doesn’t react or if the opposition scores on the resulting power play, it may be thought of as a bad foul.

The concept of a good foul in sports is an interesting one because it reveals that the rules in sports are not actually rules. They’re more like guidelines. The existence of set penalties in every sport — free kicks and yellow or red cards in soccer, foul shots in basketball, power plays in hockey — proves that these rules are expected to be broken. Rules in sports generally aren’t drawn on moral or ethical lines. No one gets mad at a player who takes a good foul in basketball and gives the other team two free throws. When you see athletes get mad, it’s usually because they feel that some unwritten rule has been broken — that a player has taken a good foul but done it in an unnecessarily violent way. As a character from one of my favorite P.G. Wodehouse books, Monty Bodkin in Heavy Weather says frequently, “There are wheels within wheels.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What Does "And One" Mean in Basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,
What does the phrase “and one” mean? I hear it a lot during basketball games but I don’t know what it means.

Dear Susan,
“And one” is a phrase that’s used when someone is fouled while taking a shot in basketball – either a jump-shot (farther away from the basket) or a layup or dunk (right at the basket). If the player makes the basket and the ref calls a foul on the defender who’s guarding them as the shot is being taken, the basket counts AND the player gets to take a single free throw. Hence the and one.Frequently you hear players yell out “and one” when they make a shot and feel that they did so despite being fouled, even if the ref didn’t call the foul – this is the player’s not-so-subtle way of chastising the ref for missing the call. Sometimes a the shooter will even shout “and one” before they know that their shot has gone in. Regardless of whether the foul is called, there won’t be an “and one” foul shot if they don’t make the basket. So shouting “and one” before a shot goes in is a complex emotional feat — being cocky and aggrieved at the same time!Everyone should be able to understand that aggrieved “and one” feeling – just think about being at work and being given a difficult task, and then accomplishing that task even in the face of someone or something unfairly inhibiting you. Say, for example, you’ve been teamed with the office dud – a real nothing burger of a co-worker – and tasked with pitching a prospective client. And say you get the account despite your colleague’s general uselessness – and your boss comes in and congratulates you both on a job well done without mentioning that you succeeded in spite of your dead weight colleague, not because of them – well, then, you too know what it is to shout “AND ONE” plaintively and futilely at the gods.

Word to the wise though — do not actually shout “and one” in a board meeting. That won’t go over well.

Thanks for reading,
Dean Russell Bell

What Does it Mean to Have a Foul to Give?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve been watching some basketball and towards the end of games the announcer will sometimes say that a team has a “foul to give.” What does that mean?


Dear Doug,

In the NBA each player can commit five fouls before getting kicked out of the game for good on the sixth. A team cannot get kicked out of a gave for fouling too many times (although Chuck Klosterman wrote a great story about a team winning with only three players left at the end of the game) but there are consequences for fouling a lot. We’ll get to what these consequences are in a second, but first we have to quickly define a few different types of fouls.

  1. An offensive foul is when someone whose team has the ball does something against the rules to a player whose team does not have the ball.
  2. A defensive foul is when someone whose team doesn’t have the ball does something illegal to someone whose team does have the ball.
  3. A shooting foul is a type of defensive foul that happens when someone does something illegal to a player who is in the act of shooting the basketball.
  4. A non-shooting foul is… well, you know, all the other defensive fouls that aren’t shooting ones.

Only defensive fouls count towards the team total. The count of team fouls resets to zero at the start of each quarter. On fouls one through five the player who is fouled will shoot two free-throws only if the foul was a shooting foul. After the fifth foul, from foul six until the end of the quarter, the player who is fouled shoots two free-throws for any defensive foul — no matter if they were shooting or not when fouled. This state of being for a team is called “the bonus.”

Okay — we finally have enough background to answer your question. Having a foul to give means that a team has not yet reached the fifth foul of the quarter. In other words — they can still foul the other team at least once before the other team is in the bonus and will shoot free throws when fouled. At the end of a game or quarter, having a foul to give is particularly useful because a defensive team can use it to disrupt the other team’s plans. If the offensive team has fifteen seconds left, they can set up a nice play to run but the team with a foul to give can wait until there are about three or four seconds left and then give that foul (i.e. foul the player with the ball.) Because the other team is not in the bonus, they will not shoot free-throws, they will just get the ball back and have to pass it in from out of bounds and try to run another play but this time with only a few seconds.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer


Why Aren't the Rules the Rules? (Part 2)

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?


— — —

(This is a continuation of an answer to this question. The first half was posted here.)

It will ruin the game:

There is some concern that adding technology to sports will ruin the game by making it too sterile or too slow. Taking the humanity out of the game could be a concern, but as much as people love discussing disputed calls at the water cooler, they also love talking about great (and terrible) performances, and great (and terrible) decisions on the part of the players and coaches. There will always be something to talk about. As for making the game too slow… uh… it could not possibly slow down the game as much as television time-outs, arguing with refs about calls, or in the case of baseball… adjusting your batting gloves, hat, glove, or cup compulsively over and over and over again.

It’s too expensive:

FIFA, the notoriously frustrating international federation of soccer refuses to add video replay to international competition because it would be too expensive for some of its member nations to implement. This is a curious reason since it seems like knowing ahead of time that you will actually know whether the ball crossed the goal line during the game shouldn’t change any element of tactics or strategy.

What do you mean “right?”

This is the heart of the answer to your question. A rule says, “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent” but does that mean “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent” or “it’s against the rules to trip an opponent if you get caught?” It’s clear from these two sports cliches which way the sports world leans: “it’s not a foul if you don’t get caught” and “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

Sports, particularly baseball is all about cheating. The last twenty years have been shaped by steroids and HGH. Before that there were amphetamines called greenies. Before that teams regularly intimidated officials or just plain assaulted them when they didn’t like the calls they were getting. It’s well know that the 1919 World Series was fixed by a few players on the White Sox and there have always been unproven rumors that the 1918 one might have been fixed as well. Cyclists are jam-packed full of drugs. They have been for a long time but “tiny electric motors…?” That’s a new one.

Even if a player is clean when he steps onto the court, he or she is rarely clean by the end of the game. Some of the most memorable plays in sports history have been the beneficiaries of some incorrect or missed calls. In soccer there is the “hand of god” goal, in basketball, Michael Jordan’s famous shot to beat the Utah Jazz is an offensive foul. Watch the video and notice Jordan’s left hand on his defender’s hip… he definitely pushes off.

Jordan is not great in spite of pushing off, he’s great partially because he pushed off and didn’t get caught.

Another way to state the question is — do we really want to have the game called “perfectly?” Here’s an example of this in the non-sports world. We certainly have the technology to identify each car and driver and what road they are on. Why shouldn’t we simply fine people whenever they go over the speed limit? Why waste all the time, money, and talent of our police departments lurking around trying to catch people when we could just automate it? I know we’ve started doing this with running some red lights, but I think that if we tried to automate speeding tickets on a large scale there would be riots and political parties would shape up around the issue… and I’m not sure which would be worse! It’s the same with most sports — a totally policed game is a boring one.

Thanks for the fun question,
Ezra Fischer

Why Aren't the Rules the Rules?

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?



Dear Erik,

Great question! In fact, this is such an interesting question that I’m going to break my answer into a couple blog posts.

The bad call that you’re referring to is this one:

It won’t work:

Sports rules are complicated and the action happens very, very quickly. Assuming that there is no way that we’re going to be able to rework the rules to change something as integral as “if the catcher has the ball in his glove and touches the runner before he touches home plate, he’s out” then one has to wonder how technology will help. Setting aside video replay for a second, let’s look for another solution. Okay, so — let’s put a chip in the ball. Then, let’s put some material in the catcher’s glove such that the ball knows when it’s in the glove. Great — now we’re cooking with gas! Now we have to have either more material covering the runner’s uniform… and hands, arms, head, neck, etc. Or, I guess we could just monitor whether the glove is making contact by putting some sort of pressure meeter into the ball or glove. Except that won’t work because that glove could hit the ground, the ump, or the catcher’s own body. I’m not sure any of this will work, so let’s go back and examine video replay.

Video replay is the most common form of technology in sports. Football, basketball, hockey, even baseball (believe it or not) have some form of video replay in their rules. In baseball use of video replay is restricted to basically deciding whether a ball was a home run or whether it never left the ball-park, did leave but was subject to fan interference, or left but was foul (too far off to the side to count.) Other sports have more extensive video replay rules. You may have noticed NFL coaches comically struggling to get a little red flag out of their sock, pants, shirt, etc. and throw it onto the field — they are “challenging” the ref’s judgement and calling for a video replay. Every goal in hockey is reviewed by a team of video officials in Toronto. The NBA has been able to replay shots at the end of quarters and games and just recently added video replay for unclear out-of-bounds calls.

Tennis has a system called Hawkeye. This is probably as close as it gets to your suggestion. According to Wikipedia, “all Hawk-Eye systems are based on the principles of triangulation using the visual images and timing data provided by at least four high-speed video cameras located at different locations and angles around the area of play.” In tennis the rules are objective and there is technology which insures the calls are too. Or at least can be. The computer has not totally replaced the line-judges or the referee yet… although I could see a time in the not so distant future where they could.

Most other sports are not as tidy as tennis though. Take the call at home plate that started this discussion: here’s how Jonah Keri described it on Grantland.com

If you want to use replay to make a simple yes or no call, you won’t get unanimity. And no, the fact that Lugo acted as if he were out does not constitute iron-clad proof.

Watch the replay for yourself, with the sound off.

Here’s what I did see: Lugo starts his slide well in front of the plate. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals starts to make his safe sign just as Lugo touches home with his right foot. There’s no way Meals has time to process the play and rule that Lugo had already touched home. He’s also not looking at Lugo’s foot, but rather at the swipe tag. (It should be noted that Lugo did in fact touch home with his right foot the first time — the follow-up tap of home with his left foot was unnecessary.)

Either way, replay wouldn’t have resolved the issue. Not to the point where all parties, including a purple Clint Hurdle, would have been satisfied.

And, as Keri also points out, at the time of this call, the ump had been on the field working in a high-pressure environment for six hours and 39 minutes. Furthermore — even Baseball is a nice tidy game compared to Hockey or Football. No matter how many cameras, sensors, and computers you have, there is no chance in hell you’ll be able to figure out what happened at the bottom of a pile with thousands of pounds of angry football player fighting over the ball.

More tomorrow…
Ezra Fischer 


Are Basketball Fouls Really Arbitrary?

Dear Sports Fan,

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


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!

Ezra Fischer