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

Creating a culture of respect: what soccer can learn from rugby

This past weekend, I watched the championship match of the Rugby World Cup, which New Zealand won, 34-17 over Australia. The whole experience was great. Rugby is an awesome sport, full of athletic brilliance and suspense. I also love getting a chance to experience the titillating confusion one gets from engaging with an unknown sport. One of the most striking parts of rugby was the level of respect between the players and the referee. Particularly as someone who has played and watched soccer my entire life, I was astounded at the culture of respect rugby has managed to create. Soccer and rugby are quite similar sports, but the relationship between player and ref is so broken, so fractious, so disrespectful in soccer, that I couldn’t believe how good it was in rugby. What accounts for the difference? Is there something integral to the sport that makes soccer so unhealthy and rugby so healthy? Is soccer doomed to stay that way?

Soccer refs are petty dictators. They’re all-powerful and within the context of the game, completely unaccountable to anyone for anything. Yes, they have two or three linespeople/assistant referees, but those people are there only to provide information to the ref, every decision is hers to make alone. Even something as integral to the game as how long it lasts is controlled completely by the ref. Refs have total authority and their decisions are extremely important. Because soccer is such a low-scoring game, a ref’s decision to grant or not grant a penalty kick is often the difference between winning and losing. Likewise, a decision to give a yellow or red card can be vitally important.

Rugby refs have as much power as soccer refs but they’re infinitely more accountable and their decisions are slightly less important. Rugby is a higher scoring sport, which reduces the importance of most penalty calls. Rugby also does away with soccer’s silly insistence on living in a world where only the ref has the official time. Rugby refs can stop the clock but they do not control when the game is over. Red and yellow cards work similarly in rugby as in soccer, but because there are 15 players on the field, losing one for ten minutes (a yellow card) or the rest of the game (a red or two yellows) is not quite as big of an impediment to winning as it is in soccer. These technical differences pale in comparison to the major difference – refs wear body cameras, microphones, and ear pieces. What they say is constantly broadcast to television audiences and they are in dialogue with a replay official who can assist on penalty calls or even alert the ref of something he did not see. Video from their perspective is available to people watching on TV.

Let’s examine what happens when there’s a close, important penalty call to make in each sport. In soccer, a ref must make the call based only on what she sees, perhaps with some basic assistance from a linesperson who waves his flag if he believes there’s a foul. Soccer refs believe there’s an imperative to make the call quickly and decisively, so that they maintain order and continue to inspire respect from the players. They don’t need to explain their call to anyone, definitely not the players. Rugby treats this situation almost completely oppositely. Rugby refs don’t need to make a call only by memory and with an instant decision. They can stop the game, consult with their assistant refs on the field, watch video of the play, and ask the opinion of a video replay official. Although soccer has not implemented video replay, many American sports have. You can split them into two groups: baseball and hockey have centralized video replay offices that make the decisions when a play is reviewed; in basketball and football, the on-field refs watch video on court side or side-line video monitors and then make the decisions themselves. Rugby blends these two approaches. There is an off-field replay official, but she is there in a consultative role. The ref makes the final decision, based on video he sees. The major difference is this — the entire process is transparent! Audio from the conversation between the two officials is broadcast live on television and instead of running over to peer at a small and private video monitor, the ref reviews video using the stadium’s jumbotron screen, which both teams and the entire stadium audience can follow along with. There are no secrets about the process. By the time the decision has been made, everyone knows how the referee came to that decision.

Look at these videos to see the difference these two processes make.

First, a red card given to Jermaine Jones, a New England Revolution soccer player, after the ref misses an obvious red card.

Jones is understandably furious – not just because the ref should have seen and penalized the hand ball, but also because he knows that soccer rules offer no chance for reviewing this vitally important call. With such little respect between ref and player, there’s no choice for the ref but to throw Jones out of the game.

Compare that to an important call during the Rugby World Cup championship game (alas, this is not available on YouTube, but click this link and head to the 1:40 mark.) Ref Nigel Owens is making a decision about whether to give a New Zealand player a yellow card, forcing him to miss 10 minutes and his team to play a man down. He reviews the call on the video screen in the stadium and confers with his replay assistant. Once he makes his decision, he explains it to the player. He says that the evidence was “not marginal” and that the offense committed is a yellow card offense. He even ends his sentence with a rising, “okay?” seeking affirmation from the player for the decision. Almost unbelievably (to a soccer fan) the player nods, says okay, and heads off to serve his ten minute penalty. The two team captains stand alongside the ref, witnessing and validating the entire interaction.

Quick note — Nigel Owens is widely thought of as the world’s best rugby ref. He’s also gay. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, which is another giant difference between rugby and soccer. He’s also hysterical. Here’s a video of him chiding a player who was trying to affect his calls by reminding him that “this isn’t soccer.” And another of him making fun of a player’s line-out throw (which is supposed to be straight) by referring to his own sexuality.

Fixing soccer’s referee player interactions would be a big enough victory to look for in and of itself, but soccer’s culture of distrust and disrespect has wider implications. One example, and an important one, is the treatment of head injuries. In both soccer and rugby, once a player is substituted out, he cannot return to the field. This makes dealing with a suspected head injury tricky. Removing the player for a proper assessment means either playing at a numerical disadvantage or substituting and losing that player for the rest of the game, even if she doesn’t have a brain injury. Rugby has solved this problem neatly by allowing temporary head-injury substitutions so that players can be assessed and then return to the field if they are cleared without their team’s having to play down. The argument against this solution in soccer is that players could pretend to have a head injury to gain their team an extra substitution. It’s true that rugby teams are allowed eight substitutions compared to soccer’s three, so the incentive to cheat to gain another sub is less in rugby than in soccer, but I think the bigger difference is cultural. Soccer’s culture of distrust, which stems from its player referee interactions bleed over and make it more difficult to transform the game to be safer for its players.


So, where does soccer’s culture of disrespect and distrust really come from? Are ref player interactions really the source of all of this? I doubt it. You need look no farther than its governing body, FIFA, and the rampant corruption which is only now being addressed by international law enforcement. If soccer refs are the symbol of soccer authority and the top soccer authorities are almost unanimously worthy of incarceration, why should we expect players to respect refs?

16 days until the Super Bowl: Penalty Flags

One of the visually appealing elements of football is the way that fouls are signaled by the sports many referees. When a referee sees an infraction of the rules, they don’t necessarily blow whistles or make arm gestures like in other sports, instead, they reach to their belts, grab the small yellow flags they have tucked into their pants, and throw them onto the field. The gently arcing yellow flag is such a perfect visual expression of the emotion a foul call can create in players and fans. When you suspect the penalty is on the team you’re rooting for, the fluttering of the flag seems to happen in the slow motion of a horror movie. When you think the penalty is going to save your team’s bacon, the flight of the flag speaks of a desperately desired deliverance. What could be better?

Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland thinks it would be better if you knew right away which team the penalty was on. The problem, as he explains it, is that seeing a yellow flag “leaves a strange interval between the time a flag is thrown and the time that the charges are explained.” Players and fans know that a foul has been called but they don’t know which team the foul is on. Goldsberry things that “In the information age, this “flag lag” is one of the most annoying parts of the whole football experience. And it’s unnecessary.” His solution is an appealingly simple one:

Football needs two different colored penalty flags — one color for offensive infractions and a separate color for defensive ones…. [that way,] spectators, announcers, players, and coaches would all immediately recognize the guilty side, and consequently their emotions wouldn’t be held hostage by some unneeded informational embargo.

I love this idea! The NFL should absolutely do this. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time penalty flags have been tweaked. They were colored white in the NFL until 1965 and red in college football until the 1970s. Following a semi-tragic eye injury suffered by offensive lineman Orlando Brown (nicknamed Zeus, he died in 2011 at the age of 40,) NFL refs stopped weighting the flags down with BBs or ball bearings. Moving to a two color flag system would be a small but positive change that serves fans and players alike.

If you want to learn the basics of football in time for this year’s Super Bowl, sign up for our Football 101 course. It’s the easiest way to learn football, and I promise that by the time you’re through, you’ll be able to impress the football fan in your life with your newfound knowledge.

In this free course, you’ll learn all about why people like football, what down and distance are, how football scoring works, the inside scoop on fantasy football and football betting, how to decipher TV scoreboard graphics, and finally my favorite way to start having fun while watching football. At the end of the course you will get a fully unaccredited diploma of graduation, which you can hang on your wall with pride. If you enjoy the course, (and I hope you do!), I’d be thrilled to have you as a regular subscriber to our daily or weekly digests and for Football 201, coming soon!

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Celebrating Women in the NBA

Two stories popped up recently about women in the NBA that are worth knowing about. The women in the spotlight are Becky Hammon and Violet Palmer. Both were successful point guards during their playing days and both have become pioneers for women in men’s professional basketball.


Violet Palmer

Violet Palmer, trailblazing NBA ref

The first story was mercifully underplayed because it’s really no big deal. Violet Palmer, who became the first female NBA ref in 1997, married her long-time partner, Tanya Stine. Palmer said in an interview that although she came out as gay to her fellow refs in 2007, this is her “big formal coming out.” Palmer has been a trailblazer for women in an arena inexplicably dominated by men. ESPNW covered this exhaustively in 2011 and unfortunately not much has changed since Jane McManus wrote this:

No women call NFL, Major League Baseball or NHL games. The NBA has one female official, Violet Palmer. The elite levels of professional and Olympic soccer are opening their doors to women, with the majority of the opportunities coming in the women’s game.

Being a ref is a tough job for anyone. A common cliché about refs, which I think is pretty true, is that the best refs are the least noticed ones. This is because fans usually only remark on a ref when they feel he or she has made a bad call. Violet Palmer has done it for seventeen years and has been thoroughly unremarkable for all the best reasons. Women, gay people, and all lovers of equality should be proud of her.

Becky Hammon

Becky Hammon
Becky Hammon, first female NBA Assistant Coach

Becky Hammon has had an interesting career. Despite having been a star at her college, Colorado State University, she was not drafted by any WNBA team. Instead, she was signed as a free-agent by the New York Liberty where she became a solid player. That was 1999. Since then, she’s played professional basketball in one league or another for the past 15 years. She became mildly notorious in 2008 when, frustrated by not being invited to join the U.S. Olympic program, she became a naturalized Russian citizen and joined their team. This is slightly less crazy than it might seem at first. Like in some other women’s sports, while the most competitive league in the world may be in the United States, the salaries are significantly higher elsewhere. Many women who play in the United States also play professionally elsewhere for part of the year. Russia was a common destination for many top female players during the late 2000s. If you’re curious about the lifestyle, I dug up a great article from a few years back by Jim Caple that profiles a few top American players in Russia. For the past seven years she’s played point guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars.

Yesterday news broke that she was retiring from the WNBA to become Assistant Coach for the San Antonio Spurs, the men’s professional basketball team in San Antonio and reigning NBA Champions. Any major hire that the Spurs make would make news but this made big news because Hammon will be the first female Assistant Coach in NBA history. Hammon is already familiar with the Spurs and they are familiar with her. While rehabbing a major knee injury last year, she spent a lot of time at Spurs practices with the blessing and mentorship of long-time Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. According to Andrew Keh in this New York Times article, Hammon called that time an “internship.” She must have impressed because Popovich not only hired her but covered her with praise (effusive praise for the normally taciturn Popovich,) saying that he is “confident her basketball I.Q., work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.” 

The best part of this is that just because the Spurs did this, the rest of the league is waking up this morning not only respecting Hammon’s hiring but frankly scared of it. The Spurs have done such a wonderful job over the past twenty years and have developed such a reputation for finding talent where other teams miss it that I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the WNBA ranks were thoroughly scoured for other coaching talent in the next year. That’s a good thing.

What are Red and Yellow Cards in Soccer?

Dear Sports Fan,

What are red and yellow cards in soccer? How do they work?


Donovan Yellow
Soccer players, like Landon Donovan here, often react with disbelief when given a card.

— — —

Dear Paul,

Cards are soccer’s answer to fouling out in basketball. They are representative of a two stage process that allows a referee to punish misbehaving players with one of the most punitive measures in sports. If a player receives one red card or two yellow cards within the same game, that player is thrown out of the game (“sent off the pitch” or just “sent off” in soccer terms) and his team must play the remainder of the game with one fewer player than they started with. This can mean that a team plays 10 on 11 for 30, 60, or 75 minutes. That’s a long time to play down a man and soccer is already the sport that allows for the fewest substitutions (only two) during a game. It can make for some very tired players.

In World Cup competition, the penalties for receiving cards have implications beyond the game a player receives them in. Any ejection from a game due to a red card or two yellows carries with it an automatic one game suspension that must be served the next time the team plays. Suspensions based on red cards can be lengthened by soccer’s governing body, FIFA. Two yellow cards in different games can also result in a one game suspension if they come between the first game of the tournament and the quarterfinal game. After that, the yellow card counts reset so that any player “carrying” a single yellow card from earlier in the tournament doesn’t have to worry about picking up another in the semifinals and thereby missing the final match. The fact that red and yellow cards carry such enormous penalties probably accentuates soccer’s already dive-happy culture by rewarding players who can trick a referee into giving their opponent a card.

There aren’t really specific fouls that necessitate a red or yellow card, it is up to the referee’s discretion, but there are two key themes which the website football-bible.com does a nice job explaining: violence and “unfairly denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.” Violence can come in a few different forms. A player could get a card for being a little too violent intentionally or unintentionally within the course of play, like tripping a player from behind or sliding into an opponent with the studs on his boot facing dangerously up. Likewise, a player could be given a card for being violent in a non-soccer kind of way. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is Zinedine Zidane head-butting an Italian player in the 2006 World Cup Finals. As for “unfairly” denying the opponent an “obvious goal-scoring opportunity,” this could come in the form of tripping a player when he has a clear path to the goal or reaching out and deflecting the ball with your hand as it’s flying towards the goal.

Soccer is not the only sport that uses penalty cards. Wikipedia has a fascinating entry that lists a bunch of sports from volleyball to field hockey to race walking to rugby that uses yellow and red cards as markers of penalties. It also describes the use of other penalty cards like the green card (a lesser warning than a yellow card,) the blue and white cards used in bandy to denote a five or ten minute penalty (editors note: what the hell is bandy,) and the black card used in fencing and badminton for only the worst infringements that require immediate expulsion from play.

In moments of idle reflection, I like to imagine red and yellow cards worming their way out of sports and into everyday life. I dream of being able to halt a disruptive colleague in a meeting by holding up a yellow card. I think it would be great to be able to red card someone who merges badly and have him or her sent off the highway. If you could, how would you use penalty cards in real life?

I hope this has shed some light on the subject of red and yellow cards in soccer for you. Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

To celebrate and prepare for the World Cup in Brazil, Dear Sports Fan is publishing a set of posts explaining elements of soccer. We hope you enjoy posts like Why do People Like Soccer? How Does the World Cup WorkWhy Do Soccer Players Dive so Much? and What is a Penalty Kick in Soccer? The 2014 World Cup in Brazil begins on June 12 and ends on July 13.

Cue Cards 6-19-13

stk321064rknCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Sport: Basketball
Teams: Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs
When: Tuesday night, 6-18-13
Context: Game 6 of the NBA Championships. The San Antonio Spurs were leading the seven game series 3-2.
Result: Heat win 103-100
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • Everything went right for the Spurs and they still lost. It was almost as if the Heat were playing one big unintentional rope-a-dope strategy. They took every punch the Spurs had for three quarters and came back roaring in the fourth. Will the older Spurs have anything left for game Seven? The overwhelming feeling will be that the Heat will win game seven at home to win the series on Thursday.
  • The refs. In the first three quarters when the Spurs were playing better, the refs were calling more fouls against the Heat. Then in the fourth quarter it switched around. Of course normally the team that is playing worse commits more fouls so that pattern is generally what you’d expect. Nonetheless people will find a way to be mysteriously indignant about this.
  • LeBron James was great in the fourth quarter and overtime. As the most physically talented player out there, the expectations for LeBron are enormous and he met them. This will be celebrated.

What’s Next: Game 7 is Thursday night at 9 p.m.

— — —

Sport: Soccer
Teams: United States vs. Honduras
When: Tuesday night, 6-18-13
Context: A 2014 World Cup Qualifying game.
Result: The United States wins 1-0.
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • Coach Jurgen Klinsmann. For some reason he seems to get all the credit for wins and blame for losses.
  • Jozy Altidore a US Striker (dude who is supposed to score goals) has now done just that in four straight games which is pretty impressive.
  • This win makes it almost definite that the United States will qualify for the 2014 World Cup. A few weeks ago that was absolutely not a sure thing.

What’s Next: The United States doesn’t have another qualifying match until September but play in the Gold Cup on Tuesday, July 9.

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

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

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