I remember when basketball was a game of quickness and grace, of strategy and deception. Now it’s a game of football without the benefit of pads. The rules haven’t changed fundamentally over the years so what happened?
I don’t know when it happened but I do know who’s at fault: coaches, parents, the rules committee, and referees – mostly referees.
Parents and coaches are at fault because each is looking for success without putting in the work. Why teach a player how to be a cheetah when you can simply teach him to be a bull?
The rules committee is at fault because they create rules that read like international business contracts with parties of the first part and parties of the second part and instructions that can’t be understood without first referencing six other parts of the rules book.
The individuals most at fault are referees. Though convoluted, the rules don’t allow players to grab, hold, hack and charge their way around the court. So why does it happen? I can only speculate that it’s due to pressure of coaches and parents to “just let them play” (like little bulls). I suspect that the other pressure comes from the league and tournament organizers to “keep the games moving and ending on time”. If a referee called a game according to the rules of legal contact there would be many more interruptions for free throws and in-bounding the ball. Finally, youth league referees have very little experience and it’s often difficult to determine who got there first or who started the contact when things are moving so fast. It’s easier to simply wait and see who comes out on top.
Specifically, what are the rules around legal and illegal contact? Here is a sampling of the key rules:
RULE 4, SECTION 27: ART. 1 … The mere fact that contact occurs does not constitute a foul. When 10 players are moving rapidly in a limited area, some contact is certain to occur.
RULE 4, SECTION 27: ART. 2 … Contact, which may result when opponents are in equally favorable positions to perform normal defensive or offensive movements, should not be considered illegal, even though the contact may be severe.
RULE 10, SECTION 6: ART. 11 … A player shall adhere to the rules pertaining to illegal contact, including but not limited to, guarding as in 4-23, rebounding as in 4-37, screening as in 4-40, and verticality as in 4-45.
This last article illustrates how understanding a rule often requires digging around through other rules.
In fact, most of the rule book is about what kind of contact is legal and what is illegal – and what it means to legally guard your opponent.
Rather than turn this article into a restatement of the rules book I’m going to paraphrase the rules heavily and create what I think is a succinct description of legal and illegal contact.
Every player, whether on offense or defense, is entitled to a place on the court. In order to have a right to your location on the court you have to get their first with both feet on the ground and stationary. You can also move parallel to your opponent (including vertically) to prevent a change of direction by your opponent.
Contact is inevitable and all of it is incidental as long as is each player is acting legally and one player doesn’t gain an advantage over the other – meaning one player doesn’t end up at a disadvantage relative to the other (the most typical form of disadvantage is falling down). So while the rules speak often of not allowing pushing or pulling, referees generally won’t call anything unless someone is displaced and usually displaced pretty far.
You can try to steal the ball from your opponent but the only contact you can make is directly with the ball or with your opponent’s hand while it is in contact with the ball. Contact with your opponent’s body is illegal.
The offensive player doesn’t have any more rights and shouldn’t be treated any more favorably than the defensive player.
In 2013-2014 this point of emphasis was added to the NFHS Rules Book: “When contact occurs that affects the rhythm, speed, quickness, and balance of the player, illegal contact has occurred. When illegal contact occurs, fouls must be called. Officials must not refrain from calling these types of actions that create an advantage for the opponent. Illegal contact must be called regardless of time and score.”
That’s really all there is. It’s as simple as that. If the rules were enforced as written the game would be much cleaner and, I believe, more enjoyable – not to mention safer for the players.
Referees can be forgiven for making bad calls on occasion when things are moving fast and it’s hard to tell who got to the point of collision first – especially the inexperienced ones. But they can’t be forgiven for making no call at all and just allowing the havoc to continue.
Take a look at this video. Is this is a held ball or illegal contact? Hint: has the offensive player’s rhythm, speed, quickness, or balance been affected?