Of Crime and Punishment

It’s playoff time in the NBA. A time when I force my family to forsake primetime television for professional basketball.  A time when I am continually forced to ponder one of the deeper questions in life… Why does the last three minutes of a basketball game take half an hour?

The answer to anything more than a casual basketball fan is clear.  The culprit is the intentional foul.  To those less familiar, this technique is when the trailing team will intentionally foul the other team in an effort to force them to “work for their points” by hitting foul shots.  By percentages as well as anecdotes, this strategy can work by forcing more of the game to take place with the clock stopped (lengthening the game, much to my wife’s chagrin), as well as putting the onus on the leading team to make foul shots.

There is a deeper question here, however.  One that we often ignore, perhaps because it is just too hard to answer.  Merriam-Webster defines a foul as “constituting an infringement of rules in a game or sport.”  That is clearly the case in basketball, where impeding an opposing players ability to move in an unimpeded fashion or to take a shot (or to sometimes even remain standing) is universally considered an infringement of the rules.

It becomes clear then, that in the almost universally popular sport of basketball, players are encouraged to break the rules of the game on a regular basis simply because the punishment they endure is more advantageous to them on the whole than following the rules of the game.

Would this action be allowed anywhere else in society?  Would we condone a homeless man partaking in a violent crime, simply to get free room and board (albeit in a jail)?  How about the man with a severe illness who robbed a bank so that he might go to jail and get taxpayer funded healthcare?

Are rules and laws in society at large only applicable to those for whom following them is advantageous?  If so, by analogy of the NBA, it should be perfectly acceptable to tell a child to rob a bank, because even if he/she gets caught, they will only spend a few years in jail, but the potential upside is tremendous.  If rules are only meant to be followed when they are to our advantage, they cease being laws and become merely guidelines.

There are many examples of sports mirroring life, and bringing out the best in us through healthy competition and fair play.  But a society, such as the NBA, where rule-breaking is universally condoned when it is advantageous to the offender sends the wrong message to our children about acceptable behavior in society as a whole.  The NBA seriously needs to consider rule changes to make the punishment fit the crime, and to make playing by the rules advantageous to all parties.  (My humble suggestion, a shooting foul on a missed basket should be worth three free throws)

NOTE: This is not meant to be a “crotchety old man” essay (though lately I feel more and more like one).  Rather, a serious look at the moral and ethical implications of the concept of an intentional foul.  I would welcome any and all feedback to these rhetorical questions from basketball fans and non-fans alike.