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.

Leave a comment


  1. Emory

     /  June 6, 2012

    Well, you DO sound like a crotchety old man, and at 40, you’re really too young to sound so. In fact, sporting events are entertainment. Fouling one’s opponent isn’t the same as robbery or murder. The Duke of Wellington wrote that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Romanticizing war by comparing it to sport has only led to misery and death. Beware of false analogies!

    So, no, I don’t think that sport is analogous to life. Chess is great mental exercise and tests a player’s mental acuity. Sport is great physical exercise and most assuredly tests a player’s physical prowess. Both may be analogous to one another, but they are not analogous to how one should treat others. Indeed, they are only games to be enjoyed by playing or by observing others playing.

    Now, if you’d like to talk about the control of fouling one’s opponents, let’s look at football or at any game where a deliberate attempt to injure another player occurs. As for not playing by the rules and getting away with it, I think what’s happened recently on Wall Street is perhaps the better analogy.

    • Emory, at the risk of sounding even more like a crotchety old man, don’t even get me started on the comparisons that network sportscasters like to make between sports contests and battle. It is truly insulting to our brave men and women in uniform who face real battle to compare them to spoiled multi-millionaires who play a game for a living. Next stop… Hunger Games!

  2. Anant Sahai

     /  June 6, 2012

    The topic you’ve raised is the tip of a very scary iceberg. There is a movement afoot called “Law and Economics” which takes a classical economic perspective on the law. (Posner, tipped to be a likely Republican nominee to the Supreme Court is a big intellectual force here — he’s certainly smart.) Laws are considered to be establishing the rules of a game, and the rules do not actually constrain very much what you can do. However, they do place certain penalties on certain acts. The Law and Economics movement views these as prices. And concludes that it is “rational” to “break” the rules if the gain is worth the price. When it was initially deployed as a descriptive/predictive theory, this was considered something interesting since it allowed lawmakers to formulate how high a penalty should be to be effective, etc… However, then it started to be used in a *normative* way — ie. when *should* I break the law? Traditionally, such questions have been addressed in a humanistic way, but suddenly, the analysis was suggesting that even robots should break the law when it suits them. (And robots now do — certain high-speed trading strategies violate the spirit of the rules.)

    This further spawned all sorts of ideas in the business strategy space — firing your customers, etc… The contrast is with the ethical dimensions behind the medical concept of “triage.” Hard choices have to be made and medical ethics takes this seriously and understands that probability and life-quality must be considered. But most in medicine would react with revulsion if triage was applied with profit and pocketbooks in sight.

    Some of the “Law and Economics” ideas as applied to business are now almost taken for granted by many. For example, the idea that the only duty of a business is to make profits for the shareholders. Not that long ago, it was common to hear “profits for companies are like food for people. Important, but we eat to live, we don’t live to eat.” Now, such things are heard less and less.

    So the intentional foul is just one part of a trend that is moving us to legitimize the view of humans and businesses as sociopaths. Not as a warning, but as how things should be.

    So yes, the intentional foul is worth getting upset about.

    • Anant, thanks for your reply. This is exactly the kind of thing I was referring to and I would love to read more about it… do you have a layperson reference?

  3. Games have conventions; the intentional foul is a convention of basketball. At least hockey-style fighting is not the convention in basketball!
    Most fouls in NBA play are penalties for violating the spirit of fair play, not so much the infringement on a rule of play.
    In programming, you can write “exceptions,” which handle errors generated by your program. At least on a computer, as in basketball, errors in play are anticipated, and there is a mechanism to handle these.
    I guess this is why we need laws: we would prefer to live in a utopia where we don’t need laws, but living in the real world means some people will eventually break laws, and we need a mechanism to handle this.
    We can bemoan the game that has players who break the rules, or we can appreciate that the game has a way to handle these rulebreakers with decent efficiency. As they say, “hate the game, not the playa.”

    • No doubt that the game has rules to deal with infractions. But when the penalty is so lenient it actually encourages rule breaking, then the spirit of fair play is lost and cut-throat do anything to win mentality ensues and becomes normalized. This is the issue I have.

  4. Jake Meffley (Sr.)

     /  August 7, 2012

    Is running out of bound to stop the clock in an American football game “breaking the rules” or ??? Is fouling another player to stop the clock or prevent the easy basket “breaking the rules” ??? There is no intent (or should not be) to harm the other person in basketball, merely to stop the clock. It is a move born of desperation and usually results doesn’t change the outcome of the game.

    How about throwing the “brushback” pitch in baseball? That is done by the pitcher so they can gain control of the plate from a hitter that stands to close and makes it harder on the pitcher. What are the moral implications there? Real harm can come from this practice and there are now rules that are subjectively implemented when it is obvious that the pitch was meant to harm another.

    Finally, what about playing a game with the intent to lose so that you face a more favorable opponent in a tournament? Is there a rule that says you must play to win the game of badminton?

    Since all of these examples are games, the answers to the questions may seem to have little meaning. There is a school of thought, however, that suggests that there are no real differences (moral, ethical) between any action where harm is done. We humans cannot be the judge of right and wrong without further separating ourselves into groups in opposition to one another. Once that is done, the seeds of war have been planted, or so the theory goes.


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