When is a foul not a foul?


<sarcasm> Oh, thank goodness they stopped this mugging. I'm sure he has marks on his arm after that. </sarcasm>

Much has been said, on Twitter and across the internet, about the and-1 Jake Kelly got to help lift Indiana State past Missouri State 70-69 Wednesday night in Terre Haute. I honestly don’t have anything new or interesting to say about it, but the whole situation has reminded me of a conversation I had many times during my days as a sports editor. The conversation centered around the questions “Is a foul always a foul?” and “Should referees swallow their whistles a bit during crucial junctures of a game?”

Usually this conversation was had with the great Scott McCaulley, the voice of sports in Taney and Stone counties. He’s called more games than he can probably count and has the added perspective of being the son of Nolan McCaulley, a refereeing institution in southwest Missouri. Scott took the basic argument that a foul is a foul is a foul, and should always be called that way whether it’s the first or last minute of a ballgame. That case was often made with one big “But…” No official wants to determine the outcome of a game.

I took the other side of this coin. Fouls are not like human beings. They are not all created equal. Sometimes an official can, and will, allow certain things to go at Point A in a game, but call it at Point B. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If a referee is going to send a player to the free throw line, or wipe a basket off the board, and that’s possibly going to be a major deciding factor in a game, he’d better make darn sure it’s a blatant violation.

Here’s my case:

Exhibit A: “A game should be called consistently for all 40 minutes,” said John Clougherty, a former college basketball official and supervisor of officials for the Atlantic Coast Conference, in an SI.com column by Seth Davis. “But I would add that if you are going to call a foul in the final second and put a guy at the line, then that foul has to be an obvious foul that everybody can see. There should be no question.”

Clougherty is uniquely qualified to offer an opinion. He called Seton Hall’s Gerald Greene for fouling Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson in the final seconds of overtime in the 1989 NCAA title game. Robinson hit both free throws and Michigan went on to win. Need a refresher? Go here and start paying attention around the 1:53 mark. If you see the foul, let me know.

“Now that we’re (21) years removed from that play, I would like to have had a clearer foul than the one we had,” Clougherty told Davis. “Instinctively, I thought there was a foul and I blew the whistle.”

Not that he thinks it’s the wrong call, but in hindsight it’s not as clear-cut. Certainly sounds like he’d consider swallowing the whistle in a similar situation.

Exhibit B: Watch this video. On the back, or no on the back?

My guess is that, at some point in the game, that gets whistled and the basket is negated. But, it’s the final seconds and there’s some question if he was on the back or just rebounding from behind – which is legal. Do you really think the officials let that go for all 40 minutes of the game? Doubtful.

Exhibit C: It’s hard to draw many conclusions from the number of fouls called in the final minutes of a basketball game, because there is sometimes a need to commit fouls in the final seconds – a need unique to the sport. But what about in other sports? Is there some whistle-swallowing going on? One blogger analyzed penalties called in NHL games and found a significant drop in the number of penalties called in the third period. From his analysis:

In the 2009-2010 season, there were 12328 penalties called, which works out to about 10 per game (as there are 1230 games in each regular season).

The breakdown by period is:

First period: 4062
Second period: 4420
Third period: 3745
Overtime: 101

The interesting thing to note here is that there’s a drastic difference in Hooking and Interference between the first two periods and the third period. In fact, those two penalties decrease 27% between the second and the third periods. All other calls (not including Fighting) decrease just 8%.

So are players better defensively in the final period of a game? Not likely, especially as their legs get tired and their positioning gets worse. Just like in basketball, hockey players are more likely to commit a foul when they’re tired and unable to get in good defensive position.

Conclusion: Officiating did not cost Missouri State this game. I cannot emphasize this enough. But that does not change the fact it was a poor foul call. Nobody likes to see a game end that way, not even the winning coach.

“Jake definitely got fouled. He’s got marks on his arm. It’s a gutsy call for an official to make. You hate for the game to end like that, but it was a good call,” Jake Lansing said.

Not gonna agree with everything you say there, coach, but we can all agree on this: You hate for a game to end like that.




  1. A foul is a foul and a ref doesn’t decide games but it sure sells lots of ads on TV, radio and for newspapers. Us bloggers just get to add our opinion as well.

  2. Also, it brings readers to Web sites! AmIright? Everyone loves a controversy.

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