What is a Foul Anyway? (Excerpt from Ball Don’t Lie! Intro, Pt 1)

I knew I wanted to call my book “Ball Don’t Lie!” before I knew why I wanted to call it that.  Some of you might already know that the phrase comes from retired NBA player Rasheed Wallace.  He used to shout the words out when an opposing player missed a free throw awarded after a foul had been called on ‘Sheed or one of his teammates; at least if Wallace thought the call had been unjust.  Sheed was whistled for over 300 technical fouls for personal misconduct during his NBA career, a record.  Once he was even called for a technical foul (and ejected) for saying “Ball Don’t Lie!” after an opponent missed the free throw he’d been awarded for a technical foul ‘Sheed had been assessed just a moment before.  The usual way to see this (if you aren’t clucking disapprovingly) is as 1) Sheed evoking the work of the basketball gods who, the phrase implies, caused the missed free throw as a way of righting the injustice of the erroneous call; and 2) as perhaps the iconic example of ‘Sheed’s more general outrageous, but likable, outlaw persona.

I can feel all this, even get excited about it. But my excitement runs into a limit for I am agnostic when it comes to the existence of basketball gods and pragmatic when it comes to issues of truth and justice. And “Ball don’t lie,” at least when interpreted in this way, seems to appeal to those transcendent basketball gods and fixed ideals of truth and justice, which I just can’t believe in. No matter how exciting it may be to me whenever Rasheed invoked them, I think that things like transcendent gods and fixed ideals are too powerful and I worry about them falling into less judicious hands than ‘Sheed’s.   So I wrote an Introduction to the book in order to understand at least some of the deeper reasons for my affinities with this statement.  To begin with, I did the Bad Professorial thing of actually trying to understand the true nature of the thing ‘Sheed had been complaining about all these years : in other words — What the hell is a foul anyway? It turns out that when you think about it, it’s more complex than you might think.

The first mention of “foul” in The NBA rulebook for 2013-2014 is actually in the five page section called “Rule No. 2—Officials and Their Duties.” Among the eight sections and dozens of clauses and exceptions, the first that concerns Rasheed (and us) directly is Section V(a):

“The officials have the power to render decisions for infractions of rules . . . .”

In the very next clause—Section V(b)—the NBA describes the sort of situation that would sometimes drive ‘Sheed up the wall:

“When a personal foul or violation occurs, an official will blow his whistle to terminate play. The whistle is the signal for the timer to stop the game clock. If a personal foul has occurred, the official will indicate the number of the offender to the official scorer, the type of foul committed and the number of free throws, if any, to be attempted or indicate the spot of the throw-in.”

Now we seem to have a clearer sense of how the NBA defines a referee: namely, functionally, in relation to a power to “render decisions” concerning an “infraction” of the rules prohibiting “personal fouls.” But for this to become a truly meaningful definition we must get a definition of “personal foul.”

The first definition of personal foul in the rulebook appears later, under “Rule No. 4-Definitions.” There, in “Section III-Fouls,” the very first clause (a) tells us

“A common personal foul is illegal physical contact which occurs with an opponent.”

Now we have a definition of a personal foul, but how are we to distinguish “illegal physical contact” from legal physical contact? Unfortunately, we won’t find an answer to that question in Rule No. 4. However, when we get to “Rule No. 12”—“Fouls and Penalties”—and specifically to “Part “B” of that rule—“Personal Foul”—we find a list of all the prohibited forms of physical contact with an opponent (as well as the permitted exceptions). “Section I-Types (a)” for example, informs us

“A player shall not hold, push, charge into, impede the progress of an opponent by extending a hand, arm, leg or knee or by bending the body into a position that is not normal. Contact that results in the re-routing of an opponent is a foul which must be called immediately.”

Clause (b) in the same section adds

“Contact initiated by the defensive player guarding a player with the ball is not legal. This contact includes, but is not limited to, forearm, hands, or body check.”

So if we plug these definitions of illegal contact back into the functional definition of the referee we might come up with something like the NBA’s version of what happened all those times that ‘Sheed got upset:

“When a player holds, pushes, charges into, impedes the progress of an opponent by extending a hand, arm, leg or knee or by bending the body into a position that is not normal” or contacts in a way “that results in the re-routing of an opponent” or initiates contact (including but not limited to forearm, hands, or body check) against a player with the ball” then “an official will blow his whistle to terminate play . . . indicate the number of the offender to the official scorer, the type of foul committed and the number of free throws, if any, to be attempted or indicate the spot of the throw-in.”

So with all this so clearly defined, what in the world is there for ‘Sheed to get so worked up about?

Of course, anyone who has every watch a game knows that problems arise because of what the rules don’t say:  namely that the referee has 1) to see physical contact; 2) to decide that what he has seen is in fact illegal contact and 3) to decide to blow the whistle and enforce the rule against illegal contact.  This doesn’t always happen when it seems it should, and sometimes it happens when it seems like it shouldn’t.  And so we (and ‘Sheed) argue about “bad calls” and lament the inevitable “subjective” component that leads to “human error” in officiating.  And that’s fun and fun is fine.   But to me it also misses the point, in ways that matter, of what a foul call really is, or rather, what it does: a foul call expresses the profound power to bring fouls into being.

I mean, to put it another way, that physical contact is merely physical contact and is neither legal nor illegal until the referee constitutes it as illegal by blowing the whistle. In this way, the whistle augurs—like a royal fanfare, but more shrill and less thrilling—the referee’s power to bring the rules to bear upon the players playing the game. When we consider as well that those rules are backed by the hierarchical administrative structure and authority of the NBA (to fine or suspend players for example), then whenever the referee blows a whistle to call a foul we may say that he is exercising that power: that is, he brings the rules and the authoritative, supporting administrative structure to bear on the players and the game they are playing.

Let me dwell on this point for a moment so as to emphasize the depth and reach of this power. I think it’s useful (and fair) to see the referee’s call of “foul!” as an instance of what a philosopher of language might call a “declarative illocutionary speech act.” These are acts of speech (or of nonverbal communication like hand signals) that bring into being the state of affairs they describe. To give you a sense of the power involved, it may help to offer other examples of such speech acts together with the figures in our society and culture that regularly make them:

“I sentence you to fifteen years in a state penitentiary.” (a judge);

“This is my body.” (a Catholic priest)

“Let there be light.” (God).

“Foul!” works the same way in that by uttering the word the referee—like a judge, a priest, or God in the examples above—makes it so. Bearing this in mind, then the chain of causation prescribed by the official rules is the reverse—as in a mirror—of what occurs in reality: a foul doesn’t cause the whistle to blow (as the rules prescribe); the whistle blowing causes a foul to come into being.

All of this—that the foul call is a speech act, the transformative power that implies, the hierarchical administrative structure backing that power, and the fun-house mirror inversion of reality entailed—is hidden by the rules and by basketball common sense. And so it goes unseen by the average observer who trusts (or at least hopes) that the referee will carefully observe the play on the floor, remain unswayed by personal interests or the emotions of players, coaches, and fans, and call “foul” only when the physical contact in question does, in fact, correspond to what the body of rules describes as illegal.

The average observer (and the rules as well, to the degree that they allow one official to overrule the call of another) can admit the possibility that a foul call may be inaccurate—a false or erroneous description of legal contact as illegal, or vice-versa. But even such admissions, which seem to testify to the reasonable fairness of basketball’s judicial system, persist in making a fundamental error. They mistake a speech act (which transforms a physical collision into an infraction called a “foul” and that is subject to regulation) for an objective, descriptive statement (i.e. “That physical collision was, objectively, an infraction”).

By making this mistake and hiding the fact that it has been made, the rules and basketball common sense confine debate to a narrow range of possibility: was the statement true (a “good call”) or false (a “bad call”) or evil (an outrageously bad call made by a obviously biased or corrupt individual)? But neither the rules nor common sense acknowledge the quasi-divine illocutionary power to constitute illegality (and of course to classify player behavior under that category) that basketball officials enjoy. Nor, since they do not acknowledge that power, are they apparently interested in challenging it, let alone capable of doing so.

But ‘Sheed did acknowledge that power and he did challenge it. In fact, I consider his 317 career technical fouls a rough index of his ability to convey to referees his intent to expose and challenge their power…

I go on from here to show the depth, complexity, and force I see in ‘Sheed’s challenge (whether or not he sees it or intended it that way).  Feedback very welcome as this is a work in progress. 

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