Search the Lounge


« Law and Custom Today and Tomorrow | Main | Oglala Sioux Tribe Sues Brewers and Retailers Over Sales to Tribal Members »

February 10, 2012


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Generally, basketball fouls are not as dangerous as football or ice hockey ones.


There are a couple of premises in this post that are problematic or that at least need to be explained and defended.

First, the post seems to take it for granted that we want to maximally deter all rule violations in sports. But why is that so? There's an extensive legal literature about the differences between different kinds of penalties; some are meant to be punitive, and thus deter as much as is possible; others are merely meant to set prices, and thus we only want those rules to be broken when the benefit of breaking the rule exceeds the cost of the penalty. Compare the cost of parking tickets (which really just set prices) to the penalties for car theft.
This is true of sports as well. There are some kinds of rule violations that must be prevented by extremely harsh penalties, because they have bad consequences--e.g., they are likely to lead to injury. So in football, for example, players will get fined and suspended for things like tackling someone by the facemask, in addition to an in-game penalty being imposed on the team. We don't want players to ever break those rules. But other kinds of rules are not like this; they are mere technical rule violations, that are necessary to enforce to make the game possible but that we do not want to overdeter.

Your argument seems to be that all violations of "rules" should be treated as those of the first type. But this is clearly wrong. Turning back to football, you give the example of a safety--but a safety actually proves this point. Football teams often take intentional safeties and the accompanying two-point penalty in order to achieve better field position. Indeed, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has done this in the past ( ).
Given that the current safety penalty doesn't sufficiently deter intentional safeties, your argument would imply that the penalty for safeties should be 20 points instead of 10, so that no one ever uses them intentionally. But that makes no sense; there's nothing wrong with intentional safeties even if they are "rule" violations. They make the game more interesting and exciting, because fans can argue about whether taking the safety was a good strategic move (see also the Patriots' decision to let the Giants score near the end of the Super Bowl).

Perhaps your argument is more subtle, and you mean to suggest that we should treat the rule against fouls in basketball as a rule of the first type (creating a fine) rather than the second (which creates a price). But this is not self-evident. Most fouls are not likely to lead to injury; those that are, are punished more harshly than standard fouls. Moreover, teams foul late in the game because doing so gives the team that is behind a chance to stop the clock and catch up. Without fouling, it’s possible we would see far fewer end-of-game comebacks from more than a few points down. On the other hand, there is an argument that they lead to boring finishes because they slow things down to a crawl. I don’t know which position is right, but that’s the level at which this argument needs to be made. Simply labeling something a rule violation does not answer the question.

Finally, you imply that the fact that the rules don’t sufficiently deter fouling will somehow “send[] our youth the message that breaking the rules is an acceptable tactic.” This is a dubious empirical assertion; I think most sports fans, youths included, understand that there are differences between types of rules in sports, and do not see the fact that teams choose to foul in certain situations as evidence that all rules have no meaning and that they have free license to break the law. If there were a danger that seeing people intentionally breaking rules (and accepting the penalties) would inevitably corrupt youth, we wouldn’t use pricing regimes ever; instead, we should imprison those who park in no parking zones rather than just giving them tickets. But we don’t do that, because we recognize that it’s ok for some rules to be broken under some situations. Any child will quickly learn this about the world, regardless of how the rules of basketball work.


A safety in football is not necessarily a penalty. If the Super Bowl penalty had not been committed in the end zone, Brady would have been sacked in the end zone and a safety would have ensued in the normal course.

David Thaw


I generally agree with the vast portion of what you've said.

As to empirical evidence, however, I suggest the prevalence of the "No Blood, No Foul" meme - a meme that does (at least to a point) espouse violence in basketball. (The inherent suggestion being that if one's dermis is not breached - i.e., only severely bruised - a (worthy) rules violation has not been committed.)

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • StatCounter
Blog powered by Typepad