An Explanation of the Flagrant 1 Foul

In my continuing effort to explain the rules of basketball (the ACTUAL rules, as opposed to the playground rules) to the fans, I want to take a moment to explain a call that was made in the first round of the NCAA tournament this year.

Seton Hall was trailing Arkansas by 1 point with under 30 seconds to go, and Arkansas had the ball. Clearly, Seton Hall needed to foul in order to stop the clock and get the ball back with a possibility to tie or win the game. As the Arkansas player was about to cross the three-point line, a Seton Hall defender ran toward him and put both hands on the player’s back/shoulder in an obvious foul. The contact caused the dribbler to lose his balance and fall to the floor. See the play here. The officials ruled a flagrant foul, and the March Madness Twitterverse exploded. “Pathetic,” “horrible” and “cheaters” were among the printable adjectives used to describe the officials who made the call. As usual, however, the fans got it wrong.

First, let me again explain that as a veteran basketball official, I am quick to defend my brother and sister officials from the relentless verbal beatings we take every single time we step on the hardwood. Experience has proven time and again that in most cases, the harsh criticism we take is undeserved. Are there calls that are missed? Of course there are. The best officials in the world get about 90-95 percent of their calls correct.  No official anywhere, in any sport, has ever called a perfect game. What I can tell you is that most of us work our tails off to get the calls right. More importantly, when we miss one (and we usually know when we have missed one), no one in the building feels worse than we do. Every year, the shortage of certified officials becomes more serious.  Games are canceled due to having no officials to cover them, and our kids suffer as a result. As the verbal and physical abuse of officials gets worse, fewer and fewer people are willing to subject themselves to it. One day, the fans who choose to berate officials will realize that without us, the games won’t be played. Today, that possibility is closer than most folks would think.

So, back to the flagrant foul against Seton Hall. Several years ago, the NCAA changed some of its rules terminology. The “intentional” foul was taken out of the rules, and was replaced with the “flagrant 1” foul. Because the term “flagrant” sounds so much more severe than does “intentional,” fans still believe that a flagrant foul involves some intent to seriously harm an opponent. Not true.

A flagrant 1 foul does not depend upon the severity of the contact. By definition, any player who fouls without making a legitimate attempt to play the ball, with the obvious intent of stopping the clock, has committed a flagrant 1 foul. The severity of the contact is irrelevant. So, with those criteria in mind, let’s look again at the play. Did the Seton Hall player make an attempt to play the ball? He clearly did not. He put one hand on the left side of the dribbler’s back, and the other on his left shoulder, while the ball was in the dribbler’s right hand. Was the defender simply trying to stop the clock?  Of course he was. There was under 30 seconds on the clock and his team was down by 1.  Without the foul, Arkansas could simply dribble out the clock. The foul was obvious and, it was equally obvious that it was a flagrant 1. In such a circumstance, the officials have no option. If they want an opportunity to move on in the tournament, they need to know the rules and, more importantly, have the guts to apply them despite what the fans might think. The officials in this game did exactly that.

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