Intentional fouling in sports

I remember the first time I watched a professional basketball game in the US and saw a player intentionally foul a player on the opposing team to prevent them from scoring a basket. What surprised me was not the foul itself, which can happen in contact sports, but that everyone, players, spectators, TV commentators alike, treated it as not only routine but even as a good strategy. I found this appalling. I felt that a deliberate foul should never be something that is adopted as a strategy. The penalties for doing so should always be high enough that any fouling is always unintentional or at least that players try to act as if it were unintentional. In soccer for instance, the fouling player risks getting thrown out of the game and they often put on quite a show to try to persuade the referee that the foul was accidental, while the fouled player would put in a good performance to suggest that they were grievously injured. While this may all be fake, at least the effort shows that fouling as a deliberate act is not to be tolerated.

In this article George Letsas argues that tactical fouling is fundamentally wrong and looks at how it might be thwarted.

So-called tactical or professional fouling is a familiar practice in team sports: a player intentionally commits an offence, calculating that the advantage gained for their team is worth the sanction. Players even speak of ‘taking one for the team’. Yet such a point of view – that tactical fouling is football – is not universally accepted.

In the early days of soccer, it was considered unfair to deprive the opponent of a goal-scoring opportunity through fouling. The English amateur club Corinthian would never foul intentionally and would have the goalkeeper step aside whenever they conceded a penalty. This view treats fouling in sport the same way that the law treats crime. Murder and theft are not things the law encourages you to consider on a cost-benefit analysis. They are wrongs, and the law prohibits them categorically.

But many contemporary analyses of sport treat fouling not as a wrong, but as a priced permission. This means that sport rules don’t tell players what not to do; they simply tell the referee when to make players worse off. Players are permitted to do whatever they choose, so long as they pay the price.

The view that fouling in sport is a priced permission, rather than a wrong, has great currency. But it fails to explain the complexities of fouling. For a start, even in the most physical of sports, certain forms of defending and attacking (eg, blows below the belt, biting, eye gouge) are strictly prohibited, not priced. This is to protect the physical integrity of the players from dangerous plays, regardless of how skilful or beneficial they might be.

If fouling goes against the point of sport, why do so many players do it? Typically, sports rules seek to compensate the victim by restoring the advantage they would have had but for the foul.

But the rules don’t just aim at corrective justice, at simply returning stolen goods, as it were. They also aim to deter the unfair conduct. That is why penalty rules overcompensate.

Rules, however, will sometimes undercompensate. A foul in the 18-yard box deprives players of a 27 per cent chance of scoring, on average. But in some cases, it deprives them of a 100 per cent chance, giving back only a 75 per cent chance. In the 2010 World Cup quarter-final between Uruguay and Ghana, Luis Suarez deliberately used his hand to stop the ball on the line at the end of extra time. Ghana was awarded a penalty, but they missed and went on to lose the game on penalties. The incentive for tactical fouling exists because in exceptional circumstances, especially towards the end of a game, sanctions under– rather than over-compensate for unfairness.

Is tactical fouling then just a necessary evil? The answer depends on the extent to which it undermines the skills that each sport makes relevant. In basketball, ‘playing the fouling game’ in the final seconds of a game has become an integral part of the sport. This is because the fouling team must display exceptional skills to win, having to make difficult shots in a very short period of time. It’s fair game. Other cases of tactical fouling are different, however. The basketball commentator Jeff Van Gundy has called out the practice of ‘hacking’, or the intentional fouling of a player who has a below-average free-throw percentage. This incentivises opponents to foul them repeatedly, even when they pose no scoring threat. Shaquille O’Neal was at the receiving end of this practice, the so-called ‘Hack-a-Shaq’. As Van Gundy aptly puts it, such fouling is a ‘farce’, ‘not a skill’.

Tactical fouling divides opinion because people disagree about whether it is integral to the skill-set of the sport. Taking a player’s legs out from behind, with no regard for the ball, arguably doesn’t exhibit valuable football skills.

I am firmly of the opinion that deliberately violating the rules for tactical advantage is wrong and the penalties for doing so should be so severe that no one would even think of doing it. It seems clear that fouling in basketball is undercompensated which is why is happens so frequently and flagrantly. In rugby, fouling to thwart someone who was definitely going to score a try can result in the referee giving the fouled team a ‘penalty try’ right under the goal posts. That is definitely strong discouragement. A similar action in basketball might be to award the team that was fouled to prevent a basket being awarded the two points for the basket, rather than being given free throws which they might miss. That would definitely stop flagrant fouling. Of course, one might argue that it was never certain that the fouled player would make the basket so this would be severely overcompensating. But that would be the point. It would immediately stop the practice since your team would be certain to be harmed.

The problem is that in American sports like basketball, baseball, and football, players and managers argue with the referees and umpires all the time and it takes quite a lot to have a player be penalized for doing so. So there would likely be interminable arguments if a team is awarded a penalty basket. In rugby and cricket, arguing with the referee or umpire is grounds for ejection from the game. Any complaints would have to be registered after the game is over.


  1. drken says

    Basketball is kind of weird that way. I’m not sure if there are any other sports where fouling somebody is considered normal defensive strategy. But, since basketball is a non-contact sport, most of those fouls are of the variety that would simply cause you to lose possession or allow a free kick (a minor issue if the ball isn’t close to the goal) in soccer. The sort of things that would earn you a yellow card in soccer are generally penalized more (technical fouls) and can get you thrown out if you commit more than one. Also, it’s considered a much greater skill to get another player to foul you (usually by standing still and getting the other player to run into you) than to just commit a foul to stop their progress, so it’s not just rewarding bad behavior. Besides, there’s a limit (6) as to how many fouls you can commit before being ejected, so you can’t do it on every play.

  2. Alison Hiles says

    Anything that encourages aggression should not be allowed! The main thing that puts me off sport is the unacceptable confrontational behaviour of the supporters, which is likely to be encouraged in its aggression by relaxation of rules about it in the game.

  3. lanir says

    Fouling in basketball has never made any sense to me and is probably a good part of why I never got into sports.

    In gradeschool when my dad made me play I had times when I was standing near the basket as an opposing player charged down the court with the ball and bowled me over on their way to making a layup. Didn’t matter that I had my feet planted and wasn’t moving. The ref still called the foul on me every time.

    In professional basketball though you see deliberate fouling as a tactic.

    So as far as I can tell it works like business. Attract any sort of legal attention when you’re small potatoes and you’re screwed. Go large, make those millions or billions and nothing will ever touch you. A “huge” fine is probably still less than 10% of whatever you made from whatever actions you’re being fined for.

  4. says

    In professional basketball, hacking an opponent that is not a threat to score has a cost (either actually giving two free throws to the opposition, or moving them closer to the point where every non-offensive-foul is awarded free throws). An NBA possession is usually worth about 1.1 points, so hacking only works if the foulee is so poor at free throws that they don’t make half of them. Making free throws is an important skill.

    The NBA also has rules in place regarding “flagrant fouling” (the NBA uses this term differently from you), many of which involve the opposing team getting free throws and then getting the ball back.

  5. Holms says

    My pet solution to the problem of taking a dive in soccer is to take their histrionics seriously. That is, if a player is rolling around clutching at various body parts in seeming agony, assume that the injury is real and serious enough to warrant carting off to hospital, or at least off the field to be checked by the game physician. The player can only return upon the completion of a thorough physical examination, and the only way they can get back to the field faster is to admit that they were acting. At which point they get a yellow card for fakery.

    The worst sport for under-punishing bad play though is ice hockey, by a country mile. Punch, knee, chop the opponent opponent with your stick, and so long as no injury was caused, sit out of the game for two minutes. The team cannot replace the player with another from their bench, forcing them to play one person down, but still. If that play had taken place outside of a match, it would be considered battery and put the person in legal trouble.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @5:

    At which point they get a yellow card for fakery.

    Referees actually catch most instances of simulation. And if they don’t, video reviews after the game can catch them, resulting in possible multi-game suspension. So your “remedy” is unnecessary as well as a waste of time. I suspect you don’t actually watch much soccer.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    in American sports like basketball, baseball, and football, players and managers argue with the referees and umpires all the time

    I quite like the rulelaw in rugby -- the only person allowed to even TALK to the referee is the team captain. Any other player attempting to address the ref is sent off. No messing about, no appeals, off. I’ve seen an amateur team attempt to play with eight players, seven having been sent off for “dissent”, which amounted as far as I could see not much more than walking past the ref and saying something like “WHAT???” in his general direction. Eight players trying to defend against fifteen is funny for a couple of minutes, then basically dull and pointless. Fortunately it was near the end of the game.

    Blatant cheating with no immediate consequence in every single game I’ve ever seen is one of the reasons I not only don’t watch football (or soccer as the colonials have it), but am honestly baffled why anyone would.

  8. Holms says

    “Referees actually catch most instances of simulation.” You forgot the sarcasm tag. The silly theatrics are a large part of why the professional level of game disgusted me before I got into it. Babies on every team.

  9. says

    More and stiffer punishments are a good idea. Some games / sports have stricter rules than you might imagine. The Canada/US game football awards an automatic touchdown if anyone on the sidelines interferes with the play (touching, grabbing tripping, tackling, etc.) anyone currently on the field, even if they touch the sidelines. But the reality is, as long as it’s “legal” within the rules, teams will do anything to win. Roger Nielson (former NHL coach) was infamous and caused rule changes. But unlike the other cases, one of Nielson’s actions led to an automatic goal rule.

    Motorsports has some severe penalties: drive through penalties, stop-and-go, 10 second stop-and-go penalties, time added after the race, black flags (disqualifications) for specific infractions. In the 2021 Formula 1 season, several drivers had time added after the race, which changed the finishing order (e.g. Sergio Perez’s five second penalty dropped him from third to fifth after the race in Monza).

    Holms’s words are those of a non-fan who hasn’t watched regularly. Especially after saying he doesn’t like dives without knowing hockey has an “embellishment” penalty at the referee’s discretion (players who dive get penalized). And sonofrojblake also doesn’t watch hockey much. Only the captain and assistant captain(s) are permitted to talk at length with the referee.

  10. DrVanNostrand says

    Holms @8
    Thank you. I thought that one was a howler as well.

    Aside from that, I think it’s purely a matter of incentives. In the intensely competitive, billion dollar world of professional sports, players are going to do what helps them win. Any time the penalty for committing a foul is less severe than the consequence of letting the play continue, that’s what players will be trained to do. It’s so commonplace in the sports I watch (soccer, football, basketball) that it doesn’t seem odd to me at all.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    DrVanNostrand @10: You and Holms should be professional refs. You’re obviously far more perceptive than the people doing the job. You remind me of the ‘fans’ who know much better than managers about formations and selection.

  12. John Morales says

    Last time this was discussed, I noted the obvious: professional players play to win, not to be the most ethical. So whatever improves the chances of winning is worth doing.

    Linking this to some comments elsethread (context was crime there) about whether the chances of being caught or the severity of the consequences if caught are best for deterrence, it seems here it’s the severity of the penalty which is considered the best approach, especially given that the likelihood of being caught is a near certainty.

  13. DrVanNostrand says

    @Rob Grigjanis
    If you think the majority of simulation is called, I doubt that you watch soccer at all.

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve been watching it for more than 50 years, and played it for more than 40 years. So I must have some other shortcomings, which I’m sure you can conjure up.

  15. fentex says

    > “players and managers argue with the referees and umpires all the time”

    Every sport I’ve ever played in has behaviour like that immediately and harshly sanctioned.

    Umpires / referees are inviolate and while expressions of disagreement are often heard (and ignored) active debate confronting them is never tolerated.

    You’ve reminded me of a old saying on the topic of different sporting cultures… “Football is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, and rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen”.

    Interesting bit of history; football, when first played between schools in Britain accepted that hacking peoples feet was part of the game (it was from it’s start a hooligans game) -- and the original Association rules formulation featured considerable debate over outlawing it as ruining the game and making it soft.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    fentex @16: Oh, I love that old saying. It sort of blurs the fact that association football was originally played by the upper class (aka gentlemen, aka the real hooligans (I think the original term used was ‘thugs’, but either way…)).

  17. Holms says

    #9 Intransitive
    My perspective is that of a person that used to play regularly. Not professionally, but even in our low grade of play we noticed the growing tendency for players to play up mystery injuries that magically healed when they were granted a free. That was in the 90s, and trend has only grown.

    “Especially after saying he doesn’t like dives without knowing hockey has an “embellishment” penalty at the referee’s discretion”
    What part of what I said did you take as an indication that I did not know this? When I referenced ice hockey, I was specifically noting the under-punishment of violence.

    #11 Rob
    I enjoyed this comment, as it contrasts nicely with the one of the favourite hobbies of sports fans everywhere: complaining about umpire/ref decisions. I take it then that you accept every call made by the ref with equanimity, and no speculation as the possibility of vision impairment requiring corrective lenses. After all, they are employed in that capacity at a professional level and so must have the skills to spot nuances that you, the spectator, did not see. Right?

    #12 John
    My memory of that thread was more specifically about crimes of high severity which already warrant many years of imprisonment. At that level of punishment, the deterrence value of the punishment itself has hit a plateau and so capital punishment adds nothing beyond what already exists.

  18. brucegee1962 says

    There may once have been a time when basketball was a non-contact sport, but I think those days are long gone.
    If you want to know why the penalties are set as they are, look at the fans. Basketball fans seem to enjoy some roughness to the game, people getting knocked down, bruises. The people who write the rules are just giving the fans what they want. If the fans wanted no-contact games, it would be easy enough for the rules to be re-written as Mano suggests with stiffer penalties.

  19. Rob Grigjanis says

    Holms @18: I’m not sports fans everywhere. As a player and supporter, I did/do accept refs’ decisions, even when I disagree. Of course they get things wrong sometimes; they don’t always have the best view of an incident. But their job is to keep the game moving, and over the long term, these things balance out. Things that bother me far more than calls I disagree with, and the occasional embellishment:

    Delayed offside calls.
    VAR: It’s a fucking joke. Suck up the marginal calls, and keep the game moving.
    That players are allowed to harass the ref after a call, without consequence. Should be an immediate automatic yellow at least.

  20. naturalcynic says

    Sometimes it is effective. Like the time that NC State won the NCAA basketball championship on their fouling and free throw defense.

  21. jrkrideau says

    @ 19 brucegee1962
    There may once have been a time when basketball was a non-contact sport
    Naismith, the creator of basketball, says the very first game degenerated into a brawl. There were a few wrinkles he had to iron out.

  22. says

    There may once have been a time when basketball was a non-contact sport, but I think those days are long gone.

    That might have been true before the implementation of the dribble. In professional basketball, such days never existed. Well into the 80s, pretty much every team had a center or power forward whose job was to get physical with the other team. Basketball has become increasingly low-contact over the last 40 years.

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