Crying Foul: Why the NBA Should Increase the Foul Limit or Eliminate it Altogether

The NBA in 1954 was George Mikan and a bunch of 6’4 white guys who were accountants in the offseason.

Today’s game (obviously) is completely different. A shoddy referee can easily force a top-10 NBA talent out of a game in three minutes, and that’s a problem.

If you’ve followed the NBA closely over the past several seasons, chances are you’ve heard Jeff Van Gundy lobby from his pulpit for the NBA to increase the number of personal fouls it takes for a player to foul out of a game. He’s right. And here’s why:

Throughout basketball’s history, there has always been a limit on the amount of personal fouls a player can accrue before they are ejected from the game. In college it’s 5, and in the pros it’s 6, and those numbers have never been adjusted. These limits are accepted as gospel, but the truth is that they’ve just been around so long that almost no one questions their validity.

But the game has evolved, and while those arbitrary foul limits certainly made sense once upon a time, the deterrent is no longer needed. Unless you’re playing Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan, the opponent’s free throws will negate the strategy. It would be suicide to send the other team to the line on every play. In addition, teams are punished for committing too many fouls by the bonus or double bonus (and therefore shooting more free throws, even on non-shooting fouls)—why should players be reprimanded?

Imagine your reaction if the starting left tackle on your favorite NFL squad was ejected in the third quarter for too many false starts. Or if your favorite soccer player was ejected for committing one too many fouls in a hard fought game? The card system exists for exactly this purpose, and it is remarkably efficient in prescribing disciplinary measures. The NBA actually has something similar with their process of technical and flagrant fouls, but where basketball runs into trouble is going beyond that and ejecting players for individual (and often minor) personal fouls, a step no other major sport embraces.

The competition for live sports ratings (and the lucrative television packages they support) is a zero-sum game, at least when it comes to the NBA. They go head-to-head with the three other major professional sports, as well as soccer, for fan interest, ratings, and sponsorship revenue. That being the case, it makes no sense for the league to tie its own hands by unnecessarily ejecting star players.

Post Tim Donaghy, is there anyone who really thinks fouls are called in a consistent and fair manner? Incompetence, favoritism, and straight-up game fixing are all reasons that foul calls are made, or not, at both the pro and college levels. And in basketball, more than any other sport, missing just one player, even for a few seconds, can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Van Gundy says go all the way and eliminate the foul out rule altogether, and I agree. But it would be hard to imagine the NBA taking such a big leap, even under the new (refreshing) leadership of Adam Silver. So I’ll suggest a compromise: make the NBA limit 8 (and 7 in college, not that I would ever trust the NCAA to do something proactive) and agree to revisit it in two years. It is a win-win for everyone: players, fans, and coaches. And it wouldn’t diminish the game one iota.

Basketball foul limits have been archaic since the ‘60s, but removing them makes too much sense to ever happen. Simple solutions take decades to reach in professional sports—hopefully someone joins Van Gundy in crying foul…

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