The Much-Discussed Offensive Foul

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In the March Madness epic that just ended, in which the Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Iowa State Cyclones in what was essentially a walkoff three-pointer, one particular play threatens to spoil the mood surrounding what was an otherwise fantastic, well played, enjoyable game.

In the final two minutes of a back-and-forth game, Iowa State had taken a one-point lead. The Cyclones had come all the way back from a double-digit deficit, having gone flat earlier after the loss of floor leader Chris Babb, and had finally gone ahead 75-74.Will Clyburn drove hard to the basket, and made a tough layup that appeared to give them a three-point lead…but Aaron Craft scrambled over as Clyburn was leaving his feet, arriving just in time to stand underneath Clyburn–with his feet hovering over the restricted area–and take what is already a much-disputed offensive foul call.

The Cyclones bench went crazy, Twitter almost broke, and the Cyclones never scored again.

As alluded to above, Craft sunk the game-winning three pointer, inside the last second, on a gorgeous shot in a tie game with the clock winding down. But CBS and other venues are overrun with discussion of the call, its legitimacy (it’s broadly agreed that the charge was questionable at best, and an NCAA official just basically admitted that it was probably the wrong call), and–most troubling–calls to eliminate the offensive foul call from basketball. This, in my opinion, would be a gross overreaction.

Let’s remember something: the charge call exists for a reason. Because without it, the Blake Griffins and Shaquille O’Neals of the world would be even more reckless and over the top with their physical abuse of defenders: face-palming, mushing, elbow swinging and flat-out steamrolling defenders in a clear disregard of the other player’s right to be there. The problem is that, in recent years, far too many players and coaches have begun gaming the system by running under players who’ve leaped toward the basket, in good faith and without unfair advantage, and “establishing position” by becoming statuesque for a literal split-second. Sometimes, even said defender will engage in a UEFA-esque flop, arms flailing and head jerking about in displays that would make even Reggie Miller embarrassed. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no population or demographic that corners the market on this phenomenon, and it seems to be getting worse. Watching tournament games this week, my girlfriend has been repeatedly rendered apoplectic at some of the more questionable charge calls, shouting, “just because someone falls down, doesn’t mean it was a charge!” I agree.

I do not, however, agree that the offensive foul needs to be done away with. It simple needs a tweak.

The evolution of the “restricted circle” was a step in the right direction, preventing players from taking a “charge” while standing literally under the basket while the offensive player is merely coming down after making a layup. The problem is that, well, it’s sometimes hard to keep your eye on both the restricted circle and flying, lunging bodies of basketball players. Let’s remember that refereeing is not an easy job, no matter how we might legitimately decry the miscarriages of justice that may sometimes occur. All things considered, the presence of a “restricted area” is necessary but not sufficient to properly determine the difference between a block and a charge.

What it really comes down to is this: is the defender making a legitimate, good-faith attempt to play defense?

I understand that intent is a difficult thing to determine in a fast-paced, physical game, especially when there’s a lot on the line. But the salient matter of the charge/block debate is the matter of each player’s right to play offense or defense without the other player gaining an unfair advantage or putting them unreasonably in harm’s way. Just as an offensive player should not be within their rights to mow down and/or injure a defender, a defensive player should not be within their rights to run under an airborne player who has not done anything excessive, and gain the benefit of a foul call.

One could say that this is a classic “letter of the law versus spirit of the law” argument. Referees should be trained to look for not just a defender’s “established positioning” in a literal sense, but the defender’s established positioning in the context of attempting to make a basketball play. Similarly, an offensive player should not be allowed to push off, run over off similarly assault a defender just because said defender is a bit off balance; not having “established position” shouldn’t make you a crash-test dummy or the object of an egregious stiff-arm. Really, the offensive foul call just needs to be a bit more nuanced, and understood in the context of making basketball plays instead of “gotcha” system-gaming, running under players who jumped into the thin air between them and the basket only to have an out-of-position defender race out of nowhere and put them both in harm’s way in order to take a “charge.”

The game we just watched was, in most respects, what March Madness is at its best. Almost 20 lead changes; a roaring comeback by an underdog that had lost an important floor leader; balanced, athletic play, and a game-winning three-pointer with under a second left. It’s a shame that a questionable call is casting a shadow over the game’s afterglow. If nothing else, let’s use it as an opportunity to further evolve the game, not just continue a series of counter-reactions and broaden the range of the aggrieved.


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