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Flagrant Fouls in Basketball: Difficult Call To Make

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A video recently posted on YouTube (see below) featured footage of a high school basketball team committing six fouls in which the videographer accuses the officials of miscalling the fouls.  Like many, he considered any hard foul resulting in the player falling to the court a flagrant foul.  Problem is that such contact is not automatically a flagrant foul; it could be an intentional foul, or it could be just a hard, but ordinary, personal foul. 

Boys high school varsity basketball is notorious for its fast and physical play.  It is full of contact by players on both teams, contact that some onlookers might consider violent or flagrant fouls, even though they are not.  My intention in this blog post is not to second guess the officiating crew in the video, or criticize the parents and students who were angered by the officiating.   Instead, to help parents of high school basketball players and coaches understand the difference between a foul, an intentional foul, and a flagrant foul, I will share the thought process I use when confronted with plays and fouls such as those shown in the video.


A rule of thumb officials use when calling fouls is to "referee the defense", in other words, to consider the positioning and the movement of the defender.  For the fouls in the video, the first question a basketball referee would ask is, "Did the player make a play for the ball?" In general, if the answer is yes, the player was making a play for the ball, and contact results in a fallen player, I consider it a hard personal foul, and penalize it accordingly.  If the answer is "no", the player was NOT making a play for the ball, and a player falls as a result, then I call it a flagrant or intentional foul, which is personal technical foul and penalized differently than a hard foul.   

In one of the fouls shown on the video, Player #42 appears to be trying to grab the ball away by grabbing the rebounder and is called for a foul.  I have seen players make an attempt for the ball by reaching around, over, and on the side of opponents.  Is this rough play? Yes. Is it a flagrant foul? No.  Is it intentional? No. Is is sloppy?  Yes, absolutely.

In another foul, Player #42 pushes his opponent as they chase a loose ball.  In this case, he clearly is not playing the ball at all. In fact, he is several feet from it.  But playing, or not playing, the ball is only one factor an official has to consider in deciding whether to call an intentional  foul. Another aspect is timing. For example, when did  Foul #1 occur?  Had it occured early in the game, or been the first foul by this player  it is unlikely that the officials would have called an intentional foul. Officials prefer to see how the players play, to let the game develop and flow.  Had player #34 been charged with a flagrant foul, he would immediately have been ejected from the game. If this was his first foul, would charging a flagrant foul be appropriate?  An intentional foul, perhaps, but flagrant?  It would certainly have warranted a warning by the official to the player and coach  ("We have you on our radar, #34!"),  to put them on notice that another similar foul would be called an intentional technical foul.  Threat of a technical foul or possible ejection might eliminate the potential for excessively rough play and to a fight breaking out.

Intentional fouls and flagrant fouls are both personal technical fouls and penalized with free throws and with possession by the offended team.  In addition, a flagrant foul requires the ejection of the offending player(s).  Coaches, players, officials and athletic directors should agree the ejection of a player is not the first course of action official's should take to penalize a foul or even rough play.  It is a remedy reserved only for the right circumstances. 

Begging the question 

Frankly, as a high school varsity basketball official, I think the video (and the commentary by the videographer) begs more questions than it answers:

  • Should the fouls have been called intentional, hard personal, or flagrant?  
  • Did the officials confer about the rough play and if so, when? 
  • Did they attempt to manage the game and diffuse the emotions with warnings and conversations with players and coaches?   

In order to fully understand the calls they made, they need to be seen in the context, not only of the entire sequence of play leading up to the call, but the entire game tape.  Only then can one appreciate the timing, context, and numerous other game factors, before judging whether the official made the correct call.

Given the video's notoriety (at last count, it has been viewed more than 6.5 million times!), you had better believe that the high school officiating association where I live, and likely every high school officiating organization in the country, is evaluating the video and asking what would we have done?