by Keith Aksel
Today we finish up the series on gray areas in sports. Thus far, we’ve covered mystical catch criteria in football, stalling in wrestling, PKs in soccer, and strike zones in baseball. All are events in their respective sports that at some level leave their citation up to the discretion of officials. We’ll now take a look at gray areas in two other sports: basketball and hockey. Afterward, we discuss the significance of gray areas, all so you can watch the NBA and NHL finals with a more knowing eye.
Basketball- Flagrant Fouls
Like strike zones in baseball, we see flagrant fouls cause a ruckus on an almost nightly basis. An offensive player drives to the bucket seemingly unobstructed. Then at the last moment, a defender’s arm swoops in to inhibit the player’s progress. If the defender ended up mostly grabbing the offensive player’s arm instead of the ball, a foul can be called…but what type of foul?
The NBA has set forth rules to attempt to deal with varying types of fouls. The flagrant foul rules are meant to distinguish between types of fouls where the intent of the offender was to harm the opposing player. “Flagrant one” and “flagrant two” fouls both carry in-game consequences. Both result in free throws and possession for the victim of the foul. In the case of a flagrant two, an offender gets automatically ejected. This is to say nothing to about the postgame fines levied by the league on the offender.
But these calls are rife with subjectivity. For instance, a technical foul could be levied if a referee believes the athlete was making a legitimate “basketball play” - if not, then the severity of the consequences could be lessened. Similarly, officials can determine whether there was a “potential for injury” in the offense, which can also determine the type of consequence. But, there is no definitive way to know a player’s intent. Until telepathy enables officials to scan a player’s brain activity during such plays, referees, at their whim, can make a call they feel is appropriate.
The aforementioned "groin" kick (read: balls).
In Game Three of this year’s Western Conference Finals, Draymond Green was called for a flagrant one foul for kicking Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams in the groin. Plenty felt that the move was a flagrant two offense- but that wildcard of “intent” continued to cloud the issue. Depending on the night and venue, a flagrant one from one official could be interpreted as a flagrant two by another, and a pertinent ejection. The ramifications of an ejection can be important in determining outcomes of contents, making technical fouls a key gray area in basketball.
Hockey- Goalie Interference
Rule 69 in the NHL rule book protects net minders from being pushed around by attacking players. The goalie interference rule states that: “an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. The rule will be enforced exclusively in accordance with the on-ice judgement of the Referee(s), and not by means of video replay or review.”
In this, hockey’s gray area is made obvious by the text of the rules. Interference is up to the “judgement” of the referee, ultimately a subjective measurement with no absolute barometer to know for sure the intent of the attacking player, or if, in fact, a goalie was unable to maneuver freely to stop a shot. The fact that the rule is so subjective can make or break an outcome, either by allowing a goal against an unfairly restricted goalie, or sending a player off the ice for a minimum of two minutes. The ramifications of either outcome are big for a contest, and signify that goalie interference is a gray area with heavy consequences.
Was this goalie interference? You be the judge.
The 2016 NHL Playoffs have already had their share of controversy in this gray area, as seen in Game Four of this year's Predators-Sharks series, when a Sharks overtime goal was waved off due to Joe Pavelski running into the goalie Pekka Rinne before scoring. But, was Pavelski’s contact with Rinne induced by a push by another Predators player? The referees did not think so, and the game winning goal was waved off. The Predators ended up taking the game in overtime. The referee’s subjectivity to decide this makes it great example of a gray area.
The purpose of pointing out sports' gray areas is not to suggest that we need more reforms in sports in order to eliminate them. Gray areas make sports interesting for fans, and reveal that there are, in fact, still lucky breaks to be had. This list is not the end of the story, either. Each of the sports above probably has other gray areas in addition to those I mentioned. But in each, we see gray areas as so important that players actually use that subjectivity strategically as a part of their game plans. Soccer players take dives all the time knowing that if they get lucky, a game-changing PK could make or break their season. Midfielders and forwards take that mentality into the box when they attack, especially in the late stages of a game. We’ve seen it in the NBA Playoffs time and again. Paul Pierce’s getting carted off in the 2008 Finals in "obvious pain," only to return three minutes later to nail consecutive field goals, is only the most obvious example players angling for flagrant foul calls by taking dives.
The fact that gray areas affect team and player strategy only further emphasizes the attention we as fans should pay towards rules changes meant to eliminate them. In theory, ruling that a wrestling referee should have to count to five before making a stalling call should sufficiently eliminate any subjectivity. But, will a referee want to make that call in the late stages of a deadlocked championship match? Can we guarantee that every star baseball slugger will receive the same “above the knee” strike zone calls as a batter hitting .170? Sports are played on the mat, court, and field, not on a rule making body’s sheet of paper. In the heat of the moment, rules can go from black and white to shades of gray, and no amount of reform will ever fully eliminate those fuzzy spaces. In the end, would fans even want all gray areas to go away? No easy answers, but we have plenty of fodder for debate.