Cleaning Up The Court

Rough play continues to be a concern in basketball and several other sports, despite varied attempts at control. Here’s how athletic directors can help effect change.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.3, April/May 2003,

Several red-letter days dot the basketball calendar—the first day of practice, the opening game of the season, the championship match. Added to that list has been the annual proclamation that it’s time to clean up rough play in basketball.

Both the NCAA and NFHS basketball rules committees have made curbing rough play a major point of emphasis for several years. New rules are made while existing rules are singled out for increased enforcement. The rulebook gets thicker, but is anything else changing? Can rough play be diminished?

In some cases, the answer has been yes. However, doing so takes serious efforts on many fronts—coaches and officials can’t do it alone. Change requires leadership, and athletic directors, charged with seeing the big picture, are the point people who can keep the issue on the front burner.

Hoops is hardly unique in its talk of excessively rough play. It’s an issue in nearly every major sport in which regular body contact is allowed. But perhaps because of both its popularity and non-contact origins, basketball is getting the most attention. What happens this sport may be the road map for addressing rough play elsewhere.

What’s the Problem?
Many people ask why rough play is a concern. As long as players aren’t taking swings at each other, what’s wrong with bodies bumping under the basket?

“People are concerned because they feel basketball shouldn’t be football,” says Rick Hartzell, Athletic Director at the University of Northern Iowa and an NCAA Division I men’s basketball official. “They think basketball should be a free-moving, free-flowing athletic game played with minimal contact.”

“We can’t let roughness and big, strong, physical types of play dominate what should be a skill and finesse game,” says Rich Wulkow, Assistant Executive Director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association. “Physical play will dominate finesse if we allow it to. We cannot continue to let it be coached that way.”

Another concern is smaller battles turning into larger ones. When a defender constantly measures up an opponent with his hand, and the offensive player swipes the hand away a couple of times, it may not be long until both players end up on the floor, and likely angry.

Basketball has been around for more than a century. Why has rough play become such a big concern in recent years? There are a variety of reasons, some of which can be addressed and others which cannot. For example, there’s little anyone can do about the continued increase in the size of the players.

“The kids are bigger, faster, and stronger now,” says Russell Siebert, President of the Fort Worth (Texas) Basketball Officials Association. “Then there’s the weight training that wasn’t available before. When you’re 17 and that big and strong, you don’t always know how big and strong you are. So it can be tough to get kids to understand their own bodies and what kind of pain they can inflict if they don’t play under control. They become a bull in a china shop.”

While most of the public’s attention is focused on the increased number of large players around the basket, perimeter players have grown at an even faster rate. “There are more 6-7, 6-8 guys than there have ever been before,” Hartzell says. “They play in a confined space and there’s going to be physical contact and occasionally people will be knocked to the floor.”

The style of game itself has changed as well, creating more opportunities for hard contact between two players. “Another thing that hurts in the boys’ game is the emphasis on the dunk,” Siebert says. “Kids are always trying to get to the rack and throw one down to please the crowd. When they go to the rack that hard it tends to cause collisions, which can cause the physical play to escalate.”

So where do athletic directors fit into this picture? Obviously some are directly involved through their efforts on NCAA or state association committees. Most athletic directors, though, have little day-to-day involvement in any one sport, limiting their impact on controlling rough play. But an athletic director is responsible for all the school’s teams. As such, he or she holds the ultimate power over what goes on within a program.

“I think the athletic director is the CEO of the athletic program and everything flows from that person,” says Skip Peltier, Associate Director of the Minnesota State High School League. “The mentality, the philosophy, the commitment to comply with the rules all come from the leadership of the athletic director. If the athletic director is a strong leader who has high expectations, demands compliance with the rules, and requires that his players and coaches respect the rules, I think you’ll have a much better program that allows athletes to compete fairly, but doesn’t detract from the game.”

Cracking Down
Rather than drawing up a new set of rules, most of the successful attempts to quell rough play have focused on cracking down on already prohibited actions that were often overlooked unless violations were blatant. The Iowa High School Athletic Association followed that formula a few years ago after becoming concerned that officials were not calling fouls for contact forbidden by the rule book. The IHSAA instructed its officials to start calling fouls by the letter of the rules instead of following unwritten rules of thumb or making their own interpretations of what was and wasn’t legal.

The IHSAA also issued guidelines that focused on hand-checking, screens, rebounding, loose-ball scrambles, block/charge calls, and post play. To clean up hand-checking, for example, officials were directed to call fouls whenever defensive players placed a hand on an opponent.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association recently mounted a similar campaign, directing officials to eliminate hand-checking, start the five-second closely guarded count when the defender is within six feet of the ball-handler, and lean toward a player-control foul when deciding between calling a block or a charge. The WIAA also laid down the law to coaches, telling them that objections to closely called games would be dealt with severely.

“We wanted to get the word out that officials were being directed to call a close game, and that the coaches were being directed to not object,” says WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese.

To help officials meet the new guidelines, the IHSAA provided more training to them, including teaching them how to better officiate action away from the ball. “If the officials are watching the ball, and someone goes sprawling, they think, ‘What happened?’” Wulkow says. “If we were officiating that player, we’d know if the guy was there legally or not. It’s all about officiating defense better, not just watching the ball.”

Following up on its efforts, the IHSAA spent $10,000 to hire former officials and coaches to monitor some games. The observers found that 75 percent of officials followed the new guidelines. “That makes us feel that our program is having an effect,” Wulkow says. “But we still have the other 25 percent we need to work on.”

Those on the front lines agree that the battle has not yet been won, but that progress is being made. “I think the efforts by officials and, at least to some degree, by coaches have made a difference,” Hartzell says. “I don’t think the games are as physical as they have been over the past few years. But I also don’t think we’ve gotten the game completely cleaned up.”

Hartzell feels the area under the basket has been the toughest to remodel. “Post play is the issue today and it will be the issue tomorrow,” Hartzell says. “Those are big guys fighting for position and there’s going to be some contact. You have to determine what’s legal and what’s illegal, then you have to blow the whistle and blow it quick.”

New Rules
Along with the emphasis on calling a tight game, committees are experimenting with new rules to address physical play in the paint. This past season, the NCAA tried experimental rules that included widening the lane by two feet on each side, moving the three-point line back nine inches, and creating more space between the players nearest the basket on free throws. The committee will review the results of those experiments before deciding whether to fully implement the changes.

At the high school level, Siebert applauds the change in the penalty for swinging elbows with no contact from a technical foul to a violation, implemented by the NFHS last year. “It’s really made the punishment fit the crime,” Siebert says, “which means we’re more likely to call that than we would have when it was a technical foul. You want it to be a simple game, and you don’t want to burden officials with trying to figure out the subtleties of it. It makes sense to fine tune the rules, and that was a situation where I felt they did a good job.”

The Florida High School Activities Association took a page from the NCAA Women’s Rule Book, limiting the number of players along the lane on free throws to four defensive and two offensive players. The spot closest to the basket is kept vacant and the space just above the block (towards the shooter) must be occupied by the defense. The NFHS Basketball Rules Committee will use Florida’s experiment as a guide when it considers rules changes this spring.

“I think the rule met its intended goal, which was to cut down on rough play, and I have not heard anything negative about the change,” says Denarvise Thornton, Associate Director of Athletics for the Florida High School Activities Association. “The officials like it because it’s not as cluttered under the goal during a free throw, which improves their view of the action.”

Some states have also had success in increasing penalties for blatant violations of the rules, including rough play that goes beyond the boundaries of the game. About seven years ago, the Minnesota State High School League added a one-game suspension for any player ejected from a game because of physical play, taunting, verbal abuse, or similar behavior. Any further ejections of that player carry an additional four-game suspension.

“Having a penalty for these violations is a valuable control mechanism and deterrent,” Peltier says. “It certainly doesn’t deter all unsportsmanlike behavior, but it’s been a valuable tool.”

The MSHSL also encourages coaches and officials to contact the league if they encounter coaches who condone rough play. “If officials see improper behavior, they can write up the coach, and our association also gets calls from opposing coaches who will talk about the physical nature of the game and the play,” Peltier says. “They both have an opportunity to file a complaint or game incident report and we follow up on that.”

Although poor sportsmanship and rough play are often lumped together in people’s minds, it’s important to see the differences between them. “You can have kids who are great, sportsmanlike, wonderful human beings yet play too rough,” Hartzell says. “And you can have kids who don’t play rough who are bad sports.”

Stars in Stripes
Another key is giving officials the support they need to call the rough-play fouls. “Officials have to blow the whistle and they have to have the courage to keep blowing the whistle,” Hartzell says. “But from an officiating standpoint, there are a whole bunch of factors that go into whether or not you can have the courage every night to blow the whistle enough to get that rough play under control.

“It’s easy to call one or two fouls,” he continues. “It’s easy to take a couple of calls against this team and a couple against that team. It’s not easy to keep going because then the best players have two or three fouls, the coaches are going wacko, and the fans are booing you. That’s hard.

“The challenge is having the courage to keep going. If you keep calling fouls, then sooner or later that guy who’s playing too rough will either be on the bench with fouls or he’ll change the way he plays. The question is, can you live with the fact that they hate you for it?”

Veteran officials also have to undo years of learning if they are to follow revised guidelines for what should be called a foul. “Frankly it’s a bit of a struggle to force them to call the things that cause play to get physical, especially with guys who really like to let the play go,” Siebert says. “Sometimes we just have to strong-arm them and say, ‘This is the way it needs to be. I know you’ve called basketball a certain way for the past 10 or 15 years, but it says right here in the book they want hand checks called and you’ve got to do that.’ At that point it becomes peer pressure as much as anything else.”

Siebert has also employed an approach that frustrates coaches at first, but has been effective at reducing overly physical play. “I’m quick with the double foul,” he says. “If I get two guys jostling in the post, I’m not going to sit and wait for it to escalate in the form of one guy taking a swing or making a serious push. If they’re banging and crashing down there, even if there’s no advantage being gained, I don’t hesitate to throw out a double foul to get them to knock it off. Some people think it’s a cop out and that I ought to be able to see a foul one way or another. But to my mind, if you have two guys who are equally guilty then you need to address that.

“And frankly, the double foul has a tremendous effect on the coaches, too,” he continues. “Once they realize you’re prepared to do that, more often than not they’ll tell their kids to back off because there’s no advantage to be gained by either team.

“I had a game this year with just that situation. It was getting a little out of hand. We had a tech on a kid and then I threw a double foul right after that, which was just before halftime. In the second half, they were quiet as church mice. They just played the game after that.”

The Administrator’s Role
While officials are central in any effort to reduce rough play, an individual official has only a fleeting impact on the bigger picture. Officials can call all the fouls they want, but there’s little they can do once their time on the court ends. Eventually they need help from others, especially athletic directors.

“The main thing athletic directors can do is control their coaches,” Siebert says. “The coaches work for the athletic director and consequently if the athletic director makes it perfectly clear that only certain sorts of activity are going to be tolerated, that flows down. A coach is like anybody else in the world. He’s a guy doing a job and his number one concern is keeping his job.”

The athletic director may not know a pick-and-roll from a hard roll, yet can still have influence over the way games are played by setting the tone. “A lot of it goes back to the local school to determine what their expectations are and how they will follow up on those expectations,” Peltier says.

Coming up with those guidelines should go beyond wins and losses. “I think we have to get back to an understanding of what the expectations are of our sports programs and how they fit into the mission of the institution,” says Phil Buttafuoco, Commissioner of the Eastern College Athletic Conference. “Are we teaching people to coach the way we want or are we allowing coaches to coach the way they think they have to in order to win?”

At Northern Iowa, Hartzell has expectations in mind from the very first contact he makes with his coaches. “I try to hire coaches who are teachers and who I know are going to do everything in their power to get their jobs done,” he says. “In my opinion, if you make winning the top priority, you’ve already made the first mistake. You need to make winning a by-product of all the other parts of the whole. So we’re trying to recruit the right kids, mentor them the right way, be sure the academic pieces are in place, teach the sport the way it’s supposed to be taught, and develop that team chemistry and camaraderie.

“If you do all those things then in the end you win enough games,” he says. “But if you put winning first and ignore all those other things as steps in the process then you put too much pressure on coaches.”

Athletic directors have a fine line to walk, though, between providing guidance to their coaches and telling their coaches how to do their jobs. “I don’t think many athletic directors are walking into their basketball coach’s office saying, ‘You have to be coaching a style that’s congruent with the rules,’ and I don’t think that they should,” Hartzell says. “But I do think athletic directors ought to be sure that they have a handle on whether or not there are things going on outside the scope of regular basketball, such as flagrant fouls, hard fouls, or unsporting acts, and whether coaches are encouraging that kind of play. Those things can be dealt with in a way that lets coaches know that they won’t be tolerated.”

Setting those expectations must go beyond conversations between the coach and athletic director to be effective. Hartzell meets with each team in the fall and often follows up with less structured meetings and one-on-one interactions when the opportunities arise, such as on a bus during a road trip or a team meal.

“I talk to our teams all the time about sportsmanlike behavior, about how they play, about personal fouls in football and technical fouls and rough play in basketball,” Hartzell says. “I’m careful in these discussions, because I don’t want to take away their own personality and the way they need to play in order to be successful. But I do let them know what we’re going to tolerate and what we’re not going to tolerate.

“A lot of times when coaches and kids know someone is watching and paying attention, that has a huge impact,” he continues. “And a lot of times those little discussions behind the scenes make the biggest difference.”

What’s Next?
One of the appeals of sport is the opportunity to immediately know the results of your efforts. There’s a predefined end to the game where the winner and loser are determined. But efforts to improve the game by curbing rough play have no such measuring stick.

“There’s no mathematical formula that can say, ‘We have the answer now, and it is correct,’” says Art Hyland, Associate Commissioner of the Big East Conference and Chair of the NCAA Basketball Rules committee. “I think people involved in the game tend to look at how it is played night by night to see whether the nature of the game is less physical than it was in previous years.”

Some people feel there is a need for increasing cooperation among those pursuing the goal. “I feel there has to be better communication between administrators so we can all work together to leverage our interest in developing the right culture,” Buttafuoco says. “Unfortunately I think there are too many different groups trying to do it themselves, whether it’s one conference, a single administrator, an NCAA rules committee, or a high school rules committee. I haven’t seen enough collaborative effort to mesh everyone’s interests together. There needs to be a collaboration of time and energy.”

Nevertheless, those responsible for getting the job done say they’ll continue to go at it. Not necessarily because of the changes they’ll see in the next game, but because of those that will follow.

“Our children play basketball too,” Siebert says. “So its important to us on a personal level to limit overly rough play. And frankly it’s a better game without that stuff.”

Sidebar: Root Causes
Curtailing rough play also means understanding the difference between playing tough and using intimidation. Few people have a problem with the first, but the second is promoted by some and detested by others.

“Intimidation works in a lot of cases,” says Skip Peltier, Associate Director of the Minnesota State High School League. “There’s a greater emphasis today on doing whatever you need to do to win and that means looking for the edge. Players are going to look for an edge by hand-checking, by verbal intimidation, by raising the ante and saying ‘If you’re going to step in the paint you’re going to pay a price.’ A lot of that goes back to what they see in professional sports and allowing that to trickle down to college and high school.”

When student-athletes see NBA players acting a certain way, they figure that’s the way they should act, too. Even youth players have been affected.

“I’ve started coaching some 3rd and 4th grade basketball because my sons are part of it,” says Brad Poppe, Girls’ Basketball Coach at Avon (S.D.) High School and President of the South Dakota Basketball Coaches Association. “It’s amazing what those kids will come in and think they can do because they saw it Sunday afternoon on the NBA.”

Some have also seen a change in the way players approach the game, in part because of the emphasis on winning. “We know that some coaches teach their kids to be intimidating and physical and have that enforcer role—the old Philadelphia Flyer mentality comes to mind,” Peltier says. “‘We may not have the skill to match up with the other team but we can out-man them physically, so that’s our edge to win. We’ll take the game away from them by being physical.’ It’s what they see at the pro and college levels, and results from placing a higher emphasis on winning than on playing the game within the rules.”