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While watching American college basketball games or NBA games, I'll often see players drive to the basket and get fouled. When this happens in the second half of a game, I frequently hear the announcers say something like "That's Player A's 4th/5th/6th foul!" Of course, Player A is a critical player and it would be disastrous to his team if he fouled out. Then quite often I'll hear the announcers say something like "Oh wait, they're calling the foul on Player B instead. That's just his 2nd foul." Then sometimes I hear them say something like "It didn't look like Player B was even near the play."

So do referees sometimes not call a foul on a player who is in danger of fouling out, and instead give the foul to a player with fewer fouls - even if that player didn't commit the foul?

  • I think it'll be hard to get a true answer to this, because certainly the official rules do not support this idea. Perhaps one of the longtime NBA refs wrote a book, who knows. However, I think it's generally considered 'true'; in particular, this is part of home court advantage, where refs don't do things that will anger the fans quite as much. It may be unconscious or intentional, but that's a lot of home court advantage (or was!). – Joe Mar 15 '15 at 2:04
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Tim Donaghy, a former NBA referee, wrote a book titled Personal Foul (it was originally titled Blowing the Whistle but was renamed after he had to find another publisher).

Deadspin published some excerpts from the book. Donaghy wrote that the fans pay to see star players score a lot of points:

You would think that the NBA would love a guy who plays such great defense. Think again! Star stoppers hurt the promotion of marquee players. Fans don't pay high prices to see players like Raja Bell — they pay to see superstars like Kobe Bryant score 40 points. Basketball purists like to see good defense, but the NBA wants the big names to score big points.

Donaghy then wrote that star players get preferential treatment when it came to foul calls:

If a player of Kobe's stature collides with the likes of Raja Bell, the call will almost always go for Kobe and against Bell. As part of our ongoing training and game preparation, NBA referees regularly receive game-action video tape from the league office. Over the years, I have reviewed many recorded hours of video involving Raja Bell. The footage I analyzed usually illustrated fouls being called against Bell, rarely for him. The message was subtle but clear — call fouls against the star stopper because he's hurting the game.

He also wrote about how if a star player was in danger of getting into foul trouble, then the referees would try to keep him from being benched by only calling obvious fouls on him or trying to give fouls to other players:

If Kobe Bryant had two fouls in the first or second quarter and went to the bench, one referee would tell the other two, "Kobe's got two fouls. Let's make sure that if we call a foul on him, it's an obvious foul, because otherwise he's gonna go back to the bench. If he is involved in a play where a foul is called, give the foul to another player."

He also wrote about how referees would start calling fouls in games that became too physical in order to try to rein in the players. He said they would only call those fouls on non-star players to ensure that the star players remained in the game:

Similarly, when games got physically rough, we would huddle up and agree to tighten the game up. So we started calling fouls on guys who didn't really matter — "ticky-tack" or "touch" fouls where one player just touched another but didn't really impede his progress. Under regular circumstances these wouldn't be fouls, but after a skirmish we wanted to regain control. We would never call these types of fouls on superstars, just on the average players who didn't have star status. It was important to keep the stars on the floor.

Of course, Donaghy is a convicted felon and the NBA and many other people think he has no credibility. Henry Abbott wrote an article for ESPN.com in which he examined the book. He said that some of the claims in the book were refuted by Charles Barkley, Phil Jackson, and others. But he didn't provide any evidence or quotes from anyone to either support or disprove the claim that referees give preferential treatment to star players in terms of foul calls.

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    As a non-marquee sports official (both I am non-marquee and my sport is), regardless of Donaghy's personal credibility, what he is saying is backed up by hours and hours of irrefutable video evidence. On a side note, it's the funniest thing in the world to hear Chicago Bulls fans complain about superstars in the post-Jordan era getting preferential treatment. – PoloHoleSet Jan 25 '17 at 17:43
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    I don't think Donaghy being a felon makes him less credible. The same could have been said for Jose Conseco... wow he was the big steroid liar right? – Coach-D Jan 25 '17 at 17:54
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I have worked many upper tier high school to mid-major games for the past 15 years. I played basketball growing up and like to pride myself in calling a clean game. I definitely do not have a bias based on the way a player looks, race, attitude, or anything like that. I like the thugs, I like the ballers, I like the shooters, I like the cocky kids - I find the "mean" personalities part of the charm of the game.

However I have seen a variety of things and will note them:

  1. Homer ref won't call a foul/violation on home players unless the fouls or obvious or don't effect the game. Example - visiting team has 8 fouls called on them and home team has been to the line 6 times. Four minutes to go in the half homer ref notices that home team has 2 fouls. So he starts whistling reach-ins. Really good homer ref will call said reach-in after a home player has been beat badly, negating points while getting the fouls "even". A really really good homer ref will have a foul on the visiting team's star player within 5 minutes and two by halftime for sure.

  2. Favorite player ref. There are refs that get enthralled with a player's style. So that ref will let said player do whatever. Usually said player is a smooth dribbler and good shooter. I have seen refs miss 10 carries in a game because the player looked smooth while carrying.

  3. Can't handle big-boy ref. This is not so much in the NBA since almost every team has 4-6 big/fast players. But go to a college/high school game and this is a prevailing issue. If you are 6-6 250, built, and fast... Chances are that if you touch a guard its a foul and if you get hit while laying the ball up... well you can handle it.

  4. The puppetmaster ref. And I think this is mainly what you are referring to. These are the refs that feel like their job is to create the best show. They will make sure that the stars don't get in foul trouble, they will try to keep the score close by fouls/violations. The good ones are subtle and an average fan would never suspect anything, the bad ones do things like call the foul on the player next to the star.

  5. The racist/biased ref. Hey it's out there. The NBA's own ref data that was published a few years ago showed that white refs called more fouls on black players than white players (per minute average). And at even a greater rate, black refs called more fouls on white players (and way more violations).

The point is refs are humans. They are not robots. There are many refs that have a Napoleon complex. You show them up, they will give you sneaky fouls. Also refs make money even down to the high school level they get hired by the league/district/school. You foul out the star player a few times, maybe you get less games or a bad rating. And guess what basketball is so subjective that you could take the best ref and find 20 missed calls in 5 games to make him look bad.

And I will leave you with my personal bias. I love the poetry of basketball. I am certainly biased against players who disrupt this. Especially those who have learned sneaky/dirty tricks. A lot of coach's teach bigs to give the other big man a little push in the stomach with their off hand during a shot. Most refs don't call it. I call it. And then I will look at every single piece of contact that players make the rest of the game. Same for jersey grabbing, sticking your elbows/knees out on screens, post-up shoves, and so on.

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