Last night I watched Michigan State play significant portions of a road game they ended up losing without Draymond Green, and then I watched Vanderbilt play significant portions of a road game they ended up losing without Festus Ezeli. Both stars were saddled with foul trouble that stemmed at least in part from what I will call “memo fouls.”
Last week NCAA national officiating coordinator John Adams highlighted the issue of sportsmanship in his monthly memo to officials. “You should have a very low tolerance for players who use profanity toward officials, or who ‘wave you off’ after a call,” Adams wrote. “These types of actions call for Technical fouls. Call them! Your coordinators and commissioners will support you.”
Sportsmanship is indeed a precious quality, a generous and ennobling aspect of an otherwise purely selfish and competitive spectacle. I’ll give a strange example. A week or two ago when Purdue played at Michigan State, an idiot at the Breslin Center heckled Robbie Hummel by saying he hoped to see the Boilermaker star tear his ACL yet again. After the game Tom Izzo made plain his wish to disembowel any such idiot, regardless of the fact that the idiot in question was wearing green. Izzo’s always been an enthusiastic practitioner of precisely this kind of angry sportsmanship, and I like that aspect of him a lot.
Izzo, Adams, Gasaway, you — we can all agree that sportsmanship merits recognition and even, at the margins, enforcement. The problem with Adams’ memo lies not in its veneration of sportsmanship. The problem lies in its solitary and incorrigibly crude mechanism for enforcement vis a vis players: assessing personal fouls.
Even pre-memo, we already saw too little of the game’s best players due to foul trouble, and I am already on the record as finding this surpassingly odd. Other sports go out of their way to make sure that their stars, you know, play. The NFL has done everything but equip quarterbacks with portable moats to make sure they stay healthy and in the game. Yet for reasons that have never been explained to my satisfaction, basketball alone tolerates an enforcement mechanism that is self-evidently self-defeating. Coaches choose to remove their best players from the game, for fear of being forced to remove their best players from the game.
It would make more sense to simply reward the opposing team with an escalating series of extra free throws and/or possessions. Meantime an allotment of a mere five fouls per player per 40 minutes cannot carry all of this rules-enforcement and behavior-modification water. No way.
The NCAA should have a very low tolerance for star players not playing. This type of situation calls for changing the rules. Change them! Your fans and your partner TV networks and their advertisers will support you.