SLAM ONLINE | » The Crackdown on Smack Downs

SLAM ONLINE | » The Crackdown on Smack Downs

The Crackdown on Smack Downs

Why we are seeing the end of the hard foul in the NBA.

by David J. Leonard

“McHale clotheslines Rambis”

“Laimbeer hammers Bird”

“Karl Malone elbows Isiah Thomas”

“Rick Mahorn levels MJ”

The list of NBA hard fouls is a long one; whether during the regular season or the most memorable deckings during the playoffs, the history of the NBA is one littered with hard fouls, flagrant fouls, and physical play. Yet, if you turned on the television these days and read countless commentaries on the NBA’s problem with physical play, you would think the NBA was facing some new epidemic of lawlessness and dirty plays. The game has always been physical and the NBA’s crackdown on such play doesn’t reflect changes in the game or the players’ approach to the game, but a myriad of factors that are bigger than the game itself.

There are multiple reasons for why the NBA is cracking down on physical play and hard fouls: (1) the style of play within the NBA has changed since late 1980s and early 1990s. Responding to the rise of the “Bad Boys” and their distant cousins in NY and Miami, as well as the lack of fanfare for the physical domination of the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, the League has pushed through changes that have led to a more free-flowing game, one defined by slashing and dynamic scorers going hard to the basket. While scoring is actually down from the golden age of both hard fouls and offense, the twenty-first century game is defined by penetration, athletic moves around the basket, and the artistry that results from Westbrook, DRose, or LeBron attacking the rim. A league of hard fouls, or a strictly enforced “no layup rule” would potentially undermine the beauty of the contemporary game.

(2) Hard fouls have been dramatically curtailed because of the NBA’s reliance on stars as global marketing icons. The need for multiple superstars, many of whom garner their global reach through success during the Playoffs, makes minimizing injuries crucial.

(3) Increased knowledge about the long-term effects of injuries as well as the physical changes amongst today’s athletes compels greater scrutiny when it comes to fouls. “Nowadays bigger, stronger bodies collide play after play, at elevations off the court few could imagine three decades ago,” writes Henry Abbott. “The forces in play are vastly greater, the knowledge of brain damage that much more acute. The League does far more than ever to prevent the escalation of violence, because it has to and should.” While these issues surely play a role in the heightened anxiety, the increasingly loud calls from the media to crackdown on the rough play in the NBA, and that flagrant foul calls have become more commonplace than traveling and double dribbling calls combine, the changing landscape of the sports media and race help explain the draconian approach to hard fouls within today’s NBA.

Sandwiched between Blake Griffin’s Kia commercials and those for Subway, the media landscape during the last month of NBA coverage has been dominated by Metta World Peace’s elbow of James Harden. Seemingly played on an endless loop, it seems that virtually every conversation about the NBA lead to a replay of the elbow over and over again. The widespread circulation of these fouls, and the saturation of the airwaves of fouls create conditions where league intervention is inevitable. With its efforts to reach untapped markets within and beyond the United States, the league seeks to control its image, an increasingly difficult task within our highlight-oriented culture. A flagrant foul can potentially be seen within minutes of its occurrence, leading to many judgments and commentaries from fans and pundits alike even before the league is able to formally review the play. Reflecting the 24-7 sports new industry, the reach of blogs, the power of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, hard fouls in the NBA exists as a spectacle allowing fans to witness the physicality and the violence over and over again.

At YouTube, one can type in “3-pointer and Metta World Peace” only to find a handful of videos that has been viewed in the thousands. Type in “flagrant foul and Metta World Peace” and shockingly there are endless video choices, some of which have been viewed by over 1 million people. Do the same for “Andrew Bynum and post moves” and compare that to “Andrew Bynum” and “JJ Barea/flagrant fouls”; even someone like Dwyane Wade, who clearly has a highlight reel of brilliant shots and slashing drives, is equally visible within new media circles for an array of flagrant and hard fouls.

While physical play, flagrant fouls and suspensions are not unique to the playoffs, this time of year seems to bring about heightened insecurity about elbows, forearm shivers, and “no layup” defense. Sure, the play might be more physical, as more is at stake, but it would seem that the increased coverage during the playoffs, the millions of new eyes watching, puts the league in a difficult situation. The hyper saturation contributes to an impression of the league as getting more and more physical, more and more violent, which not surprisingly has compelled intervention from the League—for the sake of publication relations and for “basketball reasons” the League has shown itself to be unwilling to return to the physical play of yesteryear.

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