The Intentional Foul

Intentional Fouls

By Tim Malloy

Don’t be boxed in by the wording of the NFHS Intentional Foul rule.

“But I Know It When I See It.”

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart spoke these famous words 50 years ago on a ruling pertaining to the classification of certain adult material, he, ‘knew it when he saw it.’


And so is the case with NFHS Intentional Fouls…You may find it challenging to explain precisely ‘the shades of gray’ that turns the dial on player contact and what ratchets it up from a common foul to an intentional foul, but you better know it when you see it.


The inconsistent rulings on this matter were likely part of the reason Intentional Fouls have been an NFHS Point of Emphasis during several seasons


We always try to provide reality-based insight and commentary that will help you be a more effective game manager, which will improve your standing with coaches, your assignor and your fellow official, so in this post we look at Intentional Fouls, and suggest that you be mindful to not be too literal in your interpretation of NFHS Rule 4-19-3.

Dissecting the rule, we read in part that an Intentional Foul “may or may not be premeditated…and is not based solely on the severity of the act…”


The sole mission of every team when they are playing defense is premeditated: to not let their opponent score….So every bump, clutch and grab is done with the ‘intent’ to prevent a basket from being scored against them, and to regain possession of the basketball as quickly as possible.


This means you need to be able to distinguish between a A-1 grabbing B-1 as B-1 tries to slash to the basket; and A-1 desperately grabbing B-1’s as B-1 has created ample separation and is about to receive a pass for an easy attempt at a layup.


And you need to be able to make the distinction between common foul or intentional foul in warp speed time.

You have to know it when you see it.       

And while the rule advises not to only focus on defensive fouls that are severe; you would be wise to put your judgment in hyper-drive when there is contact that brings the offensive team’s coach and its spectators to their feet in righteous protest.


The calling official will gain precious extra time to decide whether to rule an Intention Foul as he/she runs with a raised fist to the tangled bodies on the floor. While you are separating the combatants, you are reviewing the play in your mind’s eye. Your partners may offer some quick insight, and then its time to move to the reporting area and let everyone know if what just transpired rose to the level of being ruled an Intentional Foul.

Was this foul different than all of the other common fouls called in this contest?

Officials might be aided if the NFHS would consider adding a new signal to indicate an “excessive foul.”  This would provide more clarity as to why the referees are awarding two free throws and the ball for the scenario of a clean competitive play that results in a hard foul.


It would certainly go a long way to reducing the wailing of, “he/she was playing the ball!!” by coaches, players and fans.


Rule 4-19-3 also counsels us about, “contact that neutralizes an opponent’s obvious advantage…contact away from the ball….and contact designed to specifically stop the clock,” and all call for steady, consistent and big picture judgement.


An obvious mismatch (small vs tall) can bring about a ‘deliberate’ foul, without it being an intentional foul.A defensive foul away from the game action can be ‘deliberate’ without it being intentional.And a foul in the final minutes of a game can be a deliberate strategy that does not warrant an intentional foul.

You just have to know it when you see it.

So it to that end that we suggest you strive to find that perfect balance between the theory of the written rule, and the reality and context of its application in a competitive, heated moment.


While authors and editors are largely correct in their challenge for all officials to muster their courage and call an Intentional Foul when it warrants such a call; you would be wise to tread cautiously and not misinterpret rule book language that will damage the game at hand, and your future reputation.


A proven strategy for success in any walk of life is to model people who have already achieved the level of success you desire. And I would suggest if you monitored the work of battle-tested veteran referees (your cable TV package offers a plethora of college games almost every night for this exercise) you will see officials who use great discretion when it comes to dropping an Intentional Foul on a team.


Think about all of the close games you have watched that became a parade to the foul line in the final minutes as the trailing team employed a tactic of fouling with the obvious intent of stopping the clock and the hope of regaining possession after a couple of missed free throws…


How many of those games can you remember an Intentional Foul being called?

It’s my guess, not too many…


The point is to exercise a solid common sense, reality-based officiating mindset so as not to get buried because you dug too deep into NFHS Rule 4-19-3 on Intentional Fouls.

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