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Technical Fouls: The Most Misunderstood Rule In Basketball?


Technical fouls are a necessary and misunderstood part of the game of basketball.

While technical fouls, or "technicals," are most often associated with penalizing unsporting behavior, they cover much, much more; they also cover violations of important procedural and administrative rules, enforcing compliance with those elements that form the foundation of basketball game management. Understanding technical fouls and using them to effectively manage the game, coaches and players is an ongoing learning experience for all officials. This article attempts to highlight technical fouls and clear up some misconceptions regarding this important rule and tool. Female basketball official

Technical fouls for other than unsporting conduct include but are not limited to illegal uniforms, roster submission and changes and coaching and player entry/exit procedures.

Numbers game

In the case of uniforms, the rules are crystal clear regarding permissable colors, number and team dimensions and locations of logos. Uniforms include headband, wristband, compression arm and leg sleeves as well as player numbers. When the officials observe players  and review the rosters during pre-game warm ups, we are looking for potential infractions so we can alert the coach to take corrective action. If the violations are not discovered until after the game begins, technical fouls may result. 

As simple as this may sound, technical infractions of team uniform rules occur in virtually every game I have officiated.  In a recent game, the official neglected to flag the illegal number "6" on the visiting teams roster. Legal numbers are defined in the National Federation of High School Associations ( NFHS) rule book as those that official can report using one hand.  Thus, the numbers 6, 7,8, 9 are not legal.

Why? Well, for one reason, it is easier for the scorekeeper to see and understand numbers on a single hand and document the number correctly on the scoresheet. Accurate assignment of points and fouls is important to the players and coaches and serves everyone's interests. 

In the second quarter, a foul was called on Number 6 and it was only then that we realized the player had an illegal number, which falls under the definition of an illegal uniform.  Since the game had already begun with the player wearing the illegal jersey, a technical foul was charged to his team.  Had the illegal number been flagged by the official during pre-game review, the coach would have had the opportunity to change the jersey to a legal one.  In this case, the officiating crew shoulder some of the blame for not spotting the infraction earlier, but an oversight isn't a good enough reason to overlook the infraction.

Some of you might ask why? Why couldnt we simply allow the player to continue playing? The answer is, of course, that we could have. But given that the situation was flagged and both coaches were aware of it, a failure to enforce the rules in an even-handed (pardon the pun) fashion would the officiating crew in an untenable position: the other coach might expect the crew to ignore the enforcement of a rule for his or her side as well.  We needed to make a decision, and we opted to charge  technical. I am not sure if I would do this again, by the way, for if there is a way to avoid a technical and maintain game integrity with both teams, I would do so. 

Technical fouls like this one are preventable but can be costly.  In a game in which I was the lead official and reviewed the team rosters for headcount and legal numbers before the game, they all looked in order; it was only when a shooting foul was called soon after the game began that the scorekeeper realized that the roster of the entire home team had been entered incorrectly. For some reason, she had input player numbers from a game where players wore different jerseys. The correction cost the home team a technical foul. The opposing team was awarded four free-throws (two for the shooting foul, two for the technical) plus possession again after the technical.  Not only did the home team's carelessness in roster  adminstration cost them points, it took valuable time and mometum away from the game itself.

Illegal t-shirts

Illegal t-shirts are another issue that often arises. By rule, t-shirts, if worn under the jersey, must be same color as the jersey. In a recent game, a player was wearing a white t-shirt under a blue jersey. I observed the violation during pre-game and alerted the coach to have his player change or remove the t-shirt. After discussion with the player, the coach informed me that for modesty reasons, the player was uncomfortable in playing without the t-shirt.  We allowed her to play with the illegal t-shirt, but assessed her team a technical foul to start the game.

Coaches should know the rules, especially those governing legal jerseys and numbers. In fact, a few years ago, the NFHS changed the penalty for illegal uniforms so that, instead of being a technical charged against the team, it is now charged directly against the head coach.  The change was important because it sent a clear message that head coaches are directly responsible for uniform compliance and the penalty for a violation puts him/ her just one technical foul away from being ejected from the game.

Outside the box 

Coaches are also required to coach within the confines of the "coaching box": the area within their bench area that the coach is permitted to stand, walk, and coach his team. It is often marked on the floor, but sometimes it is not, necessitating a discussion with the coaches about the coaching box during pre-game introductions. The coaching box does NOT extend the full length of the bench and certainly not to the endline of the basketball court.  I say this because, very often, coaches move to the end of bench nearest the endline to coach their players during free throws.  By rule, the coach is not permitted to leave the confines of the coaching box unless waved on the court by an official or to prevent a fight on the court.  Violations not only result in the coach being charged a direct technical foul, but a loss of coaching box privileges, meaning that the coach must sit on the bench for the remainder of the game.  You can imagine the challenge this presents to coaches! 

Do coaches stay within the coaching box? More often than not, they do. But on occasion, in their zeal, they don't. As officials we can, by rule, charge a technical foul, but we must ask an additional question of ourselves before we assess technicals "by the book":  will the technical foul make the game better? In one game I officiated, the answer was "no."  In this instance, the home team was being outscored and outplayed by the visiting team. It was a difficult game for the coach of the home team to manage, as his best player, who  coincidentally happened to be his daughter, fouled out of the game in the third quarter. The coach was out of his box yelling at his team from the opening toss.  And while he was clearly frustrated by the team's performance, he was never vile and never directed his ire towards the officiating crew.  Even as stood near the end line - clearly out of the coach's box - directing his players during free throws. the lopsided score dictated discretion on our part.

In another game, the head coach left the coaching box in the second quarter  and  charged towards an official in anger while he was reporting a foul on her player to the scorer's table. She was immediately charged with a technical foul for her unsporting conduct and forced to remain rooted to her seat on the bench for the rest of the game.  That was an easy call to make. 

But what about a situation where the coach, known for his aggressive attitude towards officials, is charged with a technical in the the last 40 seconds of a game that his team has no chance of winning?  I had been watching the coach's level of frustration at the poor performance of his team increase as the game wore on. With less than a minute left on the clock, the coach's frustration boiled over and he yelled at the officiating crew over a call.  He was immediately charged with a technical foul. It was a violation, but was it warranted at that particular time in a game, with less than a minute to go, and the opponent comfortably ahead? In my view, it wasn't; it did nothing to improve the game, but only served to exacerbate an already contentious situation. And, to top it off, the official who made the call lingered at the scorer's table, within three feet of the coach, effectively baiting the coach to verbally unload once again.  A poor officiating decision and behavior, in my view, especially since officiating procedure requires the calling official to move away from the coach immediately in such circumstances.  What the official did provided an excellent example of what not to do.

Motivational tool

Technical fouls are a part of the game, but their use isn't limited to officials. Coaches use them as well, sometimes purposefully trying to draw technicals in order to motivate their teams. In one game, a coach was charged his first direct technical for an unsporting tirade directed at an official on the floor. The coach remained standing after the charged technical, when by rule, he was supposed to sit.  I was puzzled at his behavior, and by the charging official's reaction: he exchanged a few words with the coach but did nothing.  Later, when I asked the official why he did not enforce the "loss of coaching box" privilege and assess the coach the second direct technical, he told me that he knew the coach wanted to be ejected in order to motivate his team.  As an official, he decided that such a technical would not improve the game at all. I came to view his decision as a wise one made by a very experienced official who refused to be manipulated by a coach into motivating his team or any team.

How to apply the rules regarding technical fouls depends on the circumstances, which are different in every game. There are times where I regretted having made the call. Other times, I was irritated that i did not charge a technical earlier in the game and the game got close to getting out of control. One thing is for certain, I get smarter and smarter with every foul call I make  and every questionable technical foul opportunity that arises. 

Barbara Bleiweis is a working mom and high school basketball official in North Carolina.