FAQ: The gray areas between flagrant-1 and flagrant-2 fouls

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Monday, June 12, 2017

Flagrant fouls are naturally controversial. They exist in shades of gray and are often born out of emotional situations. How they're handed out can alter games and even entire playoff series.

Reasonable fans, coaches, players and even referees can disagree over them. Just like last season, when Game 4 of the NBA Finals created some controversy on flagrant fouls called and not called.

So here's a simple FAQ to help understand them better. Or, at the very least, help understand how NBA referees call them:

Q: So what's the difference between a flagrantfoul1 and a flagrant foul 2?

A: By rule a flagrant 1 is "unnecessary" contact and a flagrant 2 is "unnecessary and excessive" contact and, therefore, can result in ejection and possible suspension. Lots of room for interpretation there, right? One of the things referees will say is that it's sort of like the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity: They know it when they see it. Bottom line: Referees are taught to make a judgement if it's hard (common), shady (flagrant 1) or dirty foul (flagrant 2).

Q: What do officials look for in making the call?

A: If a player gets hit in the head or neck, it will probably be a flagrant 1 at the very least, even if it isn't a hard hit. Especially if the blow comes from an elbow, a kick or a fist. The refs want to help prevent concussions and may err on the side of being overprotective. Announcers, especially former players, may lament how "soft" the league allegedly is now when this happens. But the referees have their reasons, even if it's just to help keep control of a game.

The same goes if a player gets hit in the groin. That willget you a flagrant in most cases, even if the penalty doesn't get handed down until review after the game. That, of course, happened several times in the playoffs with Golden State's Draymond Green last season as you may remember.

Q: Wait, didn't Zaza Pachulia hit Iman Shumpert in the groin in Game 4? Why didn't he get a flagrant?

A: One of those gray areas. It was unclear if Pachulia actually made contact with Shumpert. Also, Pachulia was given a technical foul for his actions (as was Shumpert), and after review the officials deemed this punishment was sufficient. It wasn't like Pachulia "got away" with it.

Q: C'mon! Pachulia intended to hit Shumpert.

A: This is an important point: Officials do not try determine intent, because it's often impossible. They only go by actions. You may be familiar with "intentional fouls" that are called in high school and, until recently, college games. Officially, there are no intentional fouls in the NBA, the idea is that referees don't want to have to guess and instead just rule what they see.

Q: It seems like referees are constantly going to the monitor to review flagrant fouls these days. Why?

A: Replay gets more complicated every season. There are 15 different "triggers" that require looking at replay this season, and that list will probably grow. If you talk to officials, they will tell you they'd rather go look at something on replay and slow the game down than not deal with something they didn't see but which millions watching on TV watched in slow motion. Sometimes when a player reacts to a blow, they will take a look to make sure they didn't miss something.

Q: So they will go to replay if a player looks like he got hurt on a foul? Doesn't that encourage flopping or injury exaggeration?

A: Yup. The NBA players learned it by watching soccer players campaign for yellow and red cards. But the league views this as a lesser evil of not taking action for a blow the officials may not have seen. One of the things that triggers a replay is a "hostile act" by one player against another. An average playoff game could potentially feature a few dozen hostile acts, and this allows a wide latitude for what officials can look at on replay.

Q: Isn't this all more complicated than it needs to be?

A: At the end of the day, the referees really want player safety. That sounds like a cheesy line from a brochure, yes, but there are other motives, too. Officials are graded on their performances, and their results determine their assignments. The better the grade, the deeper in the playoffs they get to work. The more important the game, the more the ref gets paid. They are highly incentivized to get their calls right, and they feel enormous pressure to do so.

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