Rules are meant to be broken: The smartest fouls in sports

Rules are meant to be broken, or at least bent in your favor. Sometimes in sports, a well-timed foul can be a team’s best move. Playing in that gray area of the rulebook can be the difference between a win and a loss. These are the fouls we call “smart”.

Hack-a-Shaq Strategy

Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant force in the NBA during his 19-year career. As automatic as he was scoring from the post at 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds, he was as inept (52.7%) from the free-throw line. With nowhere else to turn, intelligent opposing coaches informed their players to foul O’Neal before he could score. The tactic was initially reserved for the fourth quarter of close games, but worked so well teams would Hack-a-Shaq whenever they felt like it.

What ensued was an ethical debate. On one side, proponents of the strategy argued that they should be able to take advantage of any of their opponents’ weaknesses. On the other side, opponents argued that teams were intentionally breaking the rules and causing a more boring style of basketball. A year ago, the NBA approved changes to reduce deliberate Hack-a-Shaq situations, but teams can still utilize it in certain situations.

College Football’s Pass Interference Penalty

In the NFL, pass interference penalties place the ball at the spot of the foul. In college football, however, pass interference is a maximum 15-yard penalty. The difference in these rules creates a significant advantage for defensive backs in college football. If a defender is beat, it’s common practice to intentionally grab, pull or even tackle the receiver to prevent a long play. It may not be fair, but it always works.

Intentional Fouling With Three-Point Lead

In basketball, players are allowed to intentionally foul to stop the clock and extend close games. This is so common it’s not even considered a smart strategy anymore. On the flip side, another popular strategy is for the team that is up three late to intentionally foul. In doing so, the leading team prevents its opponent from the opportunity to tie the game with a three-pointer. While the tactic appears flawless, it can backfire. With the strategy becoming more common, players now anticipate the intentional foul and hoist up a shot to get three foul shots. Furthermore, if  the foul is called and the shot goes in, the losing squad can actually take the lead with a four-point play.

Intentionally Fouling to Stop a Fast Break

Fast break opportunities can be devastating to a defense, especially in soccer. However, defenders can purposefully foul to stop the break. The NBA has cut back on this with the clear-path rule, which states that a player cannot intentionally foul if his opponent is ahead of all defenders with a clear path to the basket. If he does, the opposition gets two free-throws and possession. In soccer, though, an intentional foul can work in the advantage of the defense.

By purposely holding or grabbing, a defender can prevent a loss or preserve a tie. While the player can suffer the consequences with a red card, he can also save his team. Ole Gunnar Solskjær infamously decided to take this bullet for Manchester United in a match against Newcastle in 1998.

From the fan’s perspective, “smart” fouls can ruin the quality of the game. This is especially true if it prevents their team from securing a win. However, for players and coaches, these strategies are just part of the game. It may not always seem right, but if you haven’t figured out life isn’t fair, you’ve got a lot to learn.