Fouling is not cheating

At mass Sunday my priest gave a sermon on the general theme of "my kingdom is not of this world." His general point was very sound, but he got confused with an example he gave, one that got me thinking about rules.

He had been in a faith group at university, one that got involved in intramural sports. His friends were planning out their next basketball game, and talked turned to who would give intentional fouls at the end of the game if they were need.

At this, my priest took umbrage: "We're Christians: we shouldn't be breaking the rules in order to win!"

His friends said, "You don't understand basketball," and ignored him.

For him, this intentional fouling appeared to be a form of cheating, of "breaking the rules." But that is not right. And why it isn't right helps to clarify the differences between rules that declare certain actions impermissible and rules that allow actions but set a penalty for taking the action.

So, for instance, in golf, it is against the rules to use a motorized ball that can fly itself to the hole. Using a ball like that would get you kicked out of the tournament you are in, and maybe banned from further tournaments. But deciding your lie is unplayable and moving your ball is not against the rules, it is in the rules: the rules say you can do this, but you will face a one stroke penalty for doing so.

The rules on fouling in basketball are like the rules for unplayable lies, and not like those for using a motorized drone ball. Fouling the other player is perfectly permissible, but you will pay a price for doing so: loss of possession, free throws for the other team, etc. So fouling at the end of a game in order to get the ball back more quickly is not breaking the rules: it is using the rules in a strategic way.


  1. Similarly, in the card game euchre, if you renege (fail to follow suit when you can) and are caught, there is a defined penalty: 2 points (or 4, if going alone.) So it could be done as a calculated risk. However, the Wikipedia article both calls out the penalty and calls it "cheating."


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