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Winningham: The NBA charge rule is out-dated, has to go

| Tuesday, April 2, 2019

1891 saw the invention of mankind’s greatest achievement. I’m not talking about the Tesla Coil, or the Swiss Army Knife or any of the other worthy innovations from that calendar year. That winter, PE teacher and national treasure Dr. James Naismith created basketball. The game is still perfect 128 years later — except for one thing: the charge.

The charging foul was introduced 90 years ago this year, ostensibly to discourage ball handlers from attacking the rim with reckless abandon. In the nine decades since, though, the charge has become little more than a fallback for bad defenders and the last bastion of the obnoxious guy at the gym who confuses “laziness” for “hustle.” Charges have to go. Here’s how we make it happen.

I don’t want to get rid of all offensive fouls; obviously, a ball handler shouldn’t be allowed to run over a defender whenever they want. Rather, the kind of plays that should be outlawed are ones where a defender runs over to play help defense and then decides to fall over instead of attempting anything resembling actual basketball. The absolute best case scenario for this play? Transforming what should be an exciting play at the rim into an opportunity for an NCAA ref to run all the way to half-court while calling a foul. Worst case? The kind of totally unnecessary injury that is bound to happen when one massive human flying at top speed is undercut by another equally massive human.

Defenders — whether playing on- or off-ball — should have to make a play on the ball handler while challenging a shot. Attempting to block the shot or strip the ball is fine; falling over is not. Under the current rules, the onus is on the ball handler to not only put the ball in the hoop, but also to avoid bowling over any defenders who happen to run into their path to the basket. Let’s shift that focus onto the defenders. If you can’t stop your defensive assignment from getting to the rim without falling, that’s the breaks. If you can’t shift over in time to help your teammate at the hoop, better luck next time. Defenders should be forced to make a play on the ball handler, whether that’s attempting to block the shot without fouling or just keeping their hands up without jumping. Offensive fouls could, and should, still be called if a defender plays perfect defense and the ball handler plows through them. Changing the charge rules would simply shift the gray area for referees from making the charge/block distinction to deciding whether or not the defender made a play on the ball handler.

Even beyond the potential for grievous injuries or the difficulty in making a correct call, I believe charges are antithetical to the game itself. Proponents of the charge will point to it as an equalizer: how else, they posit, are smaller players supposed to play defense down low against bigger, stronger players. The answer? They aren’t supposed to. One of the beautiful things about basketball is how it inherently rewards the biggest, fastest and strongest players on the court. Smaller players either have to create their own way of keeping up — think of Steph Curry’s jump shot — or get out of the way. Think of it this way: There is no reason to create a rule that penalizes players for being the very best at what they do. Yet that is exactly what charging does.

Basketball has dealt with outdated rules before: The NCAA outlawed dunking for 10 years in the 60’s and 70’s, and it took 20 years before players were allowed to shoot after dribbling. There was even a rule instituted in 1910 that prohibited coaching during the game itself. Charging is the one imperfection remaining in what is an otherwise perfect game — it’s the equivalent of a stain on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The charge is the last of the archaic rules standing from the prehistoric days of basketball, and it’s time to put it out to pasture.

I’ll close by returning to the NCAA’s rulebook. In 1972, they instituted a rule prohibiting players attempting to take a charge from flopping: “An official could charge the ‘actor’ with a technical foul if in the official’s opinion the actor was making a travesty of the game.” The rule was eventually passed over after years of disuse, but the NCAA was using the right language the first time around. It’s not flopping that’s making a travesty of the game, though — it’s the charge rule itself.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


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