Strategic rule breaking: a fine line between poor sport and passionate player

Tonya Harding (left) and Nancy Kerrigan (right) photo credit: Getty images

No case of cheating is more vivid in my mind than the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan drama that unfolded weeks before the start of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. Kerrigan was attacked by a man hired by Harding’s ex-husband on January 6th, 1994 after one of her practice sessions. The intent was to injure her so that she would not be able to compete against Harding. Kerrigan made a full recovery and won Silver at the games while Harding finished 8th. In June of 1994, after conducting their own investigation, the USFSA announced that Harding knew about the attack plans and displayed “a clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship and ethical behavior”. Harding was stripped of her ’94 U.S. Championships title and banned for life from all USFSA-run events. 

As the USFSA so eloquently put it, this was obviously a show of unfairness, poor sportsmanship and unethical behavior. The ideals which make sport worth playing must be protected and upheld to allow for a safe and equitable competitive environment that encourages the mutual quest for excellence (Simon, 2003). How then, are we to distinguish what constitutes “cheating” and what has often been referred to as “trying”?

If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’

I recently met one of my childhood sports heroes; former Los Angeles Raider All-Pro defensive end Greg Townsend. I admired Townsend week after week from the stands with my father. We would both jump up and high-five each other, and everybody else around us while the announcer proclaimed, “Townsend with the sack!” He made such a habit of sacking the opponents quarterback that he became known throughout the Raider Nation as, “Greg Town-sack”. His accomplishments didn’t come without fault. Townsend was often penalized for either lining up offsides or anticipating the snap of the ball so as to gain a step on his opponent.

When I met Townsend at an autograph signing event, I shook his hand and told him that his quickness off the ball was something I tried to emulate in my football career as a defensive end. I asked him what he felt about all the penalties called against him. Mr. Townsend cracked a smile and said, “Hey, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.”

No good foul is ever intended

The ethos communicated in that saying is shared by more athletes as the level of play increases. Greg Townsend did not invent this concept. Chances are, he learned it from a coach somewhere along the way. So why then, is this form of cheating accepted at high levels of play? Surely, we would attempt to stamp out such behavior at the pop-warner level. We would do so as part of the larger effort to maintain the integrity of sport and to teach such abstractions as fairness. Isn’t this the ethical relativism rejected by Loland (1998) for its circularity?

Throughout all games, there is opportunity to strategically utilize these subtle infractions for greater chance of gain. Such infractions are often characterized as “intentional” because the potential gain by the offending party.

An often cited example in basketball is the “good foul”. This is when a player fouls an opponent who is on their way to an easy basket for the sake of making them shoot two free-throws in order to score the same amount of points. Warren Fraleigh argues that such a foul should not be accepted as fair-play because the rules of the game are such that not everybody is required to commit such an act. In other words, committing a “good foul” is not listed in the positively prescribed rules, i.e. dribbling, passing, screening, etc. The “good foul” is not so much part of the game that it is required for play. It is not an act that every player who agrees to play the game of basketball knowingly agrees to commit by their very practice of engaging in that sport. Therefore, since commission of a “good foul” gives one team an advantage yet the rules of the game do not require the other team to reciprocate, it “detracts from the good sports contest” (Fraleigh, 1982)

Part of the game

I would say that the main part of Fraleigh’s position is that strategic deviations from the rules of play that are not part of the positive prescribed behaviors of the game, force otherwise strict adherents to the rules to consider engaging in the classic, “If they do x, I must do x in response”. Though I concede that such conduct does force a re-evaluation of strategy on the part of the offendee, they need not resort to the sort of self-sacrificial tactics of their opponent. The decision to commit a “good foul” or “cheat” over the line of scrimmage before the snap are calculated and deliberate. True they are intentional acts to violate a rule however, the offender has taken in to account the possible gain and penalty at stake. Though not explicitly in the rule book, it can not be said that anybody who voluntarily plays basketball does not agree to commit nor defend against a “good foul”. It is such an anticipated tactic that generations of players have been groomed as automatic free-throw shooters in preparation for such a foul. It can be said to be part of the game.

Fraleigh and Loland both agree that no athlete should be held accountable for committing an unintentional foul beyond the penalties enforced against them during the play of the game. They also both agree that intentional fouls violate the fairness of the game and are an act of sabotage on the game. Loland argues that such sabotage should be strictly reprimanded and ejection or disqualification should result for multiple offenses. All this in the name of staying true to the test of athletic skill under equitable conditions.

Richness of the game

I do not agree that even the intentional foul should be eradicated from sport. Of course, every situation in every sport deserves individual scrutiny and judgement, but to say that the strategic commission of a foul goes a bit too far to maintain fairness. Neither Fraleigh nor Loland, fully convinced me that the gamble of intentionally committing a foul for potential gain is contrary to the sporting ethos and violates the sense of fairness. The rules permit for equal opportunity to engage in such behavior. This allowance does not diminish the quality of play because the consequences are enforced enough so as to leave only as a last resort the commission of the intentional foul. We often forget that, especially at the higher levels of play, games are not only played between two opposing parties. There is a third performance that contributes to the richness of sport; the officiator/s.

We all know that in any ball game, the official is “part of the game”. If a ball or puck strikes a game official, play goes on as if nothing happened. We accept the imperfection of having an impartial physical obstruction out their in the field of play yet we fail to accept the imperfection inherent in reliance of their judgement of play. This lack of perfection in the identification of fouls is what the committer of the intentional foul is acknowledging. They seek to capitalize on this vulnerability that is equally distributed amongst all participants. Since we require a certain standard of proficiency from our game officials, the commission of the intentional foul will diminish in profitability as frequency increases. As long as we have confidence in our game officials, we need no further condemnation of the intentional foul beyond the regulative consequences within the game. This, of course, is only true when the violation of the rules does not at the same time violate Brown’s framework of the “prudential athletic life“.

So then, we should ask ourselves this important question in identifying the unacceptable rule violations of a poor sport and the acceptable behavior by a passionate player; does the foul contribute to the richness of the game while maintaining an equitable environment for mutual pursuit of excellence under the framework of a prudential athletic life? Elimination of the “good foul” or the anticipated snap count, though literally preserving the highest form of the respective test of the game, neglect the third dimension of play that is the officiating of the game. We have the technological ability to replace many referees, umpires and judges with flawless computer models yet we dare not fully remove the imperfection that is definitional to the human experience. Much of the discussion on “fairness” in sport fails to address this subtlety that has always been contributed to the richness of sport.


  • Loland, S. (1998) Fair Play: Historical Anachronism or Topical Ideal? Ethics and Sport,
  • Fraleigh, W. (1982) Why The Good Foul Is Not Good. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 41-42
  • Brown, W.M. (1990) Practices and Prudence. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XVII  71-84.


2 thoughts on “Strategic rule breaking: a fine line between poor sport and passionate player

  1. I agree with you Bobby that the “good foul” adds richness to the sport. I also like the fact that you state that every situation deserves individual scrutiny and judgement. There are exceptions to most, if not all, rules, and your acknowledgment of this makes your argument that must stronger from my perspective.

  2. Pingback: Moving (better) for Wellness: a look at life, sport and doping | A Mover's Blog

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