Incidental contact

Incidental contact in basketball occurs when two opposing players come into contact with each other, but it is not deemed to be a deliberate foul or violation. With 10 players moving rapidly within the confined space of a basketball court, some degree of contact is inevitable. It’s essential to differentiate incidental contact from other types of contact that may result in penalties or have a more significant impact on the game’s outcome.

The term incidental contact may sound trivial, but understanding it is critical for players, coaches, and officials alike. This form of contact is allowed and does not constitute a foul. It is typically minimal and does not significantly impede a player’s ability to continue with the game. Although basketball is considered a low-contact sport, physical interactions between players are unavoidable and, at times, useful for developing strategies and enhancing gameplay.

Definition of Incidental Contact

Intentional vs. Unintentional Contact

Incidental contact in basketball refers to instances when two opposing players make minimal contact with each other, but it is not considered a deliberate foul or violation. This type of contact is often unintentional and occurs as players move rapidly within a limited area, making some form of contact inevitable. The key difference between incidental and intentional contact lies in the intentions and actions of the players involved. If contact is intentional and results in an unfair advantage, or can potentially cause another player’s injury, it is not considered incidental and may instead be deemed a foul.

Physical Contact vs. Body Position

While physical contact in basketball is inevitable, the game differentiates between permissible incidental contact and impermissible physical contact that causes a foul. Incidental contact is permitted because it doesn’t disrupt the game flow or give one player an unfair advantage over another. Examples of incidental contact include brushing against another player while chasing a loose ball or coming into contact with an opponent during normal gameplay.

On the other hand, body position plays a crucial role in identifying contact as either incidental or a foul. When a player establishes and maintains a legally obtained guarding position without making heavy or disruptive contact, the contact is usually considered incidental. However, if a player pushes, holds, or uses their body position to impede an opponent unfairly, it is no longer incidental and may result in a foul. To maintain a balance between physicality and fair play, referees must assess each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether contact is incidental or a foul.

Examples of Incidental Contact

Loose Ball Scenarios

In basketball, incidental contact may occur during loose ball situations. This can happen when players from both teams are trying to gain possession of the ball and unintentionally collide with one another. As long as the contact does not provide a significant advantage or hinder the opponent’s ability to play, it is considered incidental and does not result in a foul. For example, if two players dive for a loose ball and make contact without causing harm or impeding the other’s progress, it would be deemed incidental.

Defensive Pressure

During defensive pressure situations, incidental contact can occur when a defensive player tries to maintain close proximity to an offensive player. As basketball is a limited-contact sport, some level of contact is allowed between players, as long as it doesn’t impede the offensive player’s movement or give the defensive player a clear advantage. Examples of incidental contact in this scenario include minor bumping, brushing against an opponent’s arm, or slightly touching the ball handler’s hand without affecting their dribble. In these cases, the contact is deemed incidental and play continues without a foul call.

Rebounding Situations

Rebounding situations, which occur when players are vying for position to grab a missed shot, often see instances of incidental contact. In these scenarios, players sometimes make bodily contact with one another while attempting to secure the ball. If the contact does not result in an unfair advantage for either player, such as a push-off or excessive physical force, it is considered incidental. For example, if two players bump into each other while jumping for a rebound but neither gains a clear advantage or impairs the other’s ability to secure the ball, the incident would be deemed incidental contact.

It’s important to note that incidental contact is a subjective judgment by the referee, and players must always strive to avoid excessive and unnecessary contact on the court.


How Referees Handle Incidental Contact

Officiating Guidelines

Incidental contact in basketball is when two opposing players make minimal contact with each other, but it is not a deliberate foul or violation. The mere fact that contact occurs does not necessarily constitute a foul. Referees are trained to identify incidental contact and differentiate it from a foul; some contact is inevitable when ten players are moving rapidly in a limited area.

To handle incidental contact, referees follow these guidelines:

  • They consider the impact of the contact on the involved players’ movement and progress. If the contact does not impede any player’s progress or re-route them, it is likely incidental.
  • Referees evaluate the degree of contact. Minimal contact that doesn’t affect the game is usually seen as incidental.
  • The context of the contact is important. Referees consider whether a player’s actions were deliberate or part of their normal movements during gameplay.


Referees face various challenges while handling incidental contact:

  • Differentiating incidental contact from fouls may be difficult, especially in fast-paced games where players’ movements can be hard to track.
  • Players and coaches may argue calls they deem unfair, leading to disagreements and disputes.
  • Incidental contact can occur in crucial moments, putting pressure on the referees to make critical decisions under stress.


There can be controversies surrounding the judgement of incidental contact. These controversies arise because:

  • Inconsistency in refereeing: Different referees may have varying tolerance levels for contact, leading to inconsistent rulings in similar situations.
  • Subjectivity: Judging incidental contact is not always a clear-cut decision, and subjectivity can play a significant role in referees’ decisions.
  • Instant replay and slow-motion footage: The use of instant replay and slow-motion footage can highlight missed or misrepresented calls related to incidental contact, leading to criticism and controversy.