Is Basketball A Contact Sport?

When you’re watching a game of basketball, you could easily be led to think that it’s a highly physical game, in which contact between the players is a regular, accepted part.

Equally, many other people would say that bumping and barging has no part in the game because it is all about the players doing all they can to avoid running into, barging or pushing each other.

The answer might surprise you – and it’s both yes and no.

To begin with, you have 10 players who at any one time are competing for space on a court that is a mere 28 metres long and 15 metres wide. That’s quite a lot of people all jockeying for position and trying to find space in an area no bigger than many people’s back garden!

When you add to this the speed with which the ball is often moved around the court by players passing it between each other, it’s clear that there are regularly going to be instances of players running into and across each others’ paths.

Even right at the tip-off to start a game or period, you will see that the players contesting the ball will leap, however slightly, towards each other. But then, when you consider that they are challenging for possession of a ball that is less than 24cm in diameter, it follows that the two opponents will often collide as they reach towards it.

What Do The Rules Of Basketball Say About Contact Between Players?

While officials and players both recognize that there will inevitably be a fair amount of contact in the sport, there has to be a degree of latitude in the rules given the physical constraints of the game, as described above.

But by default, the rules are framed in a way designed to discourage contact where possible. For example, any of the following can lead to the referee calling a foul – although this list is by no means definitive:

  • Hitting any other part of another player’s body
  • Pulling on another player’s vest or hair
  • Slapping any part of another player’s body
  • Holding a player in any way that prevents them from moving
  • Screening another player to prevent the player with the ball from being approached
  • A defensive player charging an offending team’s opponent by placing both his feet directly in their path
  • Attempting to deflect a shot before or as the ball is released. The most common type of this offence is called hand checking, as it involves the defensive player raises one or both hands to try to intercept the ball. 
  • Interference – slightly different from above, this is when a player touches the basket or the backboard when the ball is on or close around the basket

Nonetheless, players at most levels know there is sure to be quite a lot of accidental contact, even to the degree that many NBA players wear a mouthguard to protect themselves from the worst consequences of getting an accidental hand or arm in the face.

Many of the most difficult judgments that a basketball referee will have to make concern whether a player either in possession of or receiving the ball has his feet set – that is, planted firmly as if they intend to be momentarily stationary in preparation for passing the ball or shooting towards the basket.

This is because a foul call often has to be judged on this criterion.

Equally, a defensive player who is trying to stop an opposing player from either passing to a team-mate or scoring a basket has to adopt the legal guarding position, and can be called for a foul if he/she stands in any other way. This is effectively standing up straight, with their feet spaced in a straddle position.

What Penalties Can Be Given For Incidents of Contact in Basketball?

Individual players can have a foul awarded against them if they are deemed to have made contact with a player which interferes with them shooting or passing the ball.

If any player commits six fouls of any kind in a game (five in college-level games), they will be disqualified, or deemed guilty of foul trouble, and so not allowed to play any further part in that game.

Such is the frequency with which fouls are called in most basketball games, it’s said that each player can expect to have at least three by their name in every game.

The range of penalties available to the referee for a player who commits a foul is varied. If the foul was committed in a non-shooting situation, generally the offending team just has to surrender possession. However, any foul committed in the act of a player shooting towards the basket will be penalized by the awarding of either two or three free throws – depending on whether the player was shooting from inside or outside the three-point line.

There are few other sports where fouling is considered such a tactical element of the game, and players will regularly be substituted off the court and sit out a portion of a match if they are in danger of fouling out and being permanently excluded.

So in conclusion, basketball is and has always been considered a non-contact sport, and there are a number of rules which, if not eliminating it completely, are designed to minimize such instances. However, the intensity with which the game is played very often leads to situations when contact is unavoidable. It then becomes the referee’s responsibility to decide a player’s degree of culpability and what, if any, sanctions they will then face.