Monday, May 25, 2009

Technical Fouls

When I turned on my TV to watch Game 2 of the NBA playoff series between the Lakers and the Nuggets, jump shots were on my mind, not (correctional) jumpsuits. As the game heated up, however, a comment from television analyst Jeff Van Gundy raised an issue about how justice systems respond to technical violations.

Lakers’ superstar Kobe Bryant disagreed with a call, and Van Gundy, a former NBA coach, pointed out that Bryant needed to be careful not to get a technical foul because he already had five in the playoffs. Under NBA rules, if a player gets seven technicals in the postseason, he is suspended for one game. Given how valuable Kobe Bryant is to the Lakers, they could ill-afford for him to get two more technicals and be suspended for an entire game.

The one-game suspension awaiting a player who gets seven technical fouls in the playoffs gives NBA referees a way to respond to heated incidents in a more measured way than before. It’s no longer a matter of either throwing a player out of the game immediately or merely assessing a one or two-shot penalty. The cumulative sanction after seven technicals functions as a deterrent by integrating a player's technical foul history into a sort of structured sentencing enhancement.

During Game Four of the Laker - Nugget series, Van Gundy expressed concern that the seven technicals rule is arbitrary. Kobe Bryant had been tripped by a Denver player in a play that appeared deliberate and even downright dirty. The fact that Bryant was only two technicals short of a suspension might leave him less able to retaliate.

Loss of discretetion is a common concern when sanctions become more structured. But the NBA's response to technical fouls isn't arbitrary like the notorious California "three-strikes and you're out" rule. In this case, the question is whether what's lost in discretion is gained in the deterrent effect of a brightline rule. The NBA office seems to know how to use rules like these proactively to keep the focus on the spectacular basketball skills of the players.

Which leads me to this semi-serious question: If Senator Jim Webb’s idea for a national commission to review the criminal justice system gets off the ground, would NBA Commissioner David Stern be a good addition to the blue-ribbon panel?

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