Professionalism/Ball Don't Lie: The Moral Code of Basketball

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Dirty Plays[edit]

Christian Laetner[edit]

Trash Talking[edit]

Trash talking is generally viewed negatively in the game of basketball. Players use it to gain a mental edge on their opponents, but it usually involves foul language and bully-like behavior. Still, it can sometimes be viewed as a sign of mutual respect. Most players agree trash talking is acceptable as long as it is a two-way street. If you can take it, then you can dish it.

Larry Bird[edit]

The story of Dominique Wilkin's first encounter with Larry Bird offers an illuminating perspective on the merits of trash talking. At the start of the game, Wilkins tried to shake Bird's hand, but Bird refused and said: "You don't belong in this league, Homes." [1] Bird started the game by scoring a few three pointers on Wilkins, and he continued to talk trash. Wilkins was furious, and Bird's trash talking fueled his motivation as he took a drive to the basket and dunked over Bird. As Bird got up from the floor, he said: "I like you, rookie. You've got guts. But I'm still going for 40 on you tonight." [2] There is no doubt Bird respected Wilkins, but in his eyes, trash talking is a professional tactic that he uses to gain a mental edge on his opponents.

End of Game Situations[edit]

Coaches and players often face difficult decisions relating to sportsmanship at the end of the game. For example, it is generally unacceptable to play starters when a team is winning by a significant margin, just as it is considered bad sportsmanship to run up the score. Still, many decisions can be up for an ethical debate.

Brannen Greene and Kansas[edit]

On February 3, 2016, Kansas small-forward Brannen Greene made a play at the end of the game that infuriated his coach. Kansas was winning by 16 points, and the clock was approaching zero. Instead of holding the ball and letting the game clock run out, Greene decided to drive to the basket and dunk the ball as time expired. The entire Kansas State team was already walking to the bench, so Greene's move was a major salt to their wound. Bill Self, the head coach of Kansas, describes the play: "To dunk the ball like that when the other team—even their players are going, ‘How disrespectful to the game.’ It certainly showed unbelievably poor sportsmanship.” This is a clear example of bad sportsmanship.

Dillon Brooks and Oregon[edit]

The case of Dillon Brooks falls more in the grey area of ethical decision-making on the basketball court. On March 24, 2016, Oregon played Duke in a sweet sixteen matchup. Oregon was up by 9 points with about 10 seconds to go. Dillon Brooks, Oregon's star player, shot the basketball from deep three-pointer range, and he made the shot. At the end of the game, Duke's coach Mike Krzyzewski admonished Brooks and believed he unnecessarily rubbed in the victory. However, this play is less cut and dry. Unlike the case of Brannen Greene, Brooks had to deal with the shot clock, as it would have expired had he not taken the shot. In addition, Oregon's coach Dana Altman told the media that he instructed Brooks to take the shot. This brings up an interesting point: are players obligated to obey their coaches, even if it breaches ethical boundaries? Brooks obeyed his coach even though it may not have been the sportsmanlike play.


The NBA defines flopping as "any physical act that appears to have been intended to cause the referees to call a foul on another player" where the physical reaction is "inconsistent with what would reasonably be expected given the force or direction of the contact." Flopping has existed every since referees became a part of the game, but on October 3, 2012, the NBA deemed the unsportsmanlike act had reached an unacceptable rate of occurrence. Stu Jackson, Executive VP of the NBA, stated that "flops have no place in our game – they either fool referees into calling undeserved fouls or fool fans into thinking the referees missed a foul call" and instituted a new monetary fining system to discourage flopping.[3] The rule was effective, as the NBA issued seven violations in the first month after starting the fines, and since then, the monthly number of fines has steadily decreased towards zero. According to Stu Jackson, the rule worked because it created a "scarlet letter syndrome" in which players did not want to garner the reputation as a flopper.[4]

However, some players in the NBA view flopping differently. Chris Singleton admits that players have stopped flopping due to the monetary repercussions and not for the higher standard of being viewed as a flopper.[5] In fact, Lebron James publicly supported flopping, saying that “some guys have been doing it for years, just trying to get an advantage. Any way you can get an advantage over the opponent to help your team win, so be it.”[6] For him, flopping is not a dirty play but rather a tool of the trade to help his team win.


The sole responsibility of referees is to regulate the game and ensure that players abide by the rules. Referees are highly trained individuals who normally make the correct calls. NBA Commissioner Stern said NBA referees "are the most ranked, rated, reviewed, statistically analyzed and mentored group of employees of any company in any place in the world."[7] However, the ethics of basketball become fuzzy when even the referees cannot be trusted. The following cases will show that referees are not perfect, and players have the opportunity to exploit these fallible whistle-blowers. The question presents itself: are players responsible for not taking advantage of the referees' imperfection?

Referee Bias[edit]

Because NBA referees are required to make split-second decisions, they are susceptible to internal biases. The biases play out in several significant ways. A 2014 study [8] found that the calls made by referees varied across the league based on the height of the officiating crew. Referred to as a form of the Napoleon Complex (link to wikipedia article), shorter referees tend to call more fouls than their taller peers, regardless of the players' height. Another study found that "more personal fouls are called against players when they are officiated by an opposite-race refereeing crew than when officiated by an own-race crew."[9] This bias "sufficiently" affects the outcome of games. A study on college basketball found that the pattern of foul calls can be swayed by how many fouls have already been called in the game.[10] Officials can be more prone to call fouls on the team with the fewest fouls, the visiting team, or the team that is leading. Tim Donaghy, a former NBA referee charged with leaking information to a professional gambler, admitted that star players receive "special treatment" and "get the benefit of calls that other players aren't."[11] Because fans pay to watch the best players, referees are directed by NBA executives to "protect the star players and make them look as good as you can make them look" even if it places "one team at an advantage." By analyzing the tendencies of individual referees, NBA teams can gain a competitive advantage by increasing offensive efficiency, producing more free throw opportunities, and reducing defensive violations.[12]

Make Up Calls[edit]

A make-up call occurs when a referee who has made a controversial call against one team attempts to pacify the opposing team with another controversial call in their favor. Although some view make-up calls as a myth, a 2015 study [13] found that make-up calls do exist. The paper states that “when an offensive foul occurs in one possession, then offensive fouls, traveling and three-second violations… become anywhere from 16 to 66 percent more likely on the other team.” Kerry Fraser, a referee in the NHL, admits that he uses make-up calls to make the game fair.[14] After being "fooled on a play or calling a marginal infraction," he would not invent penalties to right his wrong but would take advantage of normally negligible "gift-horse" infractions. Although referees are charged with holding a consistent standard, he admits he "alters that standard...with an eye toward fairness." For Kerry Fraser, he is willing to compromise his professional standards to maintain his sense of justice defined by "human nature."


The NBA is "a form of entertainment," not a pure athletic event.