In the realm of popular sports around the world, basketball ranks up near the top with legions upon legions of fans. From NBA games to kids playing two on two down at the park, basketball is known for its intense energy that propels players relentlessly from one end of the court to the other. But is basketball a contact sport?
Basketball is considered a contact sport because players come into physical contact with each. However, it is not like other contact sports (like football or rugby) because most physical contact is against the rules.
If you have searched this question, you have probably come up with as many answers as there are blog posts or articles on this subject. Basketball fans seem desperate to prove that basketball is a down and dirty sport, while more circumspect observers are aware of the technical limitations when calling basketball a contact sport.
How is Basketball a Contact Sport?
Basketball is a contact sport in the obvious sense of the word. Players come into contact with each other. They jostle and jockey for position, bumping into each other as momentum carries them forward. Actions that tend toward physical contact are:
- Jumping for the ball
- Running in large groups
As anyone knows who has played a pickup game at the neighborhood court, basketball can get a little rough. Some positions allow for stances that could result in a physical contact open to interpretation. In professional basketball, however, fouls are called for many forms of physical contact. Players cannot just push and trip people to clear a path.
The odd thing about basketball is that the rules specify most contact as a personal foul. Probably this came about because when basketball was first invented, it got really rough (with tackling and grabbing), so the inventor, James Naismith, came up with rules to limit contact.
That said, there are some positions that do seem to result in contact. Also, when men and women run madly from one end of the court to another, they tend to bump into each other, to say nothing of when the ball is loose. Some of these things may be why basketball is considered a contact sport.
Post positions are made when defensive players set up positions to protect or infiltrate the basket called:
- High post positions
- Low post positions
Offensive players will also try to set up high or low post positions in an attempt to score a basket. Defenders will also try to do the same to protect their basket.
Offensive players can initiate contact with defensive players when trying to set up these positions. Defensive players can return in kind with this physical contact, as long as they don’t push the offensive player with their body or their hands.
Basketball defenders sometimes have to guard both the offensive player who has control of the ball and that player’s teammate to whom he might pass the ball. That teammate is called a pick or a screen.
In the case of this kind of situation, the defender has the right to use his hands to feel if there is a pick behind him. Knowing where the pick is enables the defender to:
- Adjust his stance as needed
- Keep track of who is in front of him and behind him.
This is a maneuver that is used by the defensive team to protect their basket from an offensive rebound. It is used when an offensive team member who controls the ball approaches the basket and makes a shot.
In such a situation, defenders are allowed to “box out” the offenders to keep them from getting the rebound. This physical contact from a defender looks like this:
- Bending at the waist
- Taking a wide stance
- Spreading arms wide to block a member of the offensive team
This position of oneself between the offender and the basket can result in contact. But it should be noted the defenders cannot use force to keep the offensive team from getting the rebound. If a defender pushes with body or hands, a foul could result.
Defensive Positions and Offensive Charges
A good defender will take up a defensive position against an offensive player in order to protect the basket or stop the ball from being passed. But the defensive position must look like this:
- Feet planted
- Body straight
- Allowing enough room for the defender to move
The last point is significant, because the offensive player has the option to charge the stance or around the stance without, of course, bowling the defensive player over. Nevertheless, sometimes contact will result from that. Also, a resulting foul could vary depending on how the referee views the charge or the stance.
This kind of contact will often result from a loose ball in the game. In order to recover it, offensive and defensive players will charge after it. Even though the energy of basketball games is high, the play is highly structured. A loose ball is one of the rare times that a court looks out of control.
If players collide in their scramble for the ball, they will not receive a foul so long as the referee believes that the contact was not intentional. This usually comes down to a judgement call on the part of the ref. And, of course, referees are both always right and always wrong depending on which team you support.
How is Basketball Not a Contact Sport?
Basket is not a contact sport in the sense that most forms of physical contact result in a foul. Even the exceptions of physical contact described above can as easily result in fouls as not. By the rules of basketball, the use of force is not permitted.
In this key way, basketball is very different from football, rugby, or ice hockey. For offensive and defensive techniques, basketball uses:
Not force. You can never throw your opponent to the ground as a way of getting control of the ball. In fact, it is this peculiarity of the sport that causes the question to be asked.
So the extent to which basketball is a contact sport is the extent to which it happens incidentally. A close look at the fouls that you can incur with physical contact will show you that basketball is not in the same league as football. Not even close. According to the rule book, basketball is very much not a contact sport.
This is the first of the offensive fouls that will be discussed. A Moving Screen foul occurs when a player who has been set up as a pick moves.
You will recall from the previous section that:
- A pick is set up by an offensive player to establish someone to pass to
- A defensive player may use hands to reach behind to discover the pick.
But the pick may not move once the position has been established. If a screen moves to block a player, that is a foul.
This is another foul that can be called on an offensive player who has the ball. Probably this kind of foul would occur when the player is dribbling down court to the basket, even though this may result from a lack of control of momentum.
The foul can be called when the player with the ball runs into a defensive player who has established a defensive position. In that case, it would be the offensive player’s fault since the position was already established.
For the sake of perspective, this is worth another comparison to the level of contact seen in football. In football, the offensive and defensive lines collide all the time, but not in basketball.
This is the defensive player’s version of the foul that was just described for offensive players. In this version of the foul, the defensive player is the one at fault, and the critical determiner comes down to position.
So go back to the previous scenario. If an offensive player is moving down the court and runs into a defensive player who has not established a defensive position, then the foul for blocking is called on the defensive player.
Probably by now, you are getting the picture that in basketball, rules are set down that forbid or, in the very least, retrain physical contact. So while basketball more or less has to be categorized as a contact sport (more on that later), it is not a contact sport in the same way that it is normally considered.
Over the Back
In the case of a rebound, this foul can be called on either:
- A defensive player, or
- An offensive player
The situation looks like this: an offensive player takes a shot at the basket, but the ball misses and rebounds back out to the court.
In this kind of situation, there are usually a bunch of players waiting around the basket to get the rebound. If in the attempt to get the ball, a player reaches over the back of someone who is also reaching for the ball, that form of contact is a foul.
Once again, by way of comparison, this form of physical contact is more or less a prelude to tackling. In football, you can bring the opponent to the ground, but in basketball, players have, if you will, territorial rights, and you can only enter the territory under certain circumstances.
Hand Check and Holding
This foul is usually called on defensive players because they are the ones who will typically find themselves most tempted to commit it. This is because the foul occurs when a player is trying to obstruct the movement of another.
It goes like this. If a player with the ball is moving quickly down the side of the court, a defensive player will want to slow down the other player’s progress to the basket. If the defensive player uses hands to do so, it is a foul.
This kind of foul can easily be upgraded to holding. If the defensive player, instead of simply using hands, decides to grab the offensive player, then that is called holding.
Illegal Hand Use
If the other fouls weren’t enough, then there is a trash bucket foul into which the referee can throw any kind of use of hands that appears illegal. This foul can be levied at both offensive and defensive players.
Illegal hand use, when a player is taking a shot or passing, for example, can include:
- Body slamming
It could also include slapping a player’s hands away from legal blocking.
Basketball in the Larger World of Contact Sports
When discussing whether or not basketball is a contact sport, it is worth taking some time to look at levels of contact in sports and how those levels are discussed. There are degrees of contact within contact sports, and there are sports that are definitely not contact sports.
Seeing the degrees can help put basketball into perspective. It is difficult to categorize, and while some of that difficulty has to do with the game itself, some of it has to do with the categories. If basketball seems not to belong in contact or non-contact categories, it doesn’t belong anywhere else either.
Basketball in the Categories of Contact Sports
Up until now, this article has only looked at sports in terms of contact versus non-contact. In fact, that is something of an oversimplification.
The category of contact sports is itself divided into two categories:
Add to this the category of non-contact sports, and you can see why basketball is typically put in the contact category even though most forms of contact are strictly forbidden.
Basketball is Not a Non-Contact Sport
No matter how much the rule book of basketball prohibits all but incidental physical contact, basketball is not a non-contact sport. This becomes clear when you consider it in relation to actual non-contact sports:
These are just a few non-contact sports and you will notice that they focus on individual efforts in a competition. For the most part, non-contact sports do not have teams that compete together on the same field (badminton excluded). Whereas basketball is a team against team focused sport with physical contact happening on the court.
Basketball is Not a Full Contact Sport
Neither does basketball fit in the full contact sport category. Full contact sports consist of:
In full contact sports, contact is not an incidental part of the game, it is the game. While basketball has jostling and bumping, the object is never to deliberately take down another player.
Basketball is a Contact Sport
Coming back to the category of contact sports, basketball seems more of a fit if only by virtue of the fact that it clearly does not fit in the other two categories. Contact sports have such tackling and jostling favorites as:
- American Football
- Association Football (which is soccer)
You can no doubt think of all the ways in which basketball is not like these other sports, but it really only comes down to one distinction: intent of physical contact. When you consider it in these terms, the intent of physical contact varies in all contact sports.
So, all contact sports (excluding full and non-contact) seem to exist on a continuum of physical contact. That being the case, American Football is on the more extreme end of the continuum with tackling and blocking, while basketball is on the lighter side of physical contact.
In What Way Can Basketball be Dangerous?
As this article has discussed, putting basketball in a category is complicated, but there really is nothing for it except to call it a contact sport. That said, as a contact sport in what way could basketball be considered dangerous, especially after all the rules this article has discussed to keep players from hurting each other.
Basketball is dangerous in a couple of ways. First, it is dangerous in the way that all sports have a level of danger to them. Even with darts it is possible (however unlikely) to put someone’s eye out.
Imagine then putting a hoard of fit men or women and having them run at near full speed on a hard surface up and down a court. Add to that jumping, sliding, or blocking. All it takes is one well placed trip and a whole lot of danger can hit the ground. Put that way, basketball looks more and more like a contact sport.
For those who love the sport, basketball exists in a category all its own. While it may not have the level of down and dirty contact that ice hockey and rugby and football do, it has something they do not: suspense.
As the energy of the court builds up around the increased possibility for contact, especially in a competitive game, that should not happen (but most definitely could) you begin to see why basketball is ultimately a contact sport.