Face Guarding in Basketball: What Every Sportscaster, Player, Blogger and Fan Should Know

Photo credit: abcnewsIn sports forums all over the Internet, there is debate about the legality of face guarding in basketball.

The debate was sparked by two events: an ABC / ESPN televised game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers on March 16, 2008, and an article written the same day by well known basketball analyst, Charlie Rosen .

Because much (but not all) of the face guarding in that game was against the world’s most controversial basketball player, Kobe Bryant, the issue of face guarding itself has now unfortunately taken on an emotionally charged tone, which to me is puerile, but hey, we live in the real world.

At any rate, because this Rockets vs. Lakers game was the catalyst for this discussion, I’m pretty much forced to refer to the game to discuss it as well.

But let’s first cut to the chase, then discuss it.

Face guarding has been illegal in all levels of basketball since 1913. In the rule books, face guarding is found under “Unsportsmanlike Acts,” and a technical foul is supposed to be assessed for it. Face guarding is explicitly mentioned in the high school rule book, the NCAA rule book, the FIBA rule book, but is somewhat of a grey area in the NBA rule book (eye guarding is not face guarding).

Now for the details and discussion.

In the Rockets vs. Lakers game on Sunday, March 16, 2008, with 8:13 left in the first quarter, Shane Battier made the first of what would turn out to be many efforts to face guard Kobe Bryant.

With 3:35 left in the first quarter, ABC / ESPN showed its first slow motion replay of Battier’s face guarding of Bryant.

With 6:57 left in the second quarter, ABC/ESPN showed a slow motion replay of Chuck Hayes switching, then face guarding Kobe Bryant. Apparently, face guarding was a Rockets TEAM STRATEGY for defending Bryant.

Just prior to the beginning of the 3rd quarter, analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson narrated as ESPN / ABC showed 4 separate incidents of face guarding. Each illustration used slow motion, stop motion, and big yellow trapezoids to highlight it.

The face guarding of Kobe, and occasional slow motion replays of it, continued throughout the game until, with 6:47 left in the 4th quarter, Kobe took a page from the Rockets play book and face guarded Tracy McGrady. However, Kobe inadvertently poked Tracy in the eye while face guarding him.

THIS is why face guarding is illegal at all levels of basketball.

Face guarding is illegal at all levels of basketball because of the substantial risk for serious injury to the shooter.

Unfortunately, the NBA’s vague enforcement of face guarding could now easily have sad repercussions as young copy cats all over the world try to “be like Mike” and end up accidentally gouging out the eyes of promising, young, and talented opponents in pickup and league games.

Ironically, Kobe Bryant has been suspended by the NBA in the past for making contact to the head and face of players. The League clearly understands this is a dangerous activity, therefore it needs to act quickly (in light of all this publicity especially) for the safety of its players (and of its fans), and to conform to the rest of the world’s clearly stated position on face guarding.

Hopefully every guy who has played high school ball learned that face guarding is illegal, because it is. I personally remember being taught this in the 8th grade.

As you can see by this link to the National Federation of State High School Associates, in the 2004 – 2005 season, face guarding was even a nationwide “point of emphasis” for referees.

The following is a VERBATIM paste from 2004 – 2005 NFHS Basketball Rules Points of Emphasis.

Face Guarding: A rule change calls for a technical foul for face guarding regardless of whether or not the offended player has the ball.

Face guarding has been illegal since 1913.

Face guarding is defined as purposely obstructing an opponent’s vision by waving or placing hand(s) near his/her eyes.

The penalty is a technical foul.

Face guarding could occur with a single hand and a player’s hand(s) do not have to be waving; the hand(s) could be stationary but still restrict the opponent’s vision.

The next place players should have learned that face guarding is illegal is in college.

From the NCAA 2006 Rulebook, Page 142, Section 7, Article 4:

Direct Technical Fouls for Unsportsmanlike Player Conduct

Unsportsmanlike acts of players include, but are not limited to, the following:

Article 4. Purposely obstructing an opponent’s vision by waving or placing hand(s) near his or her eyes.

As further evidence that face guarding is illegal at all levels of basketball, FIBA, the official organization overseeing International Basketball, explicitly addresses it as well.

(Here is a link to your own copy of the FIBA rule book.)

On page 42 of 79, the FIBA Official Basketball Rulebook, valid as of September 1, 2004, says:

“A technical foul is a player non-contact foul of a behavioural nature including, but not limited to … Baiting an opponent or obstructing his vision by waving his hands near his eyes.”

Face guarding is and always has been illegal in all levels of basketball, from high school, to college to the pros.

Since virtually all NBA players first played in high school, the NCAA or in international FIBA competition, there is no where along the way that NBA players should have failed to learn that face guarding is illegal.

Perhaps this assumption is why face guarding is not expressly mentioned in the NBA rule book. After all, a rule book can’t mention everything, and referees still have Section III: Elastic Power.

What is “Elastic Power?”

“The officials shall have the power to make decisions on any point not specifically covered in the rules.” (NBA Rule Book, 2007-2008, page 12, paragraph 2).

Clearly, the NBA realizes that not everything can be or needs to be “specifically covered in the rules.”

Still, face guarding should “specifically” be in there.

In the last few years, coaches and sports casters have taken to the phrase “put a hand in his face” which is to say, “Contest the shot.”

Unfortunately, that phrase has been taken literally by people who haven’t grown up playing the game of basketball in official organized settings like high school or college, or who have, but haven’t been taught the basics, the fundamentals.

So, in summary, face guarding is illegal and has been since 1913. It is illegal at all levels of basketball from high school, to college to professional basketball. Face guarding is explicitly mentioned in high school rules, NCAA rules and FIBA rules, but while the NBA rule book contains provisions for penalizing players for face guarding, its lack of conformity with the rest of the basketball world leaves the issue open for debate.

Regardless, face guarding is a dangerous and unsportsmanlike practice that can easily do serious damage to the eyes of players, and is therefore well within the group of illegal activities for which the NBA has suspended players for in the past. Including Kobe Bryant.

  1. AdamAdam05-28-2008

    This is somewhat absurd. The fact that every other rulebook is able to specifically mention it, while the NBA rulebook does not mention it, is much stronger evidence of a particular decision on the part of the NBA not to penalize it. The near-universality of its being specifically banned (by name, no less) in every other rulebook is strong evidence that the NBA rules, by comparison, should be understood specifically to allow for it.

    Methinks the author of this piece protests too much. He emphasizes several times how it has been banned at “all levels” of the game up to the pros, but at no point does he actually offer any information demonstrating it’s actually banned at the pro level. The fact that players learned that things are illegal at lower levels of the game is no matter if it’s legal in the pro game.

  2. Tom7Tom705-29-2008

    Adam, thanks for your comments.

    Methinks you must be an American… and like most Americans think that the world revolves around them.

    The NBA is not the only pro basketball league in the world. You write like it is.

    In case you were wondering where those international players come from that TeamUSA plays in the summer, most of them play at the pro level — if not in the NBA then on FIBA teams in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, etc.

    EVERY ONE of these pro leagues play by FIBA rules except the NBA … making the NBA the only pro league to not ban face guarding.

    Again, it is typical American arrogance to consider playing basketball in Argentina or Spain a “lower league.” How you guys can still think that way when Spain and Argentina has been spanking your pants is amazing.

    I can appreciate you not liking your preconceived notions about face guarding proven wrong, but the facts are that face guarding is illegal at the high school level, at the college level, and even at the pro level in every league in the world but the NBA.

    And someday, when some key NBA player has a serious eye injury, it will be explicitly banned in the NBA as well, which is too bad because it could have been banned before that had to happen.

  3. AdamAdam02-11-2009

    I have no idea how you got that from my comments. You seem to want to read some sort of American insularity in my comments, when there is none. You are quick to jump on a perceived sleight of foreign professional basketball, but even if my comment can be read that way, it is immaterial to my logic, which suggests you want to try and discredit me by labeling me an arrogant American instead of engaging with my reasoning.

    My point is that it doesn’t matter what players learned before they came to the NBA. Whether it was in American amateur basketball, like high school and NCAA, or in foreign professional basketball, those rules aren’t NBA rules. Something that’s illegal in those versions of the basketball rules isn’t necessarily illegal in the NBA. For example, high school, NCAA, and FIBA rules all say that it is illegal to possess the ball for 5 seconds while being closely guarded (I’m paraphrasing the exact rule), while in the NBA that is perfectly legal. It would make no sense to say that, because players learned that is against the rules in the basketball experiences they had before the NBA, it ought to be illegal in the NBA.

    If the all of the other rulebooks specifically mention face guarding and penalize it, and the NBA rulebook does not, it is a basic principle of interpreting any text (whether a contract, a statute, a constitution, or a mere rule in sports) that the omission is meaningful. The NBA’s decision not to specifically penalize it when every other set of rules does, suggests strongly that it is legal in the NBA.

  4. natenate09-02-2010

    Adam is right thank you for the info now i know that face gaurding is legal in the nba and that is the reason why kobe and shane could face gaurd without being penalized.

  5. Tom7Tom709-02-2010



    I I just don’t know what to do with guys like you and Adam.

    Face guarding is NOT illegal in the NBA.

    That is what I wrote!

    I repeat: face guarding is NOT illegal in the NBA.

    I don’t know how I can make it any clearer than that, so I don’t know why you guys are arguing that I said otherwise.

    But just because it isn’t explicitly illegal, that doesn’t mean that officials will always let players do it, particularly if contact is being made to the head and face.

    They could theoretically use their “Elastic power.”

    “The officials shall have the power to make decisions on any point not specifically covered in the rules.” (NBA Rule Book, 2007-2008, page 12, paragraph 2).

    They’ve penalized players in the past for elbows in the direction of the head and face, even when they don’t make contact under this rule.

    These are facts and cannot rationally be argued with.

    I also included my opinion that face guarding SHOULD be explicitly illegal — as it is in the other professional leagues around the world, and as it is in basketball in the USA at every other level.

    Making it explicitly illegal would protect the NBA’s very highly paid assets.

    It would also prevent all those kids who like to emulate NBA players from getting called for face guarding, because in their leagues, it is in the rule book as illegal.

    I honestly cannot see how any reasonable person could disagree with any of this.

    The only thing I can figure is that the article is too long for you guys to read thoroughly, so you’ve skimmed it and came away with the wrong impression.

    At any rate, thanks for stopping by.

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