Knicks guard J.R. Smith received a Flagrant 2 and was ejected for a two-armed swing (VIDEO) at Golden State's Harrison Barnes' head during Monday night's game.
Bravo, Joey Crawford. It was the right call for a league that is placing new emphasis on preventing head injuries. The evidence has been mounting that head injuries are a surprisingly common part of the game , and in recent years the league launched a multi-faceted program to reduce concussions.
And the damage can happen on plays like that one. Anthony Davis was forced to miss a week's worth of action after teammate Austin Rivers inadvertently caught him with a similar blow.
Smith caught Barnes before either was airborne. This is the kind of foul that has often been called a Flagrant 1 in the past. Knick fans might point out that Smith hit the ball, which is often incorrectly seen as a free pass to engage in other contact, too. In fact, the league's guidance to players and referees on this issue specifically says that's not so. Not playing the ball makes it more likely a flagrant. Playing the ball, however, doesn't mean it's not a flagrant.
If the league is serious about protecting players' heads, this is exactly the kind of play the league should prevent. It's good for everybody if players try not to hit each other in the head.
What do the rules say? The NBA rulebook has little guidance at all about what makes a Flagrant 1 or 2, based on the vague phrase "unnecessary and excessive contact." But the league has been somewhat more specific in memos to players and teams. There they stress that a blow to the head, even if there is a play on the ball, is a factor to be considered in determining what is and is not a flagrant foul. They also mention that potential for injury will be factored into the ruling. The full list of flagrant criteria, from the NBA's memo:
The severity of the contact;
Whether or not the player was making a legitimate basketball play (e.g., whether a player is making a legitimate effort to block a shot; note, however, that a foul committed during a block attempt can still be considered flagrant if other criteria are present, such as recklessness and hard contact to the head);
Whether, on a foul committed with a player’s arm or hand, the fouling player wound up and/or followed through after making contact;
The potential for injury resulting from contact (e.g., a blow to the head and a foul committed while a player is in a vulnerable position);
The severity of any injury suffered by the offended player; and
The outcome of the contact (e.g., whether it led to an altercation).
Crawford and crew made a call that reflects a modern understanding of the dangers of head injuries.
Smith's play has no place in the NBA. It might take time for players, fans and commentators to catch up to a new emphasis on these kinds of fouls, but the sooner everyone adjusts, the better.
UPDATE: In a fluke of timing, an international panel of concussion experts just released guidelines for sports, and found that "rule changes aimed at reducing concussions" are the right strategy.
UPDATE: After video review, the league has downgraded Smith's foul to a Flagrant 1.