Sometime during the North Carolina-Kentucky game, Dick Vitale mentioned that he would be in favor of allowing a player to accumulate six fouls before being disqualified. It was probably around the time that five Kentucky players had at least two fouls in the first half. I’ve heard a few folks suggest this remedy as the increase in fouls called has taken its toll in the form of frequent foul trouble for players that can’t keep their hands off the opposition. In order to support such a change, I think that you must believe two things. First, that players are incapable of ever adjusting to the new rules interpretations and second, that increasing the five-foul limit will not have an effect on players’ behavior.

The former is not easy to prove but there could be some truth to the latter. For a player, there are two deterrents to fouling: the penalty of giving the opponent free throws and the possibility of limiting one’s own participation. If you’ve spent any time perusing individual foul rates on the team pages, you’ve probably noticed that players that come off the bench tend to have higher foul rates. I suspect this has less to do with an inability to play good defense and more to do with bench players not worrying about fouling out, so they play more aggressive defense than a starter could get away with. They’ll get their 15 minutes per game whether they commit two quick fouls or not.

One could make the case – though I haven’t heard it laid out this way – that by raising the limit to six, starters might become marginally more aggressive but because they’d stay on the floor during what is currently thought to be “foul trouble”, they would take minutes from bench players that would be even more aggressive. Thus, the number of fouls committed might actually decrease, or at least it wouldn’t be affected much.

Fortunately, we have data to guide us on this issue. For three seasons, from 1990 through 1992 the Big East and the conference then known as the Trans America Athletic Conference took the NCAA up on its offer to experiment with the six-foul rule during conference games. Admittedly, that’s a long time ago, and the shorts were a lot shorter, but otherwise the game wasn’t that much different that it is today.

One way it was different was in terms of recordkeeping. Ideally, one would compare conference games to non-conference games of the participating conferences, but that data doesn’t exist at all for the TAAC teams and only for a few Big East teams. However, the evidence is still fairly compelling that going to six fouls would mean more fouls in general. The simplest analysis is to compare the foul rates among those teams in the transition years. The following chart shows fouls committed per 40 minutes in the years bracketing the six-foul experiment.

     1989 1990 … 1992 1993
  BE 19.8 21.3   21.2 19.2
TAAC 19.8 21.4   21.8 19.6
 D-I 20.1 19.8   20.0 19.6

Keep in mind that these numbers include a bunch of games – the non-conference schedule and the NIT or NCAA tournaments – that were played with the traditional five-foul rules, but this is the most relevant set of numbers we can get without doing more time-consuming research. And it’s apparent that fouls increased when the limit was raised and fouls decreased when the limit was lowered.

This alone is not an argument against raising the foul limit. One might assert that two additional fouls per team is an acceptable trade for allowing the starters to be on the floor longer. Determining exactly how much playing time we’re talking about is a problem that’s more difficult to solve. But those proposing the six-foul limit shouldn’t suggest that the only difference in the game would be more playing time for each team’s best players. There likely would be even more fouls, too.