What Is a Clear Path Foul in Basketball? A Complete Overview


A college basketball player dunking the ball.

One of the rarest but controversial fouls in the NBA is the clear path foul. You can watch a hundred games and not see a single foul like this occur or you can see multiple in the same game. Part of what makes the foul so controversial is that it’s largely a judgment call on the part of the referee, which leaves it very open to debate and conversation.

So, what is a clear path foul in basketball?

A clear path foul takes place when the ball handler is fouled by a defender when he has a clear path to the basket. These fouls usually occur when a defender steals the ball and starts on a breakaway. If the ball handler is fouled and no one is in front of him, a clear path foul has occurred.

However, it’s not always that straightforward. There are obvious cases when a clear path foul has occurred, but the letter of the law regarding this type of foul leaves it open to individual interpretation.

In other words, what one referee calls a clear path foul, another referee might call a common foul. In this article, we’re going to go into the ins and outs of clear path fouls and give you a better understanding of them. 

Clear Path Rule

Like most rules in the NBA, the clear path foul rule wasn’t originally a part of the NBA. The foul came into existence in 1984 and has undergone changes and tweaks ever since. It’s the type of foul that you complain about when it goes against you, but you complain just as loudly when it doesn’t get called in your favor.

As of 2018, the clear path foul was redefined according to the following parameters found on official.nba.com:

“A clear path foul is now defined as a personal foul against any offensive player during his team’s transition scoring opportunity in the following circumstances: the ball is ahead of the tip of the circle in the backcourt; no defender is ahead of the offensive player with the transition scoring opportunity; the player with the transition scoring opportunity is in control of the ball (or a pass has been thrown to him); and if the foul deprives his team of an opportunity to score.”

Any time that a rule gets changed in this way, there’s a good chance that it’s highly controversial and a frequent source of complaints. The clear path foul is no exception to this rule.

There are times, however, when a clear path foul call is warranted. In obvious cases when a defender grabs a player from behind or fouls while making an attempt at the ball, a harsher penalty than what a common foul garners is necessary.

What Is the Penalty for a Clear Path Foul?

A view of players warming up for a basketball game.

The penalty for a clear path foul is harsher than that of a common foul. It’s similar to the penalty of a flagrant foul in the NBA or a technical foul at the college and high school level. Here is what happens if your team commits a clear path foul.

  • The player that commits the foul will be assessed a personal foul. In the NBA, you can commit a maximum of six personal fouls before you’re disqualified from the game.
  • The team that the foul is committed against will automatically receive two free throws.
  • The team that the foul is committed against will also receive the ball.

If everything plays out to the offense’s advantage, a clear path foul can result in a five-point swing on a single possession. This result is barring the fact that they make both free throws and hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing offensive possession. This doesn’t always happen, but it can be a huge difference-maker when it does.

Much like the clear path rule itself, there’s controversy about whether or not the penalty is too harsh. There are instances when two free throws and possession of the ball are a fitting penalty.

There are also times when the foul is accidental and has no impact on the play where only a common foul should be assessed.

The Impact of Instant Replay

Things have gotten better with the institution of instant replay and coaches’ challenges. These two rules allow for clear path fouls to be reviewed and broken down by the officials, as well as the review crew. Instant replay has been made so that wrongly called clear path fouls can be reviewed and corrected when needed.

Clear Path Fouls: Pros and Cons

To better understand the clear path foul, let’s break down its pros and cons.

Pros

Here is a list of arguments in favor of the clear path foul.

  • Increases Scoring Opportunities. The NBA is geared more than ever to an offensive league. Because the offense gets two free throws and possession of the ball, it increases the potential amount of points that can be scored.
  • Instant Replay Helps Get it Right. With the invention of instant replay in the NBA, there are now fewer clear path fouls that get called incorrectly. Instant replay allows officials the opportunity to double-check their call and make sure that they got it right.

Cons

It’s ironic, but many of the disadvantages of clear path fouls are closely linked to the advantages. In most cases, the advantages have disadvantages tied into them.

  • Clear Path Fouls Can Cause Injuries. A clear path foul is almost always a desperate attempt by a defender to stop an offensive player from scoring. By definition, the defensive player has to come in from the side or from behind the offensive player and stop them. This leaves the player with the ball very exposed and not able to defend himself or brace for contact. Depending on how the defender fouls the offensive player, the risk of injury is very real.
  • The Severity of the Penalty. One of the biggest complaints about clear path fouls is that the punishment doesn’t always fit the crime. Many clear path fouls happen by accident and don’t impact the play all that much. Unfortunately, there aren’t different degrees of clear path fouls and the penalty is always two shots and possession of the ball for the offense. While adding levels of severity might help make the rule fairer, it would also open new levels of debate and frustration for fans, players, and coaches alike.
  • Instant Replay Takes Too Long . While instant replay definitely helps officials make the right call, it can also take a ton of time and kill the mood of the game. It’s not uncommon for instant replay reviews to take 1-2 minutes which kills any momentum that either team had built up. Instant replays don’t always get the call right in the end either. To overturn a call, there has to be clear and obvious evidence in opposition to the call. While it isn’t always clear and obvious, the evidence is often enough to cast doubt on the decision of the officials.

How Do Referees Call Clear Path Fouls

Referees call clear path fouls by blowing their whistle and stopping the play, just as they do with all other fouls. If the referee determines that a clear path foul has been committed, then they will signal as such and assess a clear path foul to the defender.

Because of instant replay, the foul will be reviewed and a determination will be made if it should be changed to a common foul or kept as a clear path foul.

As you can see in this video, the Los Angeles Clippers have the ball deep in their own end of the court. The ball is stolen by Mo Bamba of the Orlando Magic and he passes the ball to RJ Hampton, who’s about to embark on a breakaway. With no one between him and the opposing basket, Hampton has a “clear path” to score a bucket.

In a desperate attempt to stop RJ Hampton from breaking away, Reggie Jackson of the LA Clippers reaches out and fouls him. Because Jackson didn’t get in front of Hampton and no other Clippers were standing between Hampton and the basket, a clear path foul was assessed.

While this foul didn’t put Hampton at risk for injury and was done with minimal force, it was the correct call by the letter of the law.

Clear Path Foul vs Common Foul

A basketball player draws contact as he goes toward the rim.

After the clear path foul gets reviewed, officials will decide if it should stay as a clear path foul or get changed to a common foul. The difference is huge. Clear path fouls carry a much harsher penalty than common fouls and having one overturned can be huge.

The penalty for a common foul is simply that a foul will be given to the defender at fault. Unless the offensive player was in the act of shooting the ball, no free throws will be rewarded to them.

The clear path foul, on the other hand, results in two free throws for the offensive team as well as possession of the ball after the free throws. The offensive team also has the right to choose who shoots the free throws, as it doesn’t have to be the player that the foul was committed against.

What Is a Technical Foul?

A technical foul is any foul that involves unsportsmanlike conduct, including violations made by players or coaches on the bench. Technical fouls include excessive timeouts, delay of games, too many players, illegal use of the basket ring, conduct that’s detrimental to the game, fighting, and more.

The penalty for a technical foul isn’t quite as severe as that of a clear path foul. When a technical foul gets called against one team, the opposing team is rewarded with one free throw and possession of the ball.

Clear path fouls result in two free throws and possession of the ball. The way that both fouls are the same is that anyone who’s on the floor at the time of the foul can shoot the free throws.

These shots are also taken without any other players present in the free throw lane. This is the case for both technical fouls and clear path fouls.

What Is a Flagrant Foul?

A flagrant foul is any contact against an opponent that’s deemed unnecessary or excessive by a referee. Depending on the ruling, the referee can call a Flagrant Foul 1, Flagrant Foul 2, or downgrade the foul to a common or technical foul. The opponent is rewarded two free throws and possession.

The penalty for a flagrant foul is the same as that of a clear path foul, with a few exceptions. In both instances, the team that gets fouled is awarded two shots and possession of the ball. As with technical fouls, the free throws are taken in solitude with no other players present in the lane.

The biggest difference between flagrant fouls and clear path fouls is that the player who commits a flagrant foul is assessed as a common foul and a technical foul. If a player commits more than one technical foul in a game, they’re automatically disqualified.

There are also two variations of the flagrant foul: Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2. If a player commits a Flagrant 2 foul, they’re automatically ejected.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re a proponent in favor of the clear path foul rule or not, the penalty is too harsh for the foul that’s committed. Clear path fouls shouldn’t be on the same level as flagrant fouls or technical fouls, yet clear path fouls carry a harsher punishment.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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