This one is in honor of March Madness, even though I am now officially in last place in both brackets I filled out. Oy, vey!
A common scene in the first half of a college basketball game: a player is called for his third foul and, in the words of the announcer, “he’ll rush to the bench.” Ditto with the fourth foul in the second half, because the fifth foul is when the player “fouls out” and must leave the game. Fouling out is relatively uncommon, largely because most coaches follow this rigid rule of removing players after their fourth fouls (or third if during the first half).
My question is: why?! It seems to me that fouls in basketball are a bit like pollution in a cap-and-trade system: licenses to commit a certain amount of a kind of semi-forbidden behavior that can often lead to gains in a field. The sanction for using too many of these licenses is–not having access to the gains available if one used more. (Of course I’m not talking about intentional, technical, or flagrant fouls here.) So removing a player before he can commit his fifth foul is voluntarily withholding team talent from a field whose whole existence is legitimated by the successful deployment of that talent.
Time would be a legitimate reason to withhold such talent but for one thing: greater deployment of talent earlier in the game tends to diminish the need for that talent later in the game. So if a star player is kept in until his fifth foul, it is less likely that the game will enter “crunch” time later on and require that player’s star power to rescue the team. In other words: a basket with 30 seconds left is no more valuable than a basket with 10 minutes left.