A psycho-philosophical analysis of fouls and intentions in contact sports

Michael Bar-Eli, Yuval Eylon, Amir Horowitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper examines the notion of fouls in sports. In the first part of the paper, we examine some actual distinctions and classifications between different kinds of fouls. In the second part we examine the significance, validity, and justification of these classifications from a normative perspective.The term ‘foul’ evokes negative connotation; some would say—negative normative connotations. Conventional wisdom suggests that typically to commit fouls is, by definition, to go against the rules or principles of the contest. Since sport contests are constitutive activities—this means that to foul is to go against the essence of the contest. In other words, to commit fouls seems not to play the game; it seems unsporting. Consider the following typical example: in a premiership match in 2014 Hull’s forward Nikica Jelavic spun around Company and had a clear path to the goal. Manchester City’s defender Vincent Kompany then held him back. Although immediately ejected from the game, it is noteworthy that Kompany was later banned from one match, rather than the usual three match suspension, because the foul was not violent or dangerous in any way. Nevertheless, the example shows that some fouls are considered unsporting even though they do not involve violent or dangerous play. If a player gets past her opponent and finds herself in front of the goal, and then her opponent hugs her forcefully from behind, then such a foul falls outside the bounds of play. It amounts to a refusal to accept the rules of the games. We explore this issue from both a philosophical and a psychological perspective. The first half of the paper shows how actual distinctions between fouls depend on awarding a normative role to intentions. In the second part, a difficulty regarding the possibility that intentions play this role is presented, and a solution is proposed. It will emerge that some fouls are a legitimate part of the game. According to the proposed view, some actions that are forbidden by the official rules of football are illegitimate when performed with intention of a certain kind. Specifically, we will argue that it is legitimate for a player to play so as to take the risk of fouling, so long as fouling is not her intention. When fouls are committed with such a state of mind, they are a part of the game. Furthermore, whereas intention is necessary for illegitimate fouls, it is not sufficient. We will argue briefly that there are also legitimate intended fouls, since some deals or exchanges—fouls in return to penalties—are considered an integral part of the game, and that this view of (some) fouls is legitimate.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)375-388
Number of pages14
JournalSport, Ethics and Philosophy
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2015


  • constitutive rules
  • double effect
  • fouls
  • intentions
  • playing

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation
  • Philosophy


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