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Penalty (gridiron football)

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Dec 15, 2021

In gridiron football, a penalty is a sanction called against a team for a violation of the rules, called a foul.[1]Officials initially signal penalties by tossing a bright yellow (American football) or orange (Canadian football) colored penalty flag onto the field toward or at the spot of a foul.[2]

Penalty in American football
NFL back judge Lee Dyer retrieves a penalty flag on the field during a game on November 16, 2008 between the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams.

Many penalties result in moving the football toward the offending team’s end zone, usually either 5, 10, or 15 yards, depending on the penalty. Most penalties against the defensive team also result in the offense receiving an automatic first down, while a few penalties against the offensive team cause them to automatically lose a down.

In some cases, depending on the spot of the foul, the ball is moved half the distance to the goal line rather than the usual number of yards, or the defense scores an automatic safety.[3]

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Because football is a high-contact sport requiring a balance between offense and defense, many rules exist that regulate equality, safety, contact, and actions of players on each team. It is very difficult to always avoid violating these rules without giving up too much of an advantage.[4] Thus, an elaborate system of fouls and penalties has been developed to “let the punishment fit the crime” and maintain a balance between following the rules and keeping a good flow of the game. Players and coaches are constantly looking for ways to find an advantage that stretches the limitations imposed by the rules. For example, in 2016 the Baltimore Ravens had all of their offensive linemen commit holding penalties to allow the punter to keep possession of the ball so time would expire for a win, since the game can end on offensive penalties. However, the NFL changed the rules after this to prevent teams from manipulating the game clock in this way. The frequency and severity of fouls can make a large difference in the outcome of a game as well, so coaches are constantly looking for ways to minimize the number and severity of infractions committed by their players.

It is a common misconception that the term penalty is used to refer both to an infraction and the penal consequence of that infraction. A foul is a rule infraction (e.g. offensive holding) for which a penalty (e.g. move back 10 yards) is assessed.[5]

Officials initially signal fouls by tossing a brightly colored flag (yellow in American football, orange in Canadian football) onto the field toward or at the spot of the foul. Because of this, broadcasters and fans often use the terms “flag” or “flag on the play” to refer to fouls during the game.

During a play, multiple officials may flag the same foul, and multiple flags may be thrown for separate fouls on the same play. If applicable, the same official can signal additional fouls on a given play by throwing a beanbag or their cap. When officials throw a flag during a down, play does not stop until the ball becomes dead under normal conditions, as if there were no fouls.

Once the ball is dead, or immediately when a foul is called after a play is over or prior to a snap (since the ball is dead anyway), the referee, the officials who threw the flags and other officials with a view of the play confer on whether the initially “alleged” infraction is adjudged (after deliberation and consideration of the rule(s) and the infraction) to have actually been committed, what it was, and who committed it. The final determination and assessment of the penalty is the sole responsibility of the referee.[6] The referee then makes initial body signals to the press box indicating what fouls were committed and the team that committed them, the latter shown by extending the arm toward that team’s end zone.[7]

The referee then confers with the offended team’s on-field captain to find out whether the offended team would rather decline the penalty and take the result of the play.[8] The result of the play may be more advantageous to the offended team, especially, for example, if time is running out in the half and a 7-yard gain is a better option than a 5-yard penalty. However, the referee may not have to confer with the team captain because the choice is fairly obvious (such as when the defense commits a foul during a play in which the offense scores a touchdown).[9] After any final conference, the referee then makes full visual signals describing the foul in detail, consisting of: the foul that was committed, the team that committed it, whether or not the opposing team chooses to decline it, the resulting down or possession, and any other penalties such as disqualification (ejection) of a player from the game or a ten-second runoff from the game clock. In college football, the NFL and other professional leagues, and in some high school games, the referee also announces the fouls and their penalties over the stadium’s public address system using a wireless microphone. In college and professional football, and high school in some states, the referee will also give out the numbers of the players who committed the fouls. During these announcements, the referee usually does not use names of the respective teams or their cities (however, in the Canadian Football League (CFL), they are announced by their respective city or province), but rather will use the generic terms “offense”, “defense”, “kicking team”, “receiving team”, etc. Some officials, especially in high school and lower levels, will refer to teams by their jersey color (e.g. “white”, “red”, “blue”, etc.).

The typical announcement follows this format: [foul], [team], [number(s) of the player(s) committing the foul], [distance], [next down: replay of down, loss of down, etc.].

NFL example: “Holding, defense number 52. Five-yard penalty, automatic first down.” (Holding on defense gives an automatic first down for the offense.)

High school example: “Pass interference, defense. Half the distance to the goal line, repeat third down.” (Defensive pass interference is not an automatic first down.)

CFL example: “Pass interference, Ottawa number 13. Ball will be placed at the spot of the foul, automatic first down.”

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. . . Penalty (gridiron football) . . .