What Is Unsportsmanlike Conduct in Football?

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Unsportsmanlike conduct is a major penalty in football and carries the harshest punishment out of all football penalties. It’s also a penalty that is designed to make football a tamer and more gentlemanly game. As such, not everyone agrees with the current unsportsmanlike conduct rules.

Unsportsmanlike conduct is a general term that covers several different offenses that can be committed by the offense or defense alike. As the name would indicate, unsportsmanlike conduct is generally when a player does something offensive or malicious to an opponent or an official.

In this article, we’ll delve deeper into one of the most complicated rules in football, the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. We’ll take a look at all the different things that constitute this type of penalty and what the punishment is for each one. 

What Is Unsportsmanlike Conduct in Football?

Unsportsmanlike conduct is a broad term that covers the following infractions committed by players. No matter what the exact ruling is, unsportsmanlike conduct nearly always deals with a player’s behavior, attitude, or conduct on the field.


Perhaps the most common unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is when a player taunts another player on the opposing team. There’s a lot of joking and taunting that usually gets ignored, but penalties will be called if anyone crosses the line.

For a taunting penalty to be called, there usually has to be hand gesturing or motioning of some sort.

Verbally Assaulting a Player or an Official

This doesn’t happen very much anymore, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty can be called when a player yells aggressive or obscene things at another player or an official. Penalties usually only get called when a player’s language is directed towards an official.

Making Physical Contact With an Official After a Play

Few things draw flags from officials faster than when a player purposely bumps into them or makes aggressive contact with them after a play. The player might even be thrown out of the game depending on the degree of contact they make with the official.

A Coach Verbally Assaults an Official

Coaches in the NFL are given quite a bit of leeway when it comes to giving officials a piece of their mind, but they can cross a line if they’re not careful. If a coach gets too carried away with yelling at an official, they might be assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

While these are the main reasons that unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are called, an official can make the call for anything they deem unsportsmanlike. In other words, if a coach is out of line after or during a play, an official can call unsportsmanlike conduct on them.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct Rule in Football

The unsportsmanlike conduct rule in football, namely the NFL and NCAA, started getting called more frequently in 2016. The rule was amended to include things like excessive celebrations after a touchdown or big play, especially when players use props as part of their celebrations.

For the most part, players have adapted to the unsportsmanlike conduct rule in football, and not many get called anymore. The rule itself is designed to make football a tamer and more gentlemanly game.

Football, however, is a high-intensity contact sport where players put their bodies on the line every time the ball is snapped. It’s easy for players to get excited or carried away throughout the game and do something that results in unsportsmanlike conduct.

Are Referees Too Strict With Unsportsmanlike Conduct?

Unsportsmanlike conduct is sometimes justly called, and other times makes players and fans alike disgusted. The reason that football is so entertaining is because of the style and manner in which it’s played.

It’s a contact sport intended to be played at a fast pace, sometimes with reckless abandon. Fans don’t like to see their favorite players penalized for rubbing it in when they make a good play or for saying something to another player.

It seems counter-intuitive at times to expect players to play such a physical sport as football while maintaining perfect manners. Football isn’t exciting because it’s a gentlemanly and leisurely game, but because of how rough and fast-paced it is.

It only seems fair to give players a little leeway with taunting and celebrations after besting an opponent.

What Is the Penalty for Unsportsmanlike Conduct?

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Unsportsmanlike conduct carries one of the harshest penalties in football. The punishment involves a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down if committed by the defense.

The penalty is assessed after the conclusion of the play, so if it happens during a touchdown celebration, the penalty is added during the kickoff. Instead of kicking off at the 35-yard line, the kick-off will be from the 20-yard line if committed by the scoring team or the 50-yard line if committed by the defending team.

Unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are more costly when they occur after a big defensive stop or after a big offensive play. It’s happened more than once where teams have been stopped on third down only to be rewarded with a first down because a defensive player was called for taunting or an excessive celebration.

When this happens, the result is a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the offense.

In the NFL and college, if the same player commits two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in the same game, they’re automatically ejected. This type of penalty also usually carries the penalty of a monetary fine by the NFL.

What Is the Fine for Unsportsmanlike Conduct?

The monetary fine for unsportsmanlike conduct ranges widely depending on the severity of the penalty and who committed it.

For first-time offenders, the fine is often less than for someone who frequently commits the penalty. Most recently, the NFL fined Chicago Bears linebacker, Cassius Marsh, $5,972 for a taunting penalty that he committed.

The NFL is making a conscious effort to cut down on taunting in the 2021 season, and as a result, is handing out more and more penalties and fines. In one week in September of the 2021 season, the NFL issued over $94,000 worth of fines to a bevy of different players, all carrying various amounts for taunting.

Four players were fined $10,300, DJ Reed was fined $5,111, Levi Wallace was fined $9,526, and Gabe Jackson was fined $12,875.

The harshest fine and penalty was issued to Pittsburgh Steelers guard Trai Turner for spitting at an opponent. Turner was fined $15,450 and was ejected from the game for his infraction.

The NFL has received a ton of criticism from players, fans, and coaches for their excessive cracking down on taunting, and the league doesn’t show signs of stopping. This is being done to make football a cleaner game, so players will have to learn to play in this manner if they want to avoid costly fines and penalties.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct Signal

When an official wants to signal unsportsmanlike conduct, they’ll hold their arms straight out beside them with their palms facing down. They will then say unsportsmanlike conduct and list the number of the guilty player or coach. Regardless of which team the call is on, the penalty is 15 yards.

When an official calls unsportsmanlike conduct in football, they’ll throw their flag. If it’s during a play, the official will wait until the conclusion of it to notify the lead official of their ruling, and the lead official will then assess the penalty.

If the penalty happens after the play, the official will throw their flag and inform the lead official of their ruling. Once again, the lead official is the bearer of bad news and informs the world about what the penalty is and who committed it.

There are times when multiple players commit unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the same play. In these cases, officials will often huddle together and discuss who committed the penalties and what the result should be.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct Examples

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There are several scenarios on both offense and defense that could result in unsportsmanlike conduct. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Scenario 1

A running back breaks free for a long touchdown run. Before he gets into the end zone, he looks back at the trailing defender and waves mockingly to them or high steps into the end zone.

In this scenario, the play would be called back, and the touchdown wouldn’t count for the offense. They would be assessed a 15-yard penalty from the spot where the penalty was committed, and the guilty player would be one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty away from disqualification.

Scenario 2

A wide receiver is unhappy that a facemask penalty wasn’t called on the defense when a defender grabbed ahold of his mask. In disgust, the offensive player bumps or shoves the official for not making a call.

The guilty player would be thrown out of the game, issued an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, lose 15 yards for his team, and likely face a fine or suspension from the league.

Scenario 3

A head coach is aghast by a call that an official makes during the game and gives him or her an earful. The official has enough and finally throws the flag when the coach crosses the line.

The guilty team is penalized 15 yards, and the coach will likely face a fine and disciplinary action from the league.

Which Player Has Earned the Most Unsportsmanlike Conducts?

Unsportsmanlike conduct has been around for a long time, and it’s been called differently throughout the years. For the 2020 NFL season, no player had more than two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. A total of 32 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were called throughout the league with Chicago and Kansas City having the most at four apiece.

Since the 2009 season when the NFL started closely tracking unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, the following players have committed three in the same season:

  • Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs
  • Jay Ajayi of the Miami Dolphins
  • Jerry Hughes of the Buffalo Bills
  • Tommie Campbell of the Tennessee Titans
  • Bryan Robinson of the Arizona Cardinals

Final Thoughts

Unsportsmanlike conduct has its place in the NFL and college football, but when called correctly. There are too many instances where officials are overly cautious and call a player for unsportsmanlike conduct when tensions are running high and guys are excited.

It should only be called in extreme cases, and players should be allowed to let their emotions show when they’re playing football. It’s part of the game and adds to the excitement for fans.

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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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