Football Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty

Football Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty

Unsportsmanlike conduct is a major penalty in American football. Football is an extremely physical sport, but it also requires the players to follow rules of sportsmanship. In the NFL, a violation of these rules will result in a penalty of 15 yards and, if it is committed by the defense, an automatic first down.


The sport of football has existed for over 100 years, and over the years, there have been many changes both within the game and with the players. Football has grown to be the number one spectator sport in America, with an extremely large TV audience tuned in to the NFL and NCAA games over the weekend. Players today are bigger, stronger, and more athletic than ever before, which has led to many more fantastic and acrobatic highlight plays but also an increase in the potential for injuries. As a result of this increase in risk, a number of penalties have been implemented to reduce the possibility of injury, among them the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Unsportsmanlike conduct is a general term that can describe any one of a number of prohibited acts that violate the rules of general sportsmanship. Football leagues prohibit many acts as unsportsmanlike conduct, which may include: illegally striking a player in anger, using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to anyone in the stadium, excessively taunting the opponent, unnecessary physical contact with an official, excessive celebration, removal of one’s helmet as a demonstration, concealing the ball under the uniform, using substitution as a way to confuse the opponent, or calling successive timeouts without a play being run.

When a player or coach is flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, their team is penalized 15 yards, and, if the violation is called on the defense, the offense is awarded an automatic first down. If committed after a scoring play, the 15 yards will be enforced on the ensuing kickoff. If the infraction is deemed to be flagrant by the referee, the player or coach can be disqualified. Also, if the same player is flagged for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the same game, they may be disqualified.

Excessive Celebration

In a desire to curtail unsportsmanlike spectacles and needless injuries, the leaders of the NFL amended the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in 2016 to include actions after the whistle such as touchdown celebrations using a prop or those deemed “choreographed.” In response, players and sportswriters began referring to the NFL as the “no fun league,” asserting that the league was overreacting to the danger or the possibility of disruption that might result from a celebration. The NFL has since softened its stance on celebrations while they remain entirely prohibited in the NCAA.


The result of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is a loss of 15 yards and an automatic first down, when committed by the defense, in most leagues. If committed after a score, the penalty is enforced on the next kickoff.

PenaltyNFLNCAAHigh SchoolCFL
Unsportsmanlike Conduct15 Yards, Automatic 1st Down15 Yards, Automatic 1st Down15 Yards15 Yards, Automatic 1st Down

In college football, the punishment for unsportsmanlike football is exactly the same as in the NFL: a loss of 15 yards. However, the NCAA rulebook identifies additional specific actions that are considered unsportsmanlike conduct, particularly concerning celebrations. Whereas the NFL rulebook prohibits violent gestures, the NCAA rulebook specifically calls out making throat-slashing motions or pretending to fire a weapon. Rehearsed or choreographed celebrations and even slowing or altering your stride as you run into the end zone all count as unsportsmanlike conduct in college football. 

Penalty Signal

Football Penalty Signal Unsportsmanlike Conduct

On the penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, the referee will hold their arms straight out with their palms facing downward.


  • The wide receiver catches a touchdown pass and grabs a cell phone he hid in the goalpost padding to make a phone call while his teammates surround him.
  • A linebacker is rushing the passer when the offensive lineman grabs him and pulls him to the ground to prevent a sack. The linebacker gets up, pulls off his helmet, and hits the lineman with his helmet.
  • The head coach is angry at an official for making a questionable call. The coach rushes to confront the official and pushes them to the ground in anger.

Similar Penalties To Unsportsmanlike Conduct


What is unsportsmanlike conduct in football?

Unsportsmanlike conduct in football is any number of illegal actions that violate the NFL rules as well as the rules of sportsmanship. Disrespectful or violent actions toward opponents or officials or deliberate attempts to prevent rule enforcement or slow down the game are the main types of unsportsmanlike conduct. Excessive celebration, including taunting, baiting, and removing your helmet, is also unsportsmanlike conduct.

What types of unsportsmanlike conduct are there in football?

Unsportsmanlike conduct can be any action that violates the spirit of competitive, respectful, and fair play. Examples of specifically prohibited unsportsmanlike conduct include punching or kicking without contact, using abusive language, making a violent or abusive gesture, baiting, and taunting. Removing your helmet during a confrontation or end-zone celebration or unnecessarily contacting an official counts as unsportsmanlike contact, as does goaltending, incurring multiple delay-of-game penalties, and calling illegal timeouts.

What are the consequences of unsportsmanlike conduct in the NFL?

The consequences of unsportsmanlike conduct in the NFL is a loss of 15 yards from the spot of the foul or from whichever spot the referees deem is most appropriate for enforcement. If the unsportsmanlike conduct foul is committed by a player on the defense, it also results in an automatic first down for the offense. It is best to avoid unsportsmanlike conduct, as committing one can have serious strategic consequences for your team.

How many unsportsmanlike penalties do you get before ejection?

You get two unsportsmanlike penalties before ejection. According to the NFL rulebook, a player who incurs a second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is automatically disqualified and must immediately leave the game. This rule prevents repeated bad behavior from a player or coach.