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Personal Foul vs. Unsportsmanlike Conduct: What’s the Difference?



In several different threads, as well as in conversations, the terms “personal foul” and “unsportsmanlike conduct” are sometimes confused, or even used interchangeably. A lot of people may say that’s not a big deal, both are 15 yd. penalties, so it doesn’t really matter what you call it. I beg to differ.

Since there can be significant differences in both enforcement and disciplinary consequences between the two fouls, it is really important to get the right foul called.

Personal fouls are contact fouls. They must involve one of 3 types of forcible contact: excessive (e.g., body slamming a runner who has clearly been stopped), unnecessary (e.g., the cheap block 20 yds. behind the play), or a type of contact illegal by rule (e.g., grabbing the facemask, horse collar). Personal foul penalties can be enforced from the previous spot, the succeeding spot, the end of the run, or the spot of the foul, depending on who committed the foul, where and when it was committed, status of the ball, and other factors. Unlike basketball, you don’t “foul out” of a football game because you’ve accumulated a certain number of personal fouls. Disqualification occurs only if a personal foul is deemed “flagrant,” i.e., “a foul so severe or extreme that it places an opponent in danger of serious injury…”  All personal fouls are signaled using Signal 38. If the foul occurred while the ball was dead, Signal 38 is preceded by Signal 7. If the personal foul involved a prohibited type of contact, the signal sequence ends with the signal for the particular type of prohibited contact, e.g., Signal 25 (horse collar), Signal 26 (blindside block).

Unsportsmanlike conduct is a non contact foul. It covers a multitude of sins, from taunting, to excessive celebrations, to bad behavior toward the officials. Regardless of when, where, or by whom a USC foul is committed, it is enforced like a dead ball foul, i.e.,  enforcement is from the succeeding spot. Any player or non-player who accumulates two USC fouls is automatically disqualified. If it’s a coach, he must leave the playing area and have no contact with the team for the remainder of the contest. The IHSAA also enforces a 1 week suspension of anyone so disqualified. The officials are required to turn in a written report to the IHSAA of any incident in which a player is disqualified or a member of the coaching staff, administration, etc., is assessed a USC foul. Because all USC fouls are penalized as dead ball fouls, it is not necessary to precede the unsportsmanlike conduct signal (Signal 27) with the dead ball signal (Signal 7).

I’ve included a link to the NF Football Signals Guide. https://www.nfhs.org/media/4016213/2022-nfhs-official-football-signals-final-3-9-22.pdf


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