VIDEO: Ever Wonder What Referees Are Really Signalling?

Ever wonder what all the hand and body signals referees use during the course of a football game really mean? And how they were developed?

If an official extends both arms above his head you know it’s a touchdown. But what about when he wraps a hand around his wrist just below his clenched fist? Is that holding? Or if he twirls his hands? What does that mean?

Football fans today know what many of these gestures mean. Or do they? It’s in another language — American football’s officiating hand signals, which have now grown to more than 35.

AFI - Referee hand signal chart

A few key signals to remember when watching a game

These signals were originally developed to improve communication between the officials and the fans. In football’s early days, officials simply shouted when calling a penalty or stopping play for a timeout or other reason. Spectators who couldn’t hear the official were often confused about what was going on.

Source: NFL Operations.

As the game attracted more fans, both in the stadium and through radio broadcasts, those watching and listening wanted a faster way of knowing what was happening.

History of hand signals

As with many early changes, hand signals were first introduced at the college level and later adopted by the NFL. The first use of hand signals can be traced to a 1929 college game between Syracuse University and Cornell University.

Before kickoff, the radio announcers for that game approached the referee, Elwood Geiges, with an idea to improve their broadcast: They asked Geiges to use hand signals to let them know what penalties he was calling and why he stopped play.

Geiges came up with four simple signals: offside, holding, illegal shift and timeout.

When he stopped the action, he looked to the broadcast booth and flashed the appropriate sign. This nonverbal communication enabled the announcers to better describe the action. As the signals became more commonly used in the college game, professional football adopted them as well.

AFI - Referee hand signals.7

Signals have changed

Some signals used today — for a safety, a touchdown and holding — are more or less the same as those used decades ago. Others such as folded arms to indicate that a team declined a penalty, have been modified as newer signals were introduced.

For example, until 1955, officials used a military-type salute to call unnecessary roughness penalties. The American Legion asked the NFL to change the signal because children were confusing the football signal with the salute to the nation’s flag. When Legion officials quizzed elementary school students about the meaning of the salute, a 12-year-old boy responded: “That means unnecessary roughness.”

So, the NFL changed the signal to a wrist above the head, and later tweaked it to the personal foul signal used today: one wrist striking the other above the head.

The growth of the game on television led the league to equip officials with one more communication tool. The NFL gave referees microphones in 1975 so they could provide clarification on the field to teams, to broadcasters and to fans in the stadium and at home.

So when you are wondering what referees are telling you and the players and what the players are arguing about, remember this film. Although it does not contain all 35, it does help remember for the next time you watch a game.

Remember, you’re not the only one who is wondering.

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