Photo Credit: Bob Messina

There are four questions that no referee wants to ask when a foul has been called. That’s because they should have been asked and answered by the calling official before he reported to the referee.

The four queries are: Who committed the foul? What was the foul? When did the foul occur? Where did it occur? Let’s break those down and see why they are so important.


Was the foul on the offense or defense? Once the referee knows that, he can start to think about the enforcement process.

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Getting the number of the player who committed the foul is paramount, especially if you must fill out a penalty report after the game. Coaches don’t think we got it right when we don’t have a number. In a basketball game you can’t say, “I’ve got a foul on somebody, but I don’t know who it was.” If an official can’t figure out the number, it raises questions as to whether there was a foul at all. Get the number and everybody is happy. But if you don’t get the number, never guess or make up a number. It will come back to bite you.

The referee doesn’t want to hear, “Pass interference,” and nothing else. When the calling official throws a flag and it is during a pass play, the anticipation is that it is defensive interference. Don’t anticipate because it may be offensive pass interference and that must be told to the referee by the calling official. Nothing worse than a referee giving the pass interference signal against one team and then learning it was against the other team.


What was the foul? The more specific the description, the better. Don’t report “Holding” and leave it at that. Put it in one of the categories of holding. “Holding, offense, number 75. Grab and restrict.”

If the penalty varies due to the nature of the foul, report that as well. In NFHS, if there is a facemask foul, was it incidental or was it a personal foul? If there were 12 players on the field during a live ball, were all 12 participating or was one trying to get off the field? Those are major differences and the referee should not have to ask if the foul calls for a harsher penalty.

Don’t forget to include what happened on the play. Referees have their own areas of coverage and often don’t see everything that occurs during the down. If the foul was committed early on a play that wound up in a change of possession, the penalty options change drastically. Give the referee all the information he needs.

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Was it a live-ball or dead-ball foul? Was the ball loose or in possession? Status of the ball when a foul occurs matters a great deal as it helps determine the enforcement spot and whether the clock will next start on the ready or the snap.


Did the foul occur at the line of scrimmage? Did it occur in advance of the end of the run? Did it occur behind the play? The referee shouldn’t have to waste time asking those questions.

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The answers to four questions after every foul could mean the difference in a well-run game or one that falls apart from the perception of the crew not knowing what is going on.

Certainly, part of the responsibility for correct enforcement lies with the referee. The referee may not have listened to the information.

A screw-up on the field is usually caused by poor crew communication. That major problem can be corrected by a good pregame meeting of all officials. If officials can’t communicate in a meeting it is a good bet, they won’t be communicating on the field. The penalty reporting procedure should be reviewed in the pregame. If it wasn’t, the referee has nothing to complain about.

Communicating is the key. If the calling official can’t answer four one-word questions before reporting to the referee, your game will go south in a hurry. But a positive response builds credibility. Start by answering four little questions before reporting any foul.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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