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Golden anniversary of the gold penalty flag



The most controversial piece of cloth in all of sports wasn’t always yellow

Football: Jets-v-Eagles, Sep 2009 - 29

It won’t get a cake or open house. It won’t get cheered. In fact it’s mere presence will illicit foul language and boos. Be that as it may, the gold penalty flag celebrates a big milestone this season. Fifty years ago, the penalty flag had a make-over, as Football Zebras editor Ben Austro explains in his upcoming book So You Think You Know Football?

In the early days of the NFL, a penalty was signaled by an official sounding a horn at the end of the play. Although the games were sparsely attended by modern standards, it was difficult for the fans to know there was a penalty without a visual cue. The first penalty flag to be thrown in an NFL game was at a venue not readily associated with football—Fenway Park—during a Friday night game between the Green Bay Packers and the Boston Yanks on September 17, 1948. The officials must have liked the red-colored flags, as they assessed both teams with 22 penalties for 215 yards. In 1965 the NFL switched the penalty flags to the familiar gold color they are today—although with more than 90 percent of households watching the games on black-and-white televisions, few people outside of those in the stadium noticed.

After the red flags, the league first settled on white penalty flags. While the penalty flag served its purpose for marking the spot of the foul, it became confusing as other white-colored paraphernalia littered the field. Players wore white towels, officials used their white caps to mark spots (before the bean bag was invented) and sometimes on windy days hot dog wrappers would blow across the field and look like an officials’ penalty marker.

All that changed in 1965.  The NFL adopted the golden penalty flag and the rest is history. The NCAA had their officials carry a white and red penalty flag for a few years after that, but soon adopted the gold standard of indicating fouls. Today, there is quite a science to the make, wear and toss technique to that gold piece of cloth.

So, the first time you see a penalty flag fly this year, why not take a short moment and give a polite golf clap to recognize the 50th anniversary of the gold infraction-marker!

Photo: Ed Yourdon

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"