What Does a Yellow Flag Mean in Lacrosse?

If you’ve ever watched a lacrosse game before, you’ve likely seen the officials toss yellow flags out onto the field once or twice. The meaning behind these yellow flags is common knowledge to experienced lacrosse players, but not to new ones. Having run into this issue myself when I was first starting out, I decided to finally address what this occurrence means.

Lacrosse officials throw out a yellow flag onto the field to indicate that a penalty has occurred. It’s important to note that the yellow flag doesn’t automatically stop play. Play continues even after the yellow flag has been thrown until a referees blows their whistle.

Many newcomers to the sport of lacrosse have a hard time understanding why play continues after referees have clearly indicated that a foul has occurred. I had a hard time understanding this myself when I first started. We will delve into the explicit reasons why this is so that you can have a thorough grasp of how to best handle this situation when you’re out on the field.

Why Lacrosse Officials Throw Out the Yellow Flag to Call Penalties

It is standard procedure for referees to throw out a yellow flag onto the field when they witness a player break the rules during a game. With certain rules, the referees throw the yellow flag, yell out “Flag Down!” and allow play to continue. With other rules, the referees blow the play dead immediately and forgo throwing out the yellow flag completely. Why is that?

A Brief Overview of the Play-On Scenario

All of this has to do with the play-on scenario.

Put simply, the play-on scenario is enacted when the defense commits a foul on the offense. The referees don’t want to stop play and take away a high percentage scoring opportunity from the offense simply because the defense made a mistake. As a result, they allow the possession to play out even after they have thrown their yellow flag onto the field. If the offense manages to score during this play-on scenario, the goal counts.

In the event that the offense scores a goal during the play-on scenario, minor penalties are waved off. However, with more serious transgressions, the goal is good and the defense must still serve penalty time. This is the worst case scenario for the defense.

Without the play-on scenario, defenses would intentionally foul the opposing team every time that they had a high percentage scoring opportunity. In this hypothetical situation, the officials would stop play immediately before the offense could take advantage and score a goal.

The installment of the play-on scenario takes away the defense’s incentive to intentionally foul because the offense is still able to carry out the rest of the possession in spite of a penalty committed by the defense. For this reason, defenses always do their best to stay away away from penalties, regardless of the circumstances.

In addition, penalties stop the natural flow of a lacrosse game, so it is to everyone’s benefit to remove unnecessary penalties from the game wherever possible. This way, the game can keep up its up tempo pace without losing momentum.

You can find a list of penalties where the play-on scenario comes into effect below:

  • Cross-Checking
  • Illegal Body Checking
  • Defenseless Player
  • Checks to Head/Neck
  • Slashing
  • Tripping
  • Unnecessary Roughness
  • Unsportsmanlike Conduct

When is the Play-On Scenario Blown Dead?

Once the play-on scenario is in effect, it only ends when one of the following instances occur:

  • the offense scores a goal
  • the defense retrieves possession of the ball
  • the ball goes out of bounds
  • the ball goes over the midfield line
  • the period ends
  • an injury occurs on the field

With each of the instances above, the referees typically communicate to the players when the play-on scenario is over by blowing their whistle.

In the event that the offense scores a goal, the referees count the goal good and decide whether the penalty will be waved off. If the penalty will remain in effect, the head referee communicates to the coaches what the exact nature of the penalty was, which player committed the foul, and the duration of time that the offending player must serve in the penalty box. These same formalities also apply if the offense didn’t score.

You can see how all of this plays out in an actual game by watching the clip below.

Once all of these formalities are over, the yellow flag is picked back up from the field and play resumes in a 6v5 fashion. The offended team plays at a one man advantage, more commonly referred to as man up.

Are There Any Other Ways that Lacrosse Officials Call Penalties?

Throwing out the yellow flag is the just one means of calling penalties in lacrosse. There are other methods of calling penalties that are utilized in specific game circumstances that you might see as well.

Blowing the Whistle

Instead of throwing out the yellow flag, referees blow their whistle to call minor infractions on the field. Typically, this method is only reserved for times when a foul results in a turnover of possession.

Since play is immediately stopped and possession is forfeited instantaneously, there’s no real need to throw out the yellow flag. Yellow flags really only come in handy for more serious penalties where suspension time is necessary.

Referees blow their whistle when the following technical fouls occur:

  • Pushing
  • Holding
  • Illegal Offensive Screen
  • Offside
  • Illegal Procedure
  • Warding Off
  • Over and Back
  • Crease Violation
  • Interference
  • Stalling

Throwing their Hat onto the Field

There are rare instances in lacrosse where so many penalties happen during a single play that officials run out of yellow flags to throw onto the field. They must have some way to communicate that another penalty has occurred despite this inconvenience.

For this reason, lacrosse referees resort to throwing their hat onto the field. Personally, I’ve only seen this happen once or twice. The only time where this really happens is when the game is beginning to sputter out of control, with players more concerned about playing dirty than playing to win.

Addressing Common Misconceptions About the Yellow Flag in Lacrosse

Penalty enforcement is a bit of a tricky concept to get a handle on at first. As a result, there are a couple misconceptions that people have about the throwing of the yellow flag that are completely unfounded.

The Location Where the Yellow Flag is Thrown is Not Significant

Unlike football, where the penalty marker lies on the field plays no role in penalty enforcement. Occasionally, football players that transition over to lacrosse get confused about this. Lacrosse officials can throw their flag anywhere onto the field to signify that a penalty has occurred.

If it mattered where lacrosse officials threw their yellow flag, I highly doubt that the referee below would’ve thrown his flag so vigorously!

Referees Can Throw Multiple Flags on a Single Play

There are moments in lacrosse where multiple fouls are committed within a very short span of time. When a defense commits a foul against the offense, they aren’t exempt from any further penalties. They are still just as liable to the consequences of a penalty as they would be at any other point during the game.

For this reason, lacrosse officials can throw multiple flags on a single play to indicate that multiple fouls have occurred. Contrary to popular opinion, officials aren’t prohibited from throwing more than one flag onto the field for a given play.

Officials Can Pick Up a Flag and Reverse Their Initial Call

Furthermore, it’s also possible for lacrosse officials to admit they made a mistake and pick up the flag after the fact. Although rare, referees can in fact reverse the call they made on the field after conferring with the rest of the officiating crew.

In the case of an inadvertent flag, the officiating crew will stop play as soon as they can without disrupting an imminent scoring opportunity. The ball is then awarded based on whichever team last had possession or the alternate-possession (AP) rule. Play is resumed with a face-off if a goal is scored.

You can find more information about the specifics of the AP rule by clicking over to my article What Does AP Mean in Lacrosse?

What Should You Do If an Official Throws a Yellow Flag Out on the Field?

There will be times as a player when you’re out on the field and you see flags fly onto the field. Under these unconventional circumstances, it’s easy to get thrown off your game, especially if you’ve never been exposed to this type of situation before.

As a general rule of thumb, you should always continue to play until you hear the referee blow the whistle. When you hear the whistle, this is an official sign that the play has been blown dead and that you can rest easy.

If you see the flag go down but don’t hear the whistle, continue to play your normal game. As a defender, guard your assignment like you would any other play. If you’re on offense, do your best to try and score. The stakes still remain the same during the play-on scenario, so it’s in your best interest to treat these circumstances as seriously as any other normal game situation. Otherwise, you may end up costing your team a goal that could completely turn the tide of the game.

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of Lacrosse Pack. I enjoy hitting the local lacrosse fields and honing in on the craft in my free time.

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