What is an Unreleasable Penalty in Lacrosse?

The penalty system in lacrosse is peculiar in that there are multiple kinds of punishment for game violations. There are releasable penalties, unreleasable penalties, and even the occasional disqualification. When a lacrosse official issues an unreleasable penalty on a player, the majority of new lacrosse players do not have the slightest idea what this entails.

In lacrosse, an unreleasable penalty prohibits a penalized player from re-entering the game until their entire time suspension has been served. In contrast to a releasable penalty, the penalized player must remain in the penalty box even if the other team scores a goal during their time suspension.

Mistakes inevitably happen in the sport of lacrosse. Unreleasable penalties, also called non-releasable penalties, are a direct result of some of these mistakes. Read on to discover examples of unreleasable penalties and how this type of penalty could have a tremendous influence on the outcome of a lacrosse game.

Unreleasable Penalty versus Releasable Penalty

To fully understand unreleasable penalties, it’s necessary to have a solid foundation of what releasable penalties are as well. This way, you can have an accurate perspective of how these two kinds of penalties apply to various game situations. We will compare and contrast unreleasable penalties with releasable penalties in the following sections.


Every sport has to have rules and there needs to be consequences to accompany those rules. Although the nature of these consequences differ from sport to sport, the overall premise remains the same. At the most basic level, unreleasable penalties and releasable penalties accomplish a uniform goal in lacrosse. They punish a team for breaking the rules.

Both types of penalties temporarily remove the player who committed the penalty from the game for a certain period of time. During this time suspension, the penalized team is said to be playing a man down because they are playing with nine players against ten players.

To learn more about the specifics of what man down means in lacrosse, click over to my article What Does Man Down Mean in Lacrosse (Definition & Examples)?

This one man disadvantage offers the other team an exceptional opportunity to score. This is because one defender is forced to cover two opponents at the same time, regardless of how the defense is set up. If the offense is able to identify this 2v1 matchup, it can be easily exploited for a goal.

Furthermore, both unreleasable penalties and releasable penalties send a penalized player to the penalty box for a specified period of time. The length of the time suspension is up to the officials to decide based on the severity of the foul.


Although unreleasable penalties and releasable penalties are related on a fundamental level, they do have their own little intricacies that set them apart from each other. The first glaring difference between these two types of penalties is how these penalties are released, hence the names unreleasable and releasable.

Players that are issued an unreleasable penalty must serve the entire time suspension issued to them by the officials. For instance, if the official states that the foul warrants a “1 minute, non-releasable penalty,” the player who committed the foul must remain in the penalty box for 1 minute of actual gameplay.

With releasable penalties, there is a chance that the penalized player may not have to serve out their entire time suspension. If the other team manages to score a goal while the other team is man down, the remaining time left on the penalty is waved off. The penalized player is free to re-enter the game and the penalized team is allowed to have ten players out on the field once again.

Players that are issued an unreleasable penalty have no such luxury. They’re stuck in the penalty box, regardless of whether or not the other team scores.

In addition, unreleasable penalties are only reserved more severe kinds of penalties, like personal fouls. As a result, the time length for these penalties are longer, lasting anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes depending on the severity of the violation. Releasable penalties are only issued for minor infractions, like technical fouls. The standard time length for releasable penalties is 30 seconds.

Examples of Unreleasable Penalties

Outlined below is an extensive list of common unreleasable penalties (source).

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

Examples of Releasable Penalties

Outlined below is an extensive list of common releasable penalties (source).

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

How Unreleasable Penalties Can Have a Serious Impact on the Game

Many incoming lacrosse players fail to realize the importance of unreleasable penalties and the dramatic effect it can have on the outcome of a game.

Chances are that most opposing offenses will take advantage of incidental penalties made by the other team when given the chance. To give you some perspective, the Syracuse D1 men’s lacrosse team ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of man up scoring percentage in 2020 at 25th. Their man up scoring percentage was 41.7% (source). If an opposing team committed three penalties against Syracuse, the numbers indicate that Syracuse had a strong likelihood of coming away with at least one goal.

Keep in mind that this was merely the average. D1 collegiate teams in the top ten for man up scoring percentage were likely to score at least once if their opponent committed a mere two penalties!

I know that many of you are not playing at the collegiate level at the moment, but these same ideas translate to all tiers of lacrosse. Teams that have a tendency to rack up unnecessary penalties each and every outing are statistically more likely to lose. It’s difficult to hold a lead when you’re playing man down for a significant portion of the game.

It is also important to note that unreleasable penalties have far more cause for concern than releasable penalties.

With releasable penalties, the worst that the other team can do is score one measly goal and the penalty will be released. Opponents can deal a lot more damage with unreleasable penalties because they can pile up on the goals and still preserve their man up advantage.

For example, if a team is issued a 3 minute, non-releasable penalty, it is not far-fetched to say that a solid opponent could score three goals within this timeframe. In lacrosse, teams cannot afford to let up a three goal swing to their opponent. The results are simply too catastrophic.

So although lacrosse coaches constantly preach to their team to play smart and avoid unnecessary penalties, new players do not fully understand the magnitude of this advice. Really, all it takes is one ill-advised play to completely shift the momentum of a lacrosse game.

How Often Do Unreleasable Penalties Happen?

Many new lacrosse players are surprised to find that unreleasable penalties happen virtually every game. Of course, more disciplined teams commit fewer unreleasable penalties, but even these teams are guilty of making mistakes every once in a while.

With the overwhelming amount of contact in lacrosse, there are bound to a few instances where the rules governing contact are violated. Most of these violations are done incidentally, not deliberately.

For example, it’s not uncommon for a player to accidentally trip an opponent when fighting for a loose ball. With all of the commotion around, it’s hard to imagine that every single player on the field will be able to avoid all of the different lacrosse sticks vying for the ball.

So if you find yourself committing an unreleasable penalty during the game, don’t sweat it. Mistakes like these happen all the time. As long as you don’t make a habit of it, your coach and your teammates will understand.

Can Multiple Players from the Same Team Serve Unreleasable Penalties at the Same Time?

In addition, newer lacrosse players question the prospect of multiple unreleasable penalties. Although rare, it is possible for a team to serve multiple unreleasable penalties at the same time.

In fact, a lacrosse team can have as many as three players in the penalty box at a single time (source). Any more penalties after that and the penalty time compounds rather than crowding the penalty box with more players. The lacrosse rules committee had to cut off the amount of players in the box at some point to prevent the possibility of a sole goalkeeper being put into a 1v6 scenario.

I couldn’t imagine being a goalkeeper in that scenario. If I were them, I would quit the sport outright!

Guaranteeing that at least four defenders will be on the field (including the goalie) helps to keep the integrity of the game intact while minimizing the potential risk for injury. To reiterate, it’s extremely rare for a team to be in a position where they’re more than one man down. Personally, I’ve only ever witnessed a team play two men down.

Final Thoughts

Unreleasable penalties are definitely something that you should avoid in the game of lacrosse. Your coach and your teammates will be none too happy if you make a habit of finding yourself in the penalty box every game. Knowing the serious implications of unreleasable penalties not only motivates you to stay out of the penalty box, it also helps to pave the way for a safer sport. So play hard, but play smart!

Sources: 1 2 3

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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