In American football, an unfair act is a foul that can be called when a player or team commits a flagrant and obviously illegal act that has a major impact on the game.
All of the major American football codes include some form of unfair act rule. In all cases, the definition is deliberately vague, giving the officials great latitude in defining such an act and enforcing penalties for such acts. At the high school level, officials are free to assess any penalty they see fit, up to and including forfeiture of the game. The National Federation of State High School Associations, however, also includes the general rule that all acts are legal unless otherwise explicitly stated; thus, the unfair act rule is only invoked in cases when specific rules have clearly been broken, but the penalty for the foul itself would still be less than the result of the play had the unfair act not occurred.
The National Football League defines two types of unfair acts, a palpably unfair act and an extraordinarily unfair act. The latter is for acts so extraordinary that the NFL Commissioner can levy fines, require the offending team surrender draft picks, and suspend players. The Commissioner could also theoretically reverse the game results, but this has never occurred under the unfair act clause or any other clause.
The 1954 Cotton Bowl Classic featured a notorious use of the rule. Rice University's Dicky Moegle broke free for an apparent touchdown run, but Alabama's Tommy Lewis entered the field and tackled Moegle. This would be illegal participation, for which the penalty then was 5 yards. However, the officials declared a palpably unfair act and credited the touchdown anyway. Modern college and NFL officials are explicitly permitted to award a touchdown under such circumstances.
The NFL's rule on deliberate fouls is open-ended but covers only "successive or repeated fouls to prevent a score." It would only be a palpably unfair act for the defense to commit deliberate fouls, preferring the certainty of a small penalty over the uncertainty of a score attempt, if the defense did so again after an official's warning. On November 6, 2016, near the end of the first half, the San Francisco 49ers deliberately held pass receivers, forcing the New Orleans Saints to settle for a short field goal. The NFL instructed its officials that this would be a palpably unfair act subject to a 15-yard penalty if repeated. On November 27, 2016, the Baltimore Ravens took a safety, conceding 2 points of their 7-point lead. They committed numerous holding penalties to ensure that they could exhaust the final 11 seconds of the game. This was not a palpably unfair act because it did not recur (and was not done "to prevent a score" but in fact while conceding points). Beginning in the 2017 NFL season, deliberately committing fouls to manipulate the game clock was classified as unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Snowplow Game on December 12, 1982 had only one score, a field goal during a snowstorm by the hosting New England Patriots. Before the score, the grounds crew plowed a special path for the placekicker to make the kick easier. The game officials allowed this act, but Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula protested to Commissioner Pete Rozelle that it constituted an unfair act and thus could be overturned. Rozelle, although he agreed the act was unfair and could in theory be punished, refused on principle to ever overturn a game result.
The high school rulebook specifies one situation to be penalized as an unfair act: when the defensive team makes repeated fouls near its own goal line, for which the regular penalty (advancing the ball half the distance to the goal) is trivial.
- Watkins, Ed (January 2, 1954). "Rice beats Alabama 28–6, Moegle is Star". The Tuscaloosa News. p. 1. Retrieved January 3, 2011.
- The definition in the 2016 NFL Rulebook is within Rule 12, Section 3 ("Unsportsmanlike Conduct"). Article 2 addresses "successive or repeated fouls" and Article 3 addresses unfairly interfering with play.
- Kevin Seifert (2016-10-18). "How the NFL prevents teams from using penalties to win games". ESPN. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
- Matt Maiocco (2016-11-15). "NFL Acts Against 49ers' Holding Strategy". NBC. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
- Brian Tinsman (2016-11-27). "Ravens' Take Safety Play Wasn't a 'Palpably Unfair Act'". CBS. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
- Patra, Kevin (March 28, 2017). "NFL passes no leaping rule, approves ban for head hits". NFL.com. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
- "NFL Top 10: Bad Weather Games", produced by NFL Network