Yellow Card

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In response to the rope-a-dope post, I received a clever email response couched in other sports analogies. I understood all but one: “yellow card.”

Naturally, I hopped on the search engine to find out what sport that referred to. I discovered that in the sport of soccer, colored cards are held up by the referee when a player commits a foul. The color of the card indicates the nature of the penalty appropriate to the type of foul that has been committed. One of the cards is yellow.

A soccer player who receives a red card or a black card is sent off the field. A player who is shown a yellow card continues to play, but has been cautioned that he’d better pay attention to his behavior.

Now I understand a blog headline that previously left me puzzled:


The blogger had survived a heart attack.

The symbolism of soccer’s colored penalty cards has spread to other endeavors:

  • London police are handing out soccer-style yellow cards to aggressive drinkers, banning them for 48 hours from their preferred drinking spots.
  • In New York City, a comedian dressed like a soccer referee has been handing out red cards to pedestrians guilty of such transgressions as wearing the wrong shoes or taking selfies in inappropriate places.
  • A female journalist has started a “red/yellow card project” to address harassment issues. She has designed cards that professional women can hand out to men who treat them inappropriately at conventions or in the workplace. The red card informs the recipient that he has done something “wildly inappropriate” and he’s lucky he got a card “and not a punch in the face.” The language on the yellow card is less confrontational:

If you have received this card, you have done something mildly inappropriate to the person who handed this to you. Your intentions might have been good, but before future engagement make sure that you are being respectful and mindful of people’s boundaries.

To a reader who understands the reference, to be told that someone was “shown the yellow card” is illuminating. For the reader who doesn’t know the expression, or the reader who is familiar with it in a different context, it’s another sports analogy that could be more confusing than enlightening.

Other contexts in which “yellow card” is or has been used:

Yellowcard, an American alternative rock band.

Yellow Card Scheme, a UK initiative concerning reactions to medicines.

Carte Jaune (Yellow Card), a vaccination certificate issued by the World Health Organization.

Yellow Card, nickname for the IBM System/370 Reference Summary booklet in the 1970s.

Correction and Clarification Update:
As the comments below point out, black cards are not used in soccer. (The card descriptions in this post are based on the rules for Gaelic football.) The most pertinent information to take away is that when the term “yellow card” is used figuratively, it signifies a warning. On a secondary level, this post can serve to illustrate the fact that for some readers, sports analogies can be a source of confusion. The post can also serve as “a yellow card” to writers to take great care when researching a topic they know absolutely nothing about.

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9 thoughts on “Yellow Card”

  1. Hello,

    Just a note to say that there no black cards in football (soccer) just the red and yellow. Fouls don’t necessarily result in a card (or there would be no players on the pitch after ten minutes), the cards are for more serious offences. Two yellow cards result in a red card but if the offence is deemed exceptional it can be a straight red and straight off the pitch for the player.

  2. I agree with Hazel. I would only add that a foul usually results in a stoppage of play and the team that was fouled gets possession of the ball at the point of the foul. If the foul was flagrant, either a Red or a Yellow Card may be issued according to the discretion of the referee.

    A particular violent first offense (during that match) may result in an immediate Red Card and the player is sent off (ejected). But often a first serious offense will result in a Yellow Card. This is considered a warning that another such offense will result in a Red Card and ejection.

    The example of the man who experienced a heart attack and viewed it as a Yellow Card is instructive. He realized that if he didn’t change his lifestyle he would eventually get a Red Card and be sent off (die).

  3. Hazel,
    As I am soccer-illiterate, I didn’t know that the different associations have different rules. The black card is described in the Gaelic Football Rules.

  4. The black card is no longer used, only red and yellow; and yes, 2 yellow = 1 red.
    But the DRT is right, ‘yellow card’ means a severe and stern warning.

  5. Hi, I’m a referee instructor and a big fan of your site.

    The yellow and red cards were the creation of a fine British referee, Ken Aston. The way in which they are used in soccer/football is for what is defined as Misconduct. It’s a part of the Laws of the Game, Law 12, Fouls and Misconduct. Basically there are 7 situations in which a player, substitute, or substituted player may be shown a yellow card (caution) or a red card (send off). It is the referee’s discretion. Also, only the above mention players are shown the cards. To show one to a coach or spectator would be incorrect, per the FIFA Laws of the Game.

  6. Maeve! Gaelic football and soccer are completely different games, for goodness sake! In Gaelic you can actually pick up the ball and run with it, just like in real football (oops, sorry). Of course as an American there is no reason you should know any of these things. I rarely admit that I do, even a little. It just seems unpatriotic, LOL. Leave the soccer and cricket analogies to the Brits.

    Carte Jaune does seem like an odd choice for certificates of vaccination, given that vaccinations are generally good things, I assume, while everything yellow associated with health is bad: jaundice, yellow fever, yellow teeth, etc.

  7. Venqax,
    I can only offer abject apologies to all soccer fans and, as you advise, stay away from sports terminology in future.(All, not just British!) I now know two things for certain: There’s no crying in baseball, and there are no black flags in soccer.

  8. Thanks for the encouragement to chip in (and there we go again).

    And thanks for closing the year so amusingly and informatively. You’re in a league of your own.

  9. Maeve, if you’re also football-illiterate, “throwing a flag” is a similar expression to “yellow card” that you might also come across.

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