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What does It Mean to "Take a Knee"?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most commonly, to "take a knee" refers to a play in American football. Also called the quarterback kneel, genuflect offense or victory formation, the maneuver results in the running out of the clock, thereby increasing the odds of victory for the leading team. The phrase also can refer to a gesture of respect teams occasionally use when someone on the playing field is hurt, and in some cases, it is defined as a disciplinary action a coach enforces during a game. In popular culture, it can mean to skip out on an event, kneel in prayer or propose marriage.

Running Out the Clock

In American football, one team may hold a very slim point lead over its opponent during the final seconds of the game, or the score might be tied. If that team has possession of the ball, the coach may order the quarterback to take a knee, meaning that he should immediately drop to one knee on the ground after receiving the snap. In most cases, running backs position themselves on either side of the quarterback to protect him and, if necessary, recover possession of the ball after a fumble. A fourth member of the team sets up behind the quarterback and tackles any defensive player that might recover and run with a lost ball. The play clock continues to run after the quarterback goes down on one knee, so the leading team can simply allow the time to run out without executing a single additional play.

Typically, in order to complete this maneuver, the leading team sacrifices a yard and uses a down. Many fans don't like to see it done because they feel it is too boring and that the players should really play instead of just running out the clock. Even so, it has multiple advantages, the main one being that the risk of fumbling the ball isn't as high, which reduces the chances that the opposing team will gain possession of the ball and have a chance to score, often preserving a victory. It can drive a game into overtime, providing a later chance for a clean win. It is also a tool coaches can use when someone on the field is hurt, because it reduces the amount of time available left to carry out additional plays that can result in further injury.

Although this technique is accepted in American football, it is not okay in other leagues around the world. Most notably, Arena and Canadian football do not allow it. Their rules indicate that the final moments of the game have to involve a play or the gaining of yards.


Teams sometimes resort to the victory formation when the margin of victory is high or there are other circumstances that make the game seem lopsided. They run out the clock as a way of showing respect and ending the opposing team's humiliation. Some people associate the play with good sportsmanship for this reason.

In general, when a team uses this play, the opposing team is supposed to concede defeat, but this doesn't always happen. If there is still a minor chance of scoring and winning, some teams actively try to regain possession of the ball, occasionally resulting in a comeback victory. Some coaches and fans feel that this type of offense teaches that winning is more important than respecting protocol and that humiliating the other team is fine, but others think the practice doesn't violate the ethics of sportsmanship, given that part of being a good team is not giving up and putting effort in right until the very end.

When a player is down on the field and the risk of serious injury is high, a coach might instruct all players on his team to take a knee — this is not related to a play. This is mainly a tradition from pee-wee leagues, as team leaders needed a way to keep players under control as medical personnel provided care, but the tradition is still common through the high school level as a sign of respect for the injured player. At the college and professional levels, it is fairly rare, because most coaches expect players to keep their cool and be considerate without kneeling.


Sometimes, a player on a soccer or American football team commits an unnecessary foul on the field or otherwise fails to meet his or her coach's expectations. As a disciplinary action, the coach might order him to take a knee, forcing him to leave the playing field immediately and to kneel in a conspicuous spot along the sidelines. This exercise in public humiliation is supposed to inspire a player to become more focused or team-oriented once the punishment has been lifted.

Comfort During General Address

Coaches occasionally want to address all their players, or at least the starting line-up, at the same time. They might ask the entire team to take a knee, which is a way of requesting that players assume a more comfortable kneeling position during the meeting. The objective here is not to humiliate or intimidate, but rather to allow everyone an opportunity to view the coach, read a chart or rest before resuming play.

Popular Use Outside Sports

Even though people most often use this expression in sports, individuals also use it in pop culture to describe someone who is trying to get out of an unpopular project or potentially embarrassing activity. A person may decide to take a knee instead of attending a lengthy award ceremony or company dinner, for example, or he might skip going to the gym with friends if he knows he's out of shape. A closely related phrase is "sitting it out," although this connotes not being ready or just needing a break more than being unwilling or afraid of feeling ashamed.

A person also can use "take a knee" to indicate they are going to kneel and pray, or to tell someone else to do so. This comes in part from the traditional belief in most religions and governments that the head of the god or ruler should always be above the head of the "common" person. The practice is quite familiar in religious institutions, but it can be somewhat controversial when done by someone outside of a faith-based group. Football player Tim Tebow, for example, sparked a furious debate with his habit of kneeling in prayer after each touchdown he completed. Some people now use his form of the gesture, or "Tebow," out of context in secular activities, which has angered many Christians.

More rarely, an individual will use "take a knee" in reference to the romantic gesture of proposing marriage. Traditionally, when someone asks a partner to be a wife or husband, he or she drops to one knee. The gesture signifies commitment, and to some degree, submission, to the partner.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon1003517 — On Jul 11, 2020

I've seen it on TV in locker rooms where the coach tells the team to take a knee when he is explaining something. I don't know anything about sports, but I may recall seeing it on the football field as the article says, to run out the clock. I see how it is usually not a sign of disrespect. I don't see any problem with taking a knee when the national anthem is being played for whatever reason a person may want to.

By anon305057 — On Nov 24, 2012

Does taking a knee to end a game count as a sack for the quarterback?

By anon293025 — On Sep 23, 2012

I was at a JV football game this past Saturday in New Philadelphia, Ohio. There was an injured player on the opposing team. The opposing team knelt for the player but the other team did not.

I went up to that coach and asked him why his team did not and his reply was that is not what we do. I again asked him why, and I told him that it would show the injured player some respect but he walked away from me. It is a shame that a coach who is in a great position to teach kids is too self-centered to teach them a life long lesson about respect and compassion for others. That shows you it is all about the win.

By anon263835 — On Apr 25, 2012

Good work. I looked up the expression "to take a knee" after seeing an auto ad using it. I knew about the quarterback taking a knee, but in the ad it appears to be used incorrectly.

By anon263750 — On Apr 25, 2012

When I was playing baseball, when a player would get hurt during the game everyone on the field would take a knee to show respect to that player while their injuries were looked at and then the game would resume.

By musicshaman — On Jan 02, 2011

Ah. So many of my dad's sayings make much more sense now. I remember a few years ago he was undergoing knee rehabilitation for chronic pain in his knees, and he kept continually making puns about taking a knee, and about how he would love to take a knee, etc.

I always just thought it was his bizarre sense of humor, but who knew, he was actually playing on a metaphor. The things you learn every day.

By Charlie89 — On Dec 30, 2010

Ha! I remember my coach always making players take a knee after a particularly bone-headed move. It's strange, but it really does have a huge effect on your psyche.

I remember one time after I made a really stupid mistake (it's too embarrassing to go into) my coach made me take a knee for the rest of the game, and I can tell you, that is the worst.

You're already embarrassed by whatever dumb thing you've done, and then to be put on display like that in front of other people is just horrible. I know some players who found it really inspirational though. They said that when they had to take a knee, it was almost like a meditation time for them, when they focussed on improving their game.

I never got that much out of it, but then again, I wasn't all that into the game anyway -- at least not as much as some of the other guys.

Did you guys every find inspiration while taking a knee?

By TunaLine — On Dec 28, 2010

How interesting. I had never heard of that expression before, but I'm glad I know what it stands for now. Now I can actually look like I know what I'm talking about with my sports friends!

But I'm a little bit confused. Why would someone call getting out of a bad blind date taking a knee? Maybe I don't quite understand the metaphor yet, but in the sports instance, doesn't it have to do with running out the clock? How does taking a knee regarding a blind date fit into that?

Sorry, I am like the least sports-minded person ever, so I am probably missing something super obvious here...thanks!

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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