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Fans new to football are first attracted to the nonstop, intense action. After that, they begin wondering about things like the field, the white lines drawn on it, the end zones, and of course those really tall yellow poles at either end of the field. What’s the story with the goalposts?
Football field goalposts are 18.5 feet wide for National Football League games, set on a crossbar 10 feet up off the ground. The upright poles reach at least 35 feet above the crossbar, which is right above parallel to the end line in the rear of the end zone.
Football goalpost dimensions differ somewhat for other American-style football organizations, which will be explained below. Goalposts are centered between the sidelines.
The width of goalposts in the NFL was set when the league began in 1920. The 18.5-foot width has never changed. Other elements of the goalposts, namely the base poles and the height of goalposts, have been adjusted over time.
For the uninitiated, goalposts in American-style football are the yellow tubular metal pipes set like upright wishbones at either end of the playing field. Some say in shape they look like wishbones; others might say they resemble a block version of the letter Y, like a tuning fork, or like a slingshot.
They are there for offensive teams in games to attempt to score points by kicking a football between the 2 upright posts, and over the horizontal crossbar. Basically, through the uprights.
Scoring through the uprights can either be a field goal kicked at any time by an offensive team, worth 3 points; or for an extra point immediately after a touchdown is scored, worth 1 point if successful.
The location of goalposts today is along the rear line of the end zone. So if a team is set to try a field goal from the 20 yard line, to estimate the official distance add 10 yards for the end zone (and then another 7 for the snap and placement of the ball before the kick). Field goals from the 20-yard line are officially 37-yarders.
The goalposts weren’t always located back there. In the original days, goalposts were wood planks and looked like a giant H, using supporting poles on either side of the crossbar.
Those poles initially were on the goal line. This means old football goalposts were in the field of play. In actuality, they became part of the game, used by both offenses and defenses to their advantage. Basically, teams could count on a pole always being there to get in the way of defenders.
The NFL was born in 1920, and 7 years later the league moved the goal posts to the rear of the end zone, only because that was required by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). However, in 1933 the NFL moved the uprights back to the goal line in an effort to increase the number of field goal tries, and also to avoid tie games.
Years later they were dropped a yard back into the end zone, to free play along the goal line.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the NFL introduced the now-classic wishbone, or Y, type of goalpost. These have a single base post, secured to the ground several feet behind the end zone and curving forward to hold the crossbar right over the very rear of the end zone.
In the old days, imagine not 1 but 2 posts sitting in the middle of play. Eventually they were padded, but it still didn’t prevent some fearsome collisions by players running at full speed ~ and not looking straight ahead.
Original NFL goalposts were made of wood, emulating the whitewashed wood goals for rugby ~ from which a lot of American-style football is derived. Original goalposts were squarish like wood planks, not the cylindrical modern style.
The old goalposts were considered part of the field so if a player got blocked out by one, so be it. Also, if a thrown pass struck a part of the goalpost design, it was ruled automatically as an incomplete pass.
Many quarterbacks struggled with the 10-foot-high crossbar when their team got close to the end zone. Basically, that bar was between him and receivers on the other side trying to score.
Goalposts are a little different in every level of American-style football. For instance, the width is the same for the NFL, the Canadian Football League (CFL), and NCAA college football. However, for high school football in the United States, goalposts sit on crossbars of 23 feet, 4 inches long ~ or nearly 5 feet wider than their pro and college counterparts.
Some fans may think college football goalposts are wider based on what we see on television. It’s an illusion: the upright posts in college are shorter in height than those in the NFL, making them the overall visual look wider (or makes the NFL goalposts appear more narrow.
In the National Football League, goalposts must reach straight up at least 35 feet above the crossbar, and often reach up to 40 feet. College football goalposts are only 20 feet higher than the crossbar (and still 10 feet off the ground, for 30 total feet in elevation).
Canadian Football League crossbars are the same at 18.5 feet wide; and CFL goalposts rise 40 feet up from the crossbar.
Today, all football goalposts are at the back of the end zone. However that was not always true in the NFL. That league did what baseball did in 1969 to boost scoring: In 1974 the NFL moved the goalposts back 10 yards to the rear of the end zone, to reduce the number of field goals (worth 3 points) with hopes for more touchdowns (worth 6 points, plus the right to kick a goal for another point, called the “point after.”)
The reason? The soccer-style kick, where the kicker begins at an angle and sweeps the foot from the side through the ball, made kickers much more accurate. Old-style football kickers approached the ball straight up and struck it with their toe tips; soccer style involves kicking the football with the inner-arch-side of the kicking foot.
In 1973, with goalposts just behind the goal line, and in play, an all-time NFL record of 543 field goals were kicked successfully ~ amounting to 23% of scoring in games.
Once the goalposts were pushed back to the end line in 1974, scoring by kickers rell to 15% of all scoring.
Question: What happens if a kick hits the crossbar at the bottom?
Answer: It depends on where the ball bounces. If it bounces up and over the crossbar, into the end zone side, the kick is good. If the ball bounces the other way, back toward the kicking team, and falls without traveling up and over the crossbar, the kick fails.
Q.: Why are goalposts yellow?
A.: To help both players and referees see them. Mainly it’s to help referees make the sometimes tough judgment of which side of the pole a football traveled. Originally goalposts were white, like those in rugby.
Q.: Why are goalposts always 18.5 feet wide? (Except in high school)
A.: The width comes directly from rugby. Only, in the early days of American college and pro football, the uprights themselves were much shorter than the 52-foot-tall uprights of rugby fields. Original football goalposts were 10 feet high, and were raised over the years to today’s 35-foot minimum.