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.