What is a Facemask Penalty in Football?

what is a facemask penalty in football

Last updated on October 28th, 2023 at 10:39 am

A facemask penalty occurs when a player grasps, pulls, and or twists another player’s helmet to try and slow them down. The specific action of grabbing the facemask triggers the penalty. Incidental contact with the helmet is usually not penalized. However, it’s often left up to a referee’s discretion whether the contact is intentional or egregious enough to warrant a facemask penalty.


The “facemask” penalty is because the cage in front of the helmet is the most commonplace player’s grab to manipulate an opponent’s head. However, the penalty extends to grasping other helmet parts, including edges, ear holes, and padding.


Occasionally, running backs and wide receivers may make incidental contact with a defensive player’s helmet while trying to evade a tackle or implementing a stiff-arm deflection. Similarly, a defensive lineman might accidentally touch the facemask of an offensive player. A facemask penalty only occurs if the offending football player wraps their fingers around the mask, which would qualify as grasping the mask.


What About in High School or the NCAA?

In high school football, a player can get a facemask penalty by simply touching another player’s helmet. This frequent call is to keep younger players safe.


However, in college football, the NCAA follows similar rules to the NFL, requiring grasping and manipulating the helmet to trigger a penalty.


What is the Result of a Facemask Penalty?

what is the result of a facemask penalty

The NFL rulebook states that facemask penalties result in a 15-yard penalty. If the offense commits the penalty, this can also result in a loss of down. If a defender commits the foul, the offensive team can earn an automatic first down.


Suppose the officiating team thinks the penalty is particularly egregious, then the punishment is more severe. For example, the offending player rips off another player’s helmet or uses their grip on the facemask to throw the other player to the ground. In that case, the player may receive an expulsion from the game for unsportsmanlike conduct.


Before 2008, there used to be differing degrees of penalties given to offenders. Historically, if there were incidental grasping of the facemask, players would only get a 5-yard penalty, while intentional actions resulted in 15 yards. The league amended this ruling to remove judgment calls between “incidental grasping” and “intentional grasping.”


Conclusion About Facemask Penalties in Football

Facemask penalties are penalties that can occur by either the offense or defense on the field. In the NFL rulebook, it’s illegal to grab any part of the helmet to manipulate a player. This penalty results in a personal foul and an automatic 15-yard loss by the offending team. However, in egregious cases, it can cause expulsion or even fines for the player at fault.


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