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2 things about the ‘facemask’ rule you probably don’t know

Sometimes what might not look like a ‘facemask’ foul is, in fact, a foul.

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks
Grasping and turning the face mask like this is a foul at any level of football.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve seen it 100 times. A player with the ball reaches out and stiff arms a defender right in the facemask. Good move giving him the Heisman!

While that may not be a foul, don’t be surprised if a “facemask” foul is called, because the runner very well may have committed a violation.

At every level of football, what’s bad for the defense is bad for the offense — all it takes is a little twist, and that runner’s run can end very quickly — and with a 15-yard penalty headed backward.

‘Facemask’ rules cover all helmet openings

What is little-known is that football’s “facemask” rules in high school, college and the NFL don’t just cover contact to the facemask, but to any opening in the helmet. That could be grasping the ear hole, the back of the helmet or the chin strap. Turning the helmet by grasping any of those openings is an expensive personal foul.

Why? Because it’s super dangerous, and in paving a path to the future for the sport, safety is key.

High school bans virtually all facemask contact

The National Federation of High School Associations (whose rules book is used in every state but Texas, which applies the NCAA rules book) makes it illegal to “grasp,” “turn” or “pull” the facemask or any helmet opening of an opponent. The penalty is 15 yards. If the contact is “incidental,” it’s a foul that draws a 5-yard penalty.

Just like high school, any college player — runner, linebacker, safety — who manipulates or controls the facemask or helmet opening of an opponent has committed a foul. That’s covered in Rule 9.1.8:

“No player shall grasp and then twist, turn or pull the facemask, chin strap or any helmet opening of an opponent.”

In the NCAA and NFL, twisting and turning is key

Unlike the high school rules, the NCAA rules book does allow brief or incidental contact to the facemask that does not include twisting or turning. The NCAA rule makes clear that simple grasping is not sufficient to draw a penalty — there has to be more than just fingers to the facemask:

“It is not a foul if the facemask, chin strap or helmet opening is not grasped and then twisted, turned or pulled.”

The NFL’s rule is nearly identical to the NCAA and is covered in rule 12.2.14:

“No player shall grasp and control, twist, turn, push, or pull the facemask of an opponent in any direction.”

Like the NCAA, the NFL adds a clarification to make it clear that brief contact is not illegal:

“Note: If a player grasps an opponent’s facemask, he must immediately release it. If he does not immediately release it and controls his opponent, it is a foul.”

That foul is 15 yards, and if it’s by the defense, it draws an automatic first down.

While the language may be different from level to level, the end result is the same. If a player grasps and twists a player’s helmet via facemask or another opening, it’s a foul that draws a 15-yard penalty.

In only high school football, “incidental” contact to the facemask draws a 5-yard penalty.