face masking football

What Is a Face Masking Penalty In Football?

Ever heard of a facemask penalty in football? Football, like most sports, is a game of rules. While it’s a contact sport, there are limitations on the contacts players can make. You’ll see players wearing face masks to protect their faces.

So, what is a facemask penalty in football? A facemask penalty is a foul when a player manipulates or grasps an opponent’s mask. According to NFL operations, no player shall grab, push, turn, twist, or pull an opponent’s mask in any direction.

Keep reading to learn more about the penalty, its history, signal, and results.

What Causes A Facemask Penalty In Football?

A facemask penalty in football is caused by players that twist, push, pull and grasp an opponent’s penalty to slow them.

A facemask penalty is given when players grab the mask. However, accidental contact with the mask is not penalized. If a player accidentally grabs an opponent’s mask, he must release it immediately.

Failure to release immediately results in a foul. And a facemask penalty is awarded.

In most cases, it’s up to the referee to decide whether the contact with a face mask is accidental or intentional. The referee will then decide it is enough to warrant a penalty.

Players will often grasp the cage in front of the penalty. However, pulling any part of the mask can lead to a facemask penalty.

In a few instances, wide receivers and running backs can touch a facemask when trying to run or evade a tackle. When such happens, a facemask penalty is not given.

The offending player has to wrap fingers around the mask to qualify the foul.

What Is The Result Of A Facemask Penalty?

The result for a facemask penalty is a 15-yard loss. The NFL rulebook states a loss of down if the offense commits the foul. When the defense commits the foul, the offense earns an automatic first down.

football player grabbing other player's facemask

 It can even get worse if the action is flagrantly leading to disqualification of the player. Take, for example, the offending player ripping the opponent’s mask or throwing him to the ground.

That is unsportsmanlike behavior and can have the player expelled from the game.

These rules were different in the past, where incidental grasping only got a 5-yard penalty. Intentional grasping is what got a 15-yard penalty. However, the NFL changed the rules in 2008, removing the judgment between intentional and incidental.

What Is The Facemask Penalty Signal?

The result for a facemask penalty from the referee is a fist with the right hand. The referee will raise a right-hand fist in the face and then show a downward pulling.

The downward pulling motion indicates a pull or grasp of the facemask, therefore a penalty.

What Is The History Of A Facemask Penalty

Facemask penalties are pretty new as there were no masks in the past. During the leather-helmet era, there were no fouls on facemasks. First, a face mask had to fit a football helmet.

Helmet structures had to be strong and rigid for face masks to fit. However, facemask penalties would start just after the first plastic helmet was designed in the 1950s. The NFL would then make facemask grabbing illegal in 1956.

The rules of facemask penalties have been changing. Nowadays, grabbing any part of the helmet is illegal and can lead to a 15-yard penalty.

When Was Facemask Invented

The history of facemasks can be traced back to the 1920s when players wore nose guards. This was the only means they would protect their faces. The nose guards were made of leather.

football player wearing helmet with facemask

In the 1930s, facemasks evolved and would cover the entire face. They only had holes for the nose and mouth.

However, football saw the first ever modern helmet from Riddel in 1953 for the Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham. He would then put a plastic cover in front after getting a knock on the teeth.

Riddel would then move to create the first helmet with a permanent shield on the front. However, the lucite material shattered upon impact. Transitions have occurred since to what we have today.

Examples of Facemask Penalty in NFL

There have been several facemask penalties in the NFL. In the year 2018, there was an average of 2.78 facemask penalties per team in the NFL.

A good example is when Saints punter Thomas committed an egregious facemask penalty and got a 15-yard penalty.

We also have Tee Higgins, who got lucky when the referee missed the facemask foul he committed before scoring a 75-yard touchdown.

Similar Penalties in NFL

There are several similar penalties in the NFL that involve wrong tackling of players. A good example is grabbing a player’s collar or shoulder pads and forcing them to the ground.

Such incidents are pretty similar to facemask penalties. They involve touching a player’s equipment to control their movement.

football referee looking at the players

Players can also illegally use their hands to cover an opponent’s face. Illegal blocking with hands will also hand you a 15-yard penalty.

Quarterbacks are highly protected in the NFL, and any contact on their head or facemask can also result in a penalty. This is the case, especially when they have not made a throw.

Is a Face Mask a Personal Foul?

A facemask penalty is a personal foul when you grab, pull, twist, or push an opponent’s helmet. However, the result is a 15-yard down for the offending team.

How Many Yards Is a Face Mask Penalty?

A facemask penalty is 15 yards lost for the team committing the foul. If the offense is flagrant, the player can also be disqualified.

What Is a Facemask Penalty in High School Football?

A facemask penalty in high school is 15 yards loss for intentional contact. However, the rule of incidental contact applies in high school, with the offending team getting a 5-yard penalty.


Facemask penalties are common in football and can occur on the offense or defense. Grabbing a player’s equipment in football is illegal. Grabbing a player’s helmet leads to a 15-yard penalty for the offending team. The rule helps protect players. 

If the offense is harsh, then a player can be punished further by expulsion.

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