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NFL's restrictions on unique facemasks rub defenders the wrong way

Justin Tuck and Chris Canty have beaten the system when it comes to the NFL's facemask rules. Justin Tuck (left) and Chris Canty have beaten the system when it comes to the NFL's facemask rules. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The NFL has done what many offensive linemen have failed to do over the years -- find a way to block Robert Mathis and Brian Orakpo. Mathis, the Indiapolis Colts’ longtime defensive end/outside linebacker, and Orakpo, in his fifth season with the Washington Redskins, have each been prohibited from wearing customized facemasks that fall outside the league’s preferences. Last Friday, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an e-mail to NFL.com and the NFL Network that Mathis’ grill "was considered a prohibited non-standard customized facemask."

“I have to make a switch just for the time being, after all that work,” Orakpo told the Washington Post of his grill, which features a cage-like facemask and eye visor. “The league is funny about trying to alter stuff. We’re still trying to fight it.”

The NFL has said that players can wear customized facemasks if they have a legitimate medical reason for doing so. New York Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck and Chris Canty of the Baltimore Ravens have each reportedly received that clearance -- Canty because of an eye injury he suffered in 2005, and Tuck because he’s recovering from a neck injury and doesn’t want opponents yanking his facemask and aggravating it.

Canty’s injury happened while he was trying to leave a bar as a fight he wasn’t involved in broke out before the 2005 draft. One of the people involved in the fight threw a beer bottle at Canty, and he suffered a detached retina. Now, he has a Facebook page for his custom equiment.

"I invented it," Canty recently told the Baltimore Sun. "It's that simple. I can't play without it.  I can't help it that other guys think it's cool and they want to wear it, too. It's a necessity for me."

Beyond a few e-mails to media sources, the NFL has not explained why it will not allow certain facemasks, and it doesn’t appear that there was a known medical exemption requirement to date. Count Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware among those whose headgear has been disallowed.

Orakpo brings up a good point that a league seemingly insistent on player safety has a strange response to facemasks that could protect players.

“It’s kind of tough. Obviously it’s different. And it does have a sort of look appeal to it. But it’s also for protection as well. We’re supposed to be all about protection and we get denied for something that benefits us. It’s something that’s kind of disheartening.”

In the meantime, it’s back to the drawing board -- and time to come up with a doctor’s note.

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