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I know that a raised arm wave signals a fair catch. But I can imagine gunners and such sometimes will be in the midst of fighting through blocks or at least have someone blocking their vision for a couple of seconds. Or at the least need to be focusing on what's happening around them rather than looking way down the field early in the punt/kickoff.

How do players become aware of the fair catch? Is there some officiating signal? Or do teammates yell something out to aid one another? Or is this just somehow not normally an issue? It seems players these days rarely hit someone who has called fair catch, or instead hang back too much when it's not... so I have to think there's something. I know officiating made sure to push a full fair catch signal, giving players a little extra chance, but is there anything more to help?

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This is normally not the issue. I'd imagine part of gunners' responsibility is to look at the returner and see if they wave their hand above their head to signal a fair catch.

The returners also don't signal till the ball hits its flight apex, so they can judge where it can land. So the gunners have plenty of time to get close to the returner to see it.

From the NFL Rulebook's:

Rule 10. Opportunity to Catch a Kick, Fair Catch

SECTION 1 - OPPORTUNITY TO CATCH A KICK

ARTICLE 1. INTERFERENCE

During a scrimmage kick that crosses the line of scrimmage, or during a free kick, members of the kicking team are prohibited from interfering with any receiver making an attempt to catch the airborne kick, or from obstructing or hindering his path to the airborne kick, and regardless of whether any signal was given.

ARTICLE 3: RESTRICTIONS

...

C) If a receiver has made a fair catch, an opponent is prohibited from blocking or tackling him, or causing a passive player of either team to contact him. Incidental contact is not a foul.

Furthermore:

Penalty: For illegal contact with a player who has made a fair catch: Loss of 15 yards from the dead-ball spot and disqualification if flagrant.

So it's the kicking team's players' job - gunners - to avoid contacting the receiver. Regardless of signaling a fair catch, the receiver cannot be hit prior to the arrival of the ball. But If the fair catch is signaled, then the receiver can't be hit once the reception is made.

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  • Yup, it's 100% the coverage team's responsibility to see a fair catch signal by the returner. Very rarely, you'll get some controversy over whether a proper fair catch signal was given, but if the officials think it was given, then it's considered signaled.
    – pboss3010
    Dec 21 '21 at 18:39
  • 1
    This makes logical sense, but I have to downvote; it's just your supposition, and not something from either your personal expertise nor documented in the rules or official commentary. A good answer to a question of this nature needs to contain one of those.
    – Joe
    Dec 23 '21 at 20:28
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    @Joe & Nij see the edit
    – alamoot
    Dec 24 '21 at 2:56

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