From holding to head-butting: Here are the most and least common penalties in sports

Orlovsky implores NFL owners to fix officiating 'epidemic' (1:24)

Dan Orlovsky expresses disappointment in the officiating in the NFL this season, saying owners should take action now to resolve the issue. (1:24)

If you look up "NFL referees" on social media, be prepared for some very unhappy messages directed at the guys in black-and-white stripes.

Recently, there has been much focus on NFL referees after a handful of blown calls during the most recent Monday Night Football game, including two illegal use of hand calls and one unnecessary roughing call that some think cost the Detroit Lions the game against the Green Bay Packers.

But illegal use of hands and unnecessary roughness are not the most commonly called penalties in the NFL since the 2014 season. That distinction belongs to offensive holding.

From the 2014 season into the current 2019 season, a total of 22,137 flags were thrown in the NFL, and unsurprisingly, 20.7% (4,579) of those flags were for offensive holding. That makes offensive holding far and away the most popular call since 2014.

The only other penalty that made up a double-digit percentage of penalties was false start, at 13.7% (3,043). Don't worry: Defensive holding is there, too -- how many times has an interception return been called back because of holding in the back? -- and ranks third overall at 7.8% (1,737).

Huge thanks to ESPN's very own Stats & Information for digging deep and figuring out some of the most and least called fouls and penalties across the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS.


Unnecessary roughness is the fifth-most commonly thrown flag since 2014, at 5.5%, or 1,226 total calls.

The number of unnecessary roughness penalties called each season since 2014 has been steady, usually hovering in the low 200s. Keep in mind there are 256 regular-season NFL games each season.

For example, in the 256 regular-season games in the 2018 season, there were 231 unnecessary roughness flags thrown -- or an average of close to one flag per game.

So far in the 2019 season, there have been 92 games played and 62 unnecessary roughness flags thrown, which is an average of about 0.7 flags per game. At this rate, there will be 173 unnecessary roughness flags thrown -- significantly fewer than the seasonal average of 233 from 2014 through 2018.

And illegal use of hands to the face? The eighth-most popular call since 2014 has just 822 calls (3.7%). Sixty-two of those calls have already come in 2019. In 2018, there were 89 calls for illegal use of hands to the face, which means players, coaches and fans might have something to groan about.

Going further, there are the generic flags the football world is used to hearing called, but have you ever heard of illegal bat? It has been committed just four times since 2014 -- once each season from 2016-2018, and most recently this season in Week 7's Saints-Bears matchup. Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook defines an illegal bat as an instance in which "any player bats or punches a loose ball (that has touched the ground) in any direction if it is in either end zone."

The penalty was famously missed during a 2015 Monday Night Football game, and the outcome of the game in which the Seattle Seahawks beat the Detroit Lions was actually impacted by the missed call.

There's also an illegal wedge, which has been called just three times: in 2014, 2018 and 2019. According to the NFL Competition Committee, an illegal wedge occurs when three or more players are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder within 2 yards of one another.

Because there are so many penalties in the NFL, offensive holding and false start are the only penalties that make up a double-digit percentage of total penalties called.

How often does a player throw up his arms demanding pass interference be thrown on the defensive player hanging -- or not hanging -- all over him?

As it turns out, fans and players might have a valid argument that it is called too much.

Defensive pass interference is the fourth-most commonly thrown flag -- 1,465 of them have been tossed -- since 2014, making up 6.6% of calls.

In 92 games so far in 2019, 94 defensive pass interference flags have been thrown. That's an average of more than one flag per game, so if this pattern holds over 256 games, there could be as many as, if not more than, 261 defensive pass interference calls.

This might seem like a lot, but it's not. Here's how many defensive pass interference flags were thrown in the past full five seasons:

  • 2014: 235

  • 2015: 259

  • 2016: 309

  • 2017: 303

  • 2018: 265

Offensive pass interference is also one of those throw-your-arms-up-in-anger calls.

Since 2014 however, it was the 11th-most thrown flag, as 695 times.

Some other fun penalties include:

  • Clipping (32)

  • Illegal crackback (18)

  • Invalid fair catch signal (11)

  • Kickoff out of bounds (1)

  • Short free kick (1)

  • Illegal peelback (1)


Ever watched a game and felt like every other sound you heard while a player was driving to the basket was a whistle?

Let's look at the data.

The past five seasons, there have been more than 517,000 drives in the NBA, but relatively few of them have resulted in any type of foul:

  • 11,821 (2.28%) have resulted in a non-shooting foul.

  • 45,474 (8.78%) have resulted in a shooting foul.

  • 100 (.019%) have resulted in a flagrant foul.

  • 17 (.0033%) have resulted in a foul away from the ball.

What about shooting fouls? We can all name a basketball player or two who loves to lean in a bit to draw a foul when shooting *cough cough James Harden cough cough*. (ESPN reported in May that Harden is the all-time leader in 3-point shooting fouls drawn.)

It turns out that over the past five seasons, just 7.9% of the more than 1.2 million shots taken resulted in a shooting foul.

But perhaps the most interesting foul in the NBA is the technical foul because they usually spark quite a reaction from penalized players. The 2015-16 season was a wild one for the league. There were 723 technical fouls handed out.

Russell Westbrook, then with the Oklahoma City Thunder and now with the Houston Rockets, led the league in technicals that season, with 17. Markieff Morris, DeMarcus Cousins and Draymond Green followed with 15 each.

The following season saw 630 technical fouls, and 2014-15, 2017-18 and 2018-19 each saw fewer than 500.


Honestly, hockey is a game in which penalties almost make it more fun to watch, whether they lead to a power play or a fight breaking out.

But since 2010, there have been 85,109 penalties, which isn't a lot when you compare to how many teams and how many players there are in the NHL. Plus, this number is definitely low when you think about how intense hockey games get.

The two most popular penalties are tripping (11,722, 13.8%) and hooking (11,585, 13.6%). Makes sense, right?

No other penalty makes up a double-digit percentage.

But guess what? There have been four head-butting (no definition needed) calls since 2010, and that is seen as a pretty major penalty in the NHL.

In the 2015 Stanley Cup, Chicago Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw head-butted the puck into the net, but it was disallowed.

"Yeah, I understand, but I think if anyone can ever pull that off, it should still be a goal," Shaw said afterward.

Another interesting penalty is butt-ending. According to the rule book, butt-ending occurs when a player "uses the shaft of the stick, above the upper hand, to check an opposing player in any manner or jabs or attempts to jab an opposing player with this part of the stick."

In November 2017, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot, then with the Winnipeg Jets, was fined $3,763 by the NHL for butt-ending forward Corey Perry, then with the Anaheim Ducks, in the jaw.


One of the biggest complaints about soccer is that everyone flops too much.

But do they?

The past five seasons, there have been a total of 1,826 yellow or red cards given.

And one of them was for entering the field!

The most popular cards given were time-wasting yellow cards, with 448 handed out, or about 25% of penalties. Dissent -- or arguing with the referee -- was the second-most popular penalty, with 438 handed out.

Red cards are rare. There were 187 red cards -- 10% of the total -- given out the past five MLS seasons. Most of them were for fighting, at 113. But there were 10 handball red cards and 10 abusive language red cards, with the rest (54) being professional foul red cards.