Holding (American football)
In gridiron football, holding is the illegal restraining of another player who is not in possession of the ball. Holding is banned in most football leagues because it does not allow fair play of the game and increases the risk for injury.
While in the field of play, offensive holding results in a 10-yard penalty, or half the distance to the goal line when there are fewer than 20 yards between the line of scrimmage and the offense's end zone. If the act of holding is committed from within the offense's own end zone, the result is a safety. It is one of the most common penalties in American football.
In the NFL, when holding is committed by the defense, the penalty is 5 yards and an automatic first down.
- 1 NCAA
- 2 NFL
- 3 References
The following is quoted directly from the NCAA 2015 Rules and Interpretations document available online here.
- Illegal use of the hand or arm is unfair play, eliminates skill and does not belong in the game. The object of the game is to advance the ball by strategy, skill and speed without illegally holding your opponent. All coaches and players should thoroughly understand the rules for proper offensive and defensive use of the hands. Holding is a frequently called penalty; it is important to emphasize the severity of the penalty. 
Holding and Use of Hands or Arms: Offense
a. Use of Hands
- A teammate of a ball carrier or a passer legally may block with his shoulders, his hands, the outer surface of his arms or any other part of his body under the following provisions.
- 1. The hand(s) shall be:
- (a) In advance of the elbow.
- (b) Inside the frame of the opponent’s body (Exception: When the opponent turns his back to the blocker) (A.R. 9-3-3-VI and VII).
- (c) At or below the shoulder(s) of the blocker and the opponent (Exception: When the opponent squats, ducks or submarines).
- (d) Apart and never in a locked position.
- 2. The hand(s) shall be open with the palm(s) facing the frame of the opponent or closed or cupped with the palms not facing the opponent (A.R. 9-3-3-I-IV and VI-VIII). RULE 9 / CONDUCT OF PLAYERS AND OTHERS SUBJECT TO THE RULES FR-97
- 1. The hand(s) shall be:
- The hand(s) and arm(s) shall not be used to grasp, pull, hook, clamp or encircle in any way that illegally impedes or illegally obstructs an opponent. PENALTY—10 yards Penalties for Team A fouls behind the neutral zone are enforced from the previous spot. Safety if the foul occurs behind Team A’s goal line [S42].
c. Kicking Team
- A player on the kicking team may:
- 1. During a scrimmage kick play, use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to ward off an opponent attempting to block him when he is beyond the neutral zone.
- 2. During a free kick play, use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to ward off an opponent who is attempting to block him.
- 3. During a scrimmage kick play or a free kick play, when he is eligible to touch the ball, legally use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to push an opponent in an attempt to reach a loose ball.
d. Passing Team
- An eligible player of the passing team legally may use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to ward off or push an opponent in an attempt to reach a loose ball after a legal forward pass has been touched by any player or official (Rules 7-3-5, 7-3-8, 7-3-9 and 7-3-11).
Holding and Use of Hands or Arms: Defense
a. Defensive players may use hands and arms to push, pull, ward off or lift offensive players:
- 1. When attempting to reach the runner.
- 2. Who are obviously attempting to block them.
b. A defensive player legally may use his hands or arms to ward off or block an opponent in an attempt to reach a loose ball (Rule 9-1-5, Exceptions 3 and 4 and Rule 9-3-6, Exceptions 3 and 5):
- 1. During a backward pass, fumble or kick that he is eligible to touch.
- 2. During any forward pass that crossed the neutral zone and has been touched by any player or official.
c. When making no attempt to get at the ball or the runner, defensive players must comply with Article 3, paragraphs a and b above. d. Defensive players may not use hands and arms to tackle, hold or otherwise illegally obstruct an opponent other than a runner. e. Defensive players may ward off or legally block an eligible pass receiver until that player occupies the same yard line as the defender or until the opponent could not possibly block him. Continuous contact is illegal (A.R. 9-3-5-I). PENALTY [c-e]—10 or 15 yards [S38, S42, S43 or S45].
The following is quoted directly from the NFL 2015 OFFICIAL PLAYING RULES OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE document available online here.
Rule 8, Section 4, Article 6: DEFENSIVE HOLDING
It is defensive holding if a player grasps an eligible offensive player (or his jersey) with his hands, or extends an arm or arms to cut off or encircle him. See 12-1-6. Penalty: For holding by the defense: Loss of five yards and automatic first down. Note: Any offensive player who pretends to possess the ball, and/or one to whom a teammate pretends to give the ball, may be tackled until he crosses the line of scrimmage between the offensive tackles of a normal tight offensive line. 
Rule 8, Section 4, Article 7: END OF RESTRICTIONS
If the quarterback or the receiver of the snap demonstrates no further intention to pass the ball (i.e., hands off or pitches the ball to another player, throws a forward or backward pass, loses possession of the ball by a muff that touches the ground or a fumble, or if he is tackled) the restrictions on the defensive team prohibiting illegal contact, or an illegal cut block, against an eligible receiver will end, and a defensive player is permitted to use his hands, arms, or body to push, pull, or ward off an offensive receiver, pursuant to Rule 12, Section 1, Article 5. If the quarterback leaves the pocket area with the ball in his possession, the restrictions on illegal contact and an illegal cut block both end, but the restriction on defensive holding remains in effect. If a team presents an apparent punting formation, defensive acts that normally constitute illegal contact (chuck beyond five yards, etc.) are permitted, provided that the acts do not constitute defensive holding. 
Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3: ILLEGAL BLOCK BY OFFENSIVE PLAYER
It is a foul if an offensive blocker: (a) Thrusts his hands forward above the frame of an opponent to contact him on the head, neck, or face. Note: Contact in close-line play that is not direct and forcible is not a foul.
- Penalty: For illegal use of hands by the offense: Loss of 10 yards.
(b) Blocks an opponent (from behind) in the back above the opponent’s waist, or uses his hands or arms to push an opponent from behind in a manner that affects his movement, except in close-line play. Note: The prohibition applies to a player of the kicking team while the ball is in flight during a scrimmage kick.
- The use of hands on the back is not a foul when:
- (1) a player is making a personal attempt to recover a loose ball
- (2) the opponent turns away from the blocker when contact is imminent
- (3) both of the blocker’s hands are on the opponent’s side. (If either hand is on the back, it is a foul.)
- Penalty: For an illegal block in the back above the waist by the offense: Loss of 10 yards.
(c) Use his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit. It is a foul regardless of whether the blocker’s hands are inside or outside the frame of the defender’s body. Material restrictions include but are not limited to:
- (1) grabbing or tackling an opponent;
- (2) hooking, jerking, twisting, or turning him; or
- (3) pulling him to the ground.
- Penalty: For holding by the offense: Loss of 10 yards.
- (1) When a defensive player is held by an offensive player during the following situations, Offensive Holding will not be called:
- (a) if the runner is being tackled simultaneously by another defensive player
- (b) if the runner simultaneously goes out of bounds
- (c) if a Fair Catch is made simultaneously
- (d) if the action clearly occurs after a forward pass has been thrown to a receiver beyond the line of scrimmage
- (e) if the action occurs away from the point of attack and not within close line play
- (f) if a free kick results in a touchback
- (g) if a scrimmage kick simultaneously becomes a touchback
- (h) if the action is part of a double-team block, unless the defender splits the double team, gets to the outside of either blocker, or is taken to the ground
- (i) if, during a defensive charge, a defensive player uses a “rip” technique that puts an offensive player in a position that would normally be holding. Exception: Holding will be called if the defender’s feet are taken away from him by the offensive player’s action.
- (2) If a blocker fall on or pushes down a defender whose momentum is carrying him to the ground, Offensive Holding will not be called unless the blocker prevents the defender from rising from the ground.
- (3) If the official has not seen the entire action that sends a defender to the ground, Offensive Holding will not be called. 
Rule 12, Section1, Article 6: DEFENSIVE HOLDING
It is a foul for defensive holding if: (a) a defensive player tackles or holds any opponent other than a runner, except as permitted in Article 5 (b) during a punt, field goal attempt, or Try-kick attempt, B1 grabs and pulls an offensive player out of the way, allowing B2 to shoot the gap (pull-and-shoot) in an attempt to block the kick, except if B1 is advancing toward the kicker Note: Any offensive player who pretends to possess the ball, and/or one to whom a teammate pretends to give the ball, may be tackled until he crosses the line of scrimmage between the tackles of a normal tight offensive line. Penalty: For defensive holding: Loss of five yards and an automatic first down.
Rule 12, Section1, Article 7: ILLEGAL USE OF HANDS BY DEFENSE
It is a foul if a defensive player thrusts his hands or arms forward above the frame of an opponent to contact him on the neck, face, or head. Note: Contact in close-line play that is not direct and forcible is not a foul. Penalty: For Illegal Use of Hands by the Defense: Loss of five yards and an automatic first down.
- Redding, Rogers; Halpin, Ty; Stubbeman, Marcia; THE NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION (May 2015). "2015 NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations" (PDF) (ISSN 0736-5144). Retrieved 22 December 2015.
- "About Football Glossary - Holding" on About.com
- Goodell, Roger (2015). "2015 OFFICIAL PLAYING RULES OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE" (PDF). Retrieved 22 December 2015.