Husain Abdullah is the most visible Muslim player in the National Football League.
The Kansas City Chiefs free safety is known as much for his exploits on the field — like the AFC wild-card playoff game last season in which he intercepted two of Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Andrew Luck‘s passes — as he is known for his faith. Abdullah observes the Ramadan fast without fail, whether it’s during the season or not, and two years ago he actually risked his NFL career for his religion: Husain and older brother Hamza, also an NFL veteran, sat out the 2012 season so they could make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and then travel the United States visiting mosques and Islamic centers. Husain was signed by the Chiefs after his year away from the game and has had to prove himself again as a backup on defense and a special-teams player. Hamza has not played in the league since.
During the Chiefs’ 41-14 rout of the New England Patriots on tonight’s edition of “Monday Night Football,” Husain Abdullah intercepted a Tom Brady pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. After the score, Abdullah prostrated in a brief prayer to Allah (SWT). And for that he was given a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Anybody who has watched a high school, college or pro football game in America has seen players pray on the field. Little league players even do it. Sometimes it’s the point of a finger, or raising of the arms, or dropping to one knee. The commonality is that these prayers are almost always performed by Christian players. Former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, a devout and vocal Christian, had a way of praying on one knee before, during and after games that was so popular a few years back that it became the social media trend known as “Tebowing.”
And then there’s Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who says his regular post-touchdown bow stems from his Hindu faith.
I’ve been playing and watching football for as long as I can remember. I’ve probably seen hundreds of players pray on the field, and I’d never seen one of them draw a penalty. Not Tebow, not Foster, not anyone.
Not until tonight. Not until that prayer was a prayer performed by a Muslim.
Abdullah, to his credit, is not trying to fan the flames that have been building up on social media since the incident. Interviewed after the game, he repeatedly said he believes he got the penalty because he slid on his knees before prostrating, similar to the celebrations often done by soccer players.
“Probably because I slid. I got a little too excited,” Abdullah told reporters in the Chiefs’ locker room. “I (told people) before the game, if I get a pick, I’m gonna prostrate before God in the end zone. I got a little too excited.”
Abdullah said the referee didn’t explain the reasoning behind the penalty to him.
The referee who described the call on the field said the flag was for “unsportsmanlike conduct; going to the ground.”
And while there really is something in the NFL rulebook about that, according to NFL rules expert (and former referee) Mike Pereira, that rule is not intended to penalize praying. In a tweet posted last year unrelated to Husain Abdullah, Pereira wrote: “you’re not penalized for going to the ground to give praise after a TD”
In all honestly, I think this is not so much a case of blatant religious discrimination. I think it’s just another example of religious and cultural ignorance. I don’t think the referee who threw the flag recognized that what he was seeing was a prayer. My guess would be that he thought Abdullah was making some kind of self-aggrandizing celebratory pose — maybe even a taunt akin to Randy Moss pretending to moon Green Bay Packers fans during a game years ago.
But that’s not an excuse. The NFL is under a tremendous amount of scrutiny right now because it has proven itself out of touch with issues regarding women (domestic violence) and race (the Washington Redskins). The events of tonight show the league is clearly also behind the times when it comes to religion.