When a Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah scored a touchdown during his team’s systematic routing of the New England Patriots last night, he did what many NFL players do: he stopped to say a prayer.
But unlike virtually every other touchdown prayer, Abdullah’s drew a penalty.
During the fourth quarter, Abdullah picked off a pass by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and ran it back for a touchdown. To celebrate the score — just the second of his career — Abdullah slid to his knees and performed sujud, or a Muslim form of prayer. Officials immediately penalized Abdullah for unsportsmanlike conduct, specifically excessive celebration, because of his “going to the ground.”
Here is video of the incident:
Abdullah’s prayer, of course, wasn’t “excessive” at all — unless officials think religion itself excessive. He is a practicing Muslim who fasts during Ramadan — going without food and water every day until sundown during NFL training camp. He also skipped the 2012 season so he and his brother Hamza, another NFL safety who used to play for the Broncos and the Cardinals, could go on the hajj, a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
After the incident, Hamza retweeted a celebratory picture of his brother with the hashtag “#Abdullahing,” hinting that his performance of sujud was effectively the Muslim equivalent of “Tebowing,” or the kneeling prayer of Tim Tebow, former quarterback for the Denver Broncos and famous evangelical Christian.
But while Hamza was subtle about the connection between Tebow and Husain, others on Twitter were quick to point out what appeared to be a double standard between the celebration of Tebow’s public faith and the apparent penalizing of Husain’s:
What's the difference? pic.twitter.com/2Je8PSJ8GW
— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) September 30, 2014
After a round of criticism, the NFL clarified on Tuesday morning that the celebration should not have drawn a penalty. Michael Signora, the NFL’s vice president of football communications, tweeted that the league’s celebration rules have an exception for gestures of religious faith:
Abdullah should not have been penalized. Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.
— Michael Signora (@NFLfootballinfo) September 30, 2014
The NFL has made cracking down on celebrations and unsportsmanlike conduct a priority this year, and it’s entirely possible that the referee simply didn’t understand what Abdullah was doing. It also wasn’t immediately clear whether the penalty was issued as a result of Abdullah’s prayer or because of his celebratory slide just before he performed sujud. For his part, Abdullah appeared to be gracious about the incident and gave the referee the benefit of the doubt.
“I got a little too excited,” Abdullah told KSHB Kansas City news. “The slide before it, I’m pretty sure that did it.”
But even with the NFL’s clarification, Abdullah’s prayer celebration exposes the uphill battle many non-Christian athletes in the United States face just to express their faith. Whereas Christian NFL players such as Tebow, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson can openly perform their religion in ways that elicit praise, athletes like the Abdullah brothers must constantly explain and re-articulate their faith to others, and sometimes even fight for their right to express it during games. The fact that officials might not have been aware that Husain was praying — even though there have been Muslim athletes in the NFL, NBA, on professional boxing circuits, and MLS, including Kei Kamara, who used to play for nearby MLS team Sporting Kansas City — is a well-known frustration to those who follow faiths other than Christianity in the United States.
The incident also came during a period when other athletic institutions are grappling with how to guarantee players the freedom of religious expression. FIBA, basketball’s largest international body, drew fire recently for its ban on religious headwear such as Muslim hijabs, Sikh turbans, and Jewish yarmulkes. Similarly, FIFA, the international soccer federation, recently lifted its own ban on headwear following protests.