On a Slide and a Prayer
Husain Abdullah is a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs who recently scored a touchdown. It was what happened after that garnered a lot of publicity:
Early in the fourth quarter, Abdullah dropped deep in a zone coverage, read Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s eyes and broke hard, intercepting his pass.
Abdullah then dashed 39 yards to the end zone, slid on his knees and bowed in prayer.
His celebration drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but the NFL said Tuesday that Abdullah should not have been penalized.
This provided the opportunity for various heralds of multiculturalism and religious freedom to blow their horns. Such as:
This is manifestly unfair. Abdullah, like Tebow, is known for his devotion to his faith. Abdullah missed the entire 2012 NFL season so that he could undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, and he fasts during Ramadan, which means he cannot eat food or drink water during daylight hours for a month, despite his grueling NFL training schedule. And yet Tebow’s prayer during games earned him respect, but Abdullah’s earned him punishment.
The NFL has admitted that the referee was wrong to penalize Abdullah. NFL spokesman Michael Signora wrote in an email to USA Today that, although there is a rule against players engaging in celebration while on the ground, “the officiating mechanic in this situation is not to flag a player who goes to the ground as part of religious expression, and as a result, there should have been no penalty on the play.”
And yet there was. Abdullah’s team was given a penalty.
It didn’t matter towards the game. The NFL realized that their ref screwed up. There really isn’t much of a story here, except – at worst – a ref not recognizing a Muslim prayer (or the difference between a Muslim prayer and a banned celebration). From a player that rarely scores touchdowns. This was not anti-Islamic bigotry. at worst, it was split-second ignorance. Which the NFL recognized. We can say “But what if the game had been on the line?” Well, then a blown ref call would have cost a team a game. It wouldn’t be the first time. But it didn’t, and it wasn’t, and all that can really be said is that we all learned something.
This all overlooks the possibility of the flag being for the slide rather than a prayer. A slide, not being a prayer, would be an infraction. But the NFL said they screwed up, and we should pretty much take them at their word.
The conversation actually gets derailed a bit by Tim Tebow. The thing is that even though Tebow is known for his devotion and prayer, he does not generally do so in the manner that Abdullah was penalized, comments that Tebow does this “all the time” notwithstanding. In fact, I can’t find a single incident of him doing so. He prays before games and after games. The most cited case shows him after the 2012 AFC Wild-Card game between the Broncos and the Steelers. If you see a picture of him praying in an endzone, that’s probably it. Except that was after the game [video here]. And if you think you found another picture of him doing so, the fact that his helmet is off is a pretty good indicator that he didn’t just score a touchdown.
However, the Tebow distraction aside, there are numerous documented cases of penalty-free prayer. I find other attempts to draw a distinction (one knee down versus two) unconvincing. So the point stands. If it wasn’t for the slide, it was a bad call. Like the NFL says.
There are some broader issues at work here. Like whether there should be any religious exemption at all. Some argue that the penalties against excessive celebration are themselves excessive. Some argue that it’s racist or racialist, and if you single out white players doing it you’re just doing so to cover the racism. Personally, I think they do go too far. I don’t mind saying “no spiking the ball” or “no throwing the ball” or “no taunting” (celebrations directed, explicitly or implicitly, at the opposition). But kneeling in any context? While I think people that make it to the endzone should act like they aren’t surprised to be there, some exuberance is pretty understandable. The rules are also pretty vague (there isn’t even an explicit exception for prayer), which is also something that maybe should be addressed.
The original narrative, though, that the NFL thinks that Muslims should be penalized for doing what Tim Tebow is celebrated for, just doesn’t fit. In the end, it was a bad call by someone who thought one thing was happening when another thing was happening. There are enough actual instances of anti-Muslim bigotry to focus on to spend more time on this.