Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah was slapped with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for "excessive celebration" after scoring a touchdown during Monday night's game against the New England Patriots. Abdullah had slid down on his knees and bowed his head to the field, a common gesture in Islamic prayer.
The immediate reaction was knee-jerk outrage at what seemed like Islamophobia, just when the National Football League can ill-afford yet another social misstep. After all, not only was Tim Tebow not penalized for his overt displays of Christianity, he was widely praised in some circles (and mocked in others). And while sports has sometimes served as an avenue for human rights, including among Muslims around the world, international basketball's ongoing ban against religious headgear demonstrates just how far we still have to go.
But to the league's credit, it addressed its mistake swiftly, with vice president of football communications Michael Signora tweeting, "Abdullah should not have been penalized. Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons."
Indeed, according to NFL Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 (d), "Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground." That rule dates back to 2006, when owners voted to curb end-zone victory dances. In 2008, Mike Pereira, then the league's supervisor of officials, clarified to the New York Times that the rule excepts prayer from this penalty.
Officials presumably know the ins and outs of every rule and their exceptions, but it's possible the referee in question didn't know Abdullah was praying. Many have noted the flag was thrown after Abdullah slid but before he bowed his head, suggesting the official might have prematurely penalized him before realizing it was an act of faith. Or maybe the ref was simply not familiar enough with Islamic practices to recognize the gesture as religious, which makes the case for some cultural awareness training, but is a far cry from full-blown Islamophobia.
You could argue that the officials should be more aware of non-Christian religious practices, something we should be able to expect from everyone, not just NFL referees. And they should be particularly aware of Abdullah, who has been outspoken about his faith. He took a season off to complete a pilgrimage to Mecca, and earlier this season, he gave fair warning of any potential demonstration post-TD: "If I get a pick, I'm going to prostrate before God in the end zone," he told reporters.
But once again, NFL overreach has forced an official to make a judgment of intent that he's probably not qualified to make. Just as Colin Kaepernick's penalty for inappropriate language demonstrated the subjectivity of the offense, Abdullah's wrongful penalty brings up question of how an official, who has a tough enough job parsing the definition of pass interference, can can be asked to decide if a celebration is sufficiently religious.
It all shows the arbitrary nature of a rule meant to punish "excessive" celebration that is excessive in itself. I haven't been able to get a straight answer on why, exactly, the ground is off-limits for a touchdown dance, but perhaps I can offer a theory: Blame it on TO: The original wire report from the 2006 decision to further specify the penalty directly cites the memorably over-the-top celebrations by the likes of Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens, including Johnson's push-ups and down-on-one-knee "proposal" to a cheerleader on the sideline and Owens' post-TD sit-ups.
Hard to believe that the NFL once considered a couple of hot-dogging of receivers a real threat. But given the current crisis, it may want to be more careful in how the referees enforce its no-fun mandate.
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Kavitha A Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org