While the Kansas City Chiefs were collectively exposing the New England Patriots as perhaps more average than elite in a 41-14 “Monday Night Football” blowout on Sept. 29, KC free safety Husain Abdullah exposed another blind spot in the NFL’s collective view of what constitutes common sense and cultural awareness.
After Abdullah picked off a Tom Brady pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, he slid on his knees in the end zone. Upon coming to a stop, Abdullah put his hands and head to the ground in an Islamic prayer known as “sajdat shukr” in Arabic, or “prostration of gratitude.” He was given a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
A lot of fans and media members who were watching the game and commenting on social media — both Muslims and non-Muslims — were quick to point out the double standard: That football players have been praying on the field for years, and yet you never seen a penalty flag thrown when those prayers are Christian or Catholic in nature. Making the symbol of the cross, raising one’s arms and eyes to the sky, dropping to one knee (a.k.a. “Tebowing”) … the more mainstream forms of worship in the U.S. happen every week on every level during football season without being penalized.
But in one of the only times that anyone can remember a Muslim football player openly expressing his religion on such a big stage, his action is deemed unsportsmanlike. Not a good look for the NFL, a league that is already dealing with problems created by its own institutional insensitivity toward women and Native Americans.
As a practicing Muslim, my immediate reaction to the Abdullah penalty was the same frustration, sadness and “SMH” eye-roll that every member of a marginalized minority group probably experiences at least once a day and 10 times a week.
But after taking some time to consider everything, I believe — perhaps with too much naive optimism for my own good — that what happened wasn’t so much a case of blatant anti-Muslim religious discrimination as it was an example of religious and cultural ignorance.
I don’t believe the official who threw the flag was making a declaration that Muslim prayers are unacceptable in the NFL, whereas Christian prayers are OK. I believe the official who threw the flag actually did not recognize what he was seeing as a form of prayer, and instead interpreted Abdullah’s actions as a simple violation of the league’s rule prohibiting “celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.” That rule specifically makes an exception for religious expression, as pointed out by NFL spokesman Michael Signora the morning after the game when he admitted on behalf of the league that Abdullah should not have been penalized for his prostration.
That isn’t to give the NFL a pass. If the league is going to have a rule outlawing certain celebrations that makes exceptions for religious expression, they need to train their officials to recognize the wide variety of religious expressions they might encounter on the field. To not do so allows too much room for an official’s background and personal values to come into play, and for mainstream mindsets and privilege to take over. And then the league finds itself in the awkward position it was in Monday night, when an official only recognizes certain actions as prayers and anything else as unsportsmanlike.
Abdullah, whose pick-six and team-high eight tackles against the Patriots made him the Chiefs’ defensive star of the game, has publicly thanked fans for their support in the days since the incident. That night, perhaps aware of the potential controversy about to blow up and perhaps trying to diffuse the situation, he did try to take some of the blame himself after the game.
“I don’t think it was because of the actual prostration before God,” he was quoted by the Kansas City Star. In the future, Abdullah said he will, “come to a full stop. Get down. Make the prostration. Get up. Get out.”