During last night’s victory over the New England Patriots, Kansas City safety Husain Abdullah, a practicing Muslim who once missed the entire 2012 season for the pilgrimage to Mecca, intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and returned it for a touchdown. After scoring, he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct—specifically excessive celebration in the form of “going to the ground“—for sliding to his knees and praying. Or in GIF form:
The National Football League has been disparagingly called the “No Fun League” for its policing of celebrations over the years, such as the recent ban on dunking over the goal posts. However, the “going to the ground” rule actually has a religious exemption—namely for “praising the Lord.” One such example came during Super Bowl XLV, where Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings knelt down in prayer after a touchdown and was not penalized.
Multiple commentators from across the web have highlighted the inconsistency in penalizing Abdullah, noting in particular former quarterback Tim Tebow’s outspoken Christianity and his practice of genuflecting. But while the treatment of Islam (and other faiths) compared to Christianity certainly deserves an extended discussion, bringing up Tebow’s actions (and his lack of punishment) perhaps misses the point. His prayers always occurred on the sidelines when he was not on the playing field, meaning that they were not covered by the excessive celebrations rules. Abdullah, for one, believed that his penalty was for his slide and not his prayer.
Instead of a statement about different religious beliefs, the penalty was more likely the result of the NFL’s complex rule book as the league attempts to regulate everything about the game and its players, from celebrations to player conduct. At a time when the NFL is already under heavy scrutiny, the league reacted quickly, as NFL Vice President of Football Communications, Michael Signora, released a statement on Twitter, saying that Abdullah should not have been penalized, and reaffirmed the religious exemption: “Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.”