Religious Expression and the NFL




In the Kansas City Chief’s win over the New England Patriots on Monday, September 29, 2014 Husain Abdullah was penalized and later fined for a touchdown celebration after his interception return, which later he confirmed to be a Muslim prayer. Many find the fine distasteful and wrong because it violates the NFL Rule 12, section 8, article 3 (d) which disallows end zone celebrations unless the celebration is a religious expression.
The NFL rule allowing for religious celebration after touchdowns has two fundamental flaws. The first is that as a non-religious entity, how can referees separate religious celebration from secular celebration? Religious minorities like Abdullah are most at risk. The NFL referees (when not on strike) are renowned for their impartiality compared to referees from other pro-sports (NBA, MLB, etc.). They are required to memorize a very large book of rules, which is updated year-to-year. A requirement to allow for unbiased religious celebration would ultimately ask non-religious referees to familiarize themselves with religious celebration.  Should the learning of Christian, Muslim, Baha’ism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religious celebratory expression be part of referee’s job?
This would also require referees to match up a player with his religious affiliation in order to distinguish the religious celebration from a non-religious celebration. The ambiguity of religious affiliation presents itself another problem. If Husain Abdullah can bow in Muslim prayers, what will prevent non-Muslims from so doing in protest? An NFL player could make up any celebration and justify it on the basis of religion. As their only outlet of expression what would prevent players from mimicking any religion in order to sidestep the rule. Would the NFL require players to declare religious affiliation to help the referees match the player with their religious end zone celebration?
The second flaw is that public prayer after scoring a touchdown is inherently unsportsmanlike, even if performed with honest intentions. Publically praising God comes at the expense of the defensive player or team guarding the scorer. The points came at someone’s mistake or inability to prevent the score. If you do not think that hard feelings are ever felt, ask a free safety or a cornerback what it is like to see someone pray after a touchdown. Could you imagine the gist of an end zone prayer? “Oh, God. Thank you that the linebacker fell on his butt, and that my skills far surpass those of the sluggish free safety who is sitting on his knees at the 12 yard line.” The celebratory prayer is a reminder that God is on the side of the team that just scored the touchdown.
My recommendation to the NFL is to limit prayer to the locker-room, sidelines and to after the game. This would promote better game flow, protect the integrity of religious expression, and promote sportsmanship. I hope that the league reconsider’s Husain Abdullah fine, and then reconsider’s its current end zone celebration rule.

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