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Abdullah’s prayer is not unsportsmanlike conduct




Week 4: Patriots at Chiefs

Post updated 10 a.m. with the league’s response

On a fourth quarter interception return for a touchdown, Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct foul (video) for violating the rules regarding celebrations that prohibit players from going to the ground. This oddly specific admonition was entered into the rulebook on the Competition Committee’s recommendation to curtail a wide swath of ridiculous looking post-score displays.

But as Abdullah, a devout Muslim, kneeled in the end zone in a prayerful gesture, the question arose, how is this different than Tebowing or any other expression of prayer? The short answer it is not any different, as expressions of prayer have never been subject to a foul, as we covered in 2009. What did draw the foul was that Abdullah slid about three or four yards in the end zone, and then finished it off with a prayer.

The flag came out after Abdullah was in prayer, as a discussion was likely playing out through the officials’ wireless headsets: Was that solely an expression of prayer or not? Head linesman Derick Bowers made the ultimate call that the slide preceding the prostration was a penalty. However, the fact that the two actions were so close to each other certainly makes for some awkward optics.

Although there is plenty of reason to support that call, I would expect that the officiating department does go over this play with the officials and discuss some refinements to the celebration rules to cover a situations such as this. Given the NFL’s continued perceived insensitivity in multiple societal arenas, such as gender and ethnic issues, I would not be surprised if the league office completely walks back from this call as a means of tamping down any further controversy. ( Update 10 a.m. ET: The league did, in fact, do just that. And quickly.) However, this is a call that certainly can go either way under current approved rules interpretations.

And, to address the perception that there is a double standard because of Abdullah’s religion, when this was reviewed by then-vice president of officiating Mike Pereira in 2009, a religious expression that was not by a Muslim was flagged, however in this case, it wasn’t preceded by another celebratory action.

As it stands now, you can pray to a higher power, but not even God can save you from a penalty if you slide into the end zone.

NFL statement

Husain Abdullah should not have been penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct following his fourth quarter touchdown.

Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 (d) states “players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.” However, 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.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)