The N.F.L.’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct
“If I get a pick, I’m going to prostrate before God in the end zone,” Husain Abdullah, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, said after last night’s win against the New England Patriots. Abdullah, a devout Muslim, was explaining the moment in the fourth quarter when, after returning an interception for a touchdown, he fell to his knees and briefly bowed his head. He was flagged for a penalty after the play: fifteen yards for excessive celebration.
The headline that quickly spread online was another bad one for the N.F.L.: the league had penalized a Muslim for praying, while Christian players are regularly allowed to do the same thing, without incident. Abdullah’s religious faith is a central part of his life and public persona; in 2012, he and his brother Hamza, who also played football professionally, sat out of the league for a season to make his hajj, the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Husain Abdullah on roof of Masjid Al Haram with Holy Kaba in background Makkah, Saudi Arabia.
After the play on Monday night, Hamza tweeted ”ALLAHU AKBAR!!!!!!!!!!!” in celebration of his brother, and of God. Elsewhere, photos of Abdullah were posted next to those of the Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, taken last weekend, showing him kneeling in prayer following a touchdown. Tim Tebow’s name, and his famous meme-spawning praise move, came up a lot. It was a double standard, discrimination, another misstep by a league with two lumbering left feet.
Or else, it was simply a mistake. On Tuesday morning, the N.F.L spokesman Michael Signora said that Abdullah should not have been penalized, explaining that the official policy “is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.” Abdullah will not be fined for the play.
On Monday night, after the game, Abdullah gave the referees the benefit of the doubt, saying that he figured it was his slide through the end zone, while falling to his knees, that drew the penalty, not necessarily the prayer itself. Perhaps the referees had not seen him praying, or else did not recognize the gesture. Abdullah’s coach, Andy Reid, agreed, but noted, “When you go to Mecca, you should be able to slide wherever you want.”
Reid is right, of course, and about more than last night’s misunderstanding. A player shouldn’t have to make a pilgrimage, or be a devout follower of any specific faith, to be able to briefly celebrate however he feels like it. For defensive backs, tasked with preventing taller and often faster receivers from scoring, getting a “pick-six” is about as good as it gets. It was the second touchdown of Abdullah’s career, and one that he said he’d treasure, it coming off of the legendary Tom Brady.
The N.F.L., however, would prefer that its players—having performed a remarkable physical feat that sends tens of thousands of fans into fits of hand-slapping, beer-spilling, stranger-hugging delirium—simply place the ball gingerly on the ground and kindly jog back to the sidelines. Regarding celebrations, the league operates like the most conservative of religious institutions, cracking down on any sign of exuberant individuality.
The official list of proscribed post-touchdown behaviors, filed under a rule against taunting, is exhaustive and almost comically specific. It forbids, among other things, that “two-or-more players engage in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations.” Of all the crimes that have been associated with football in recent months, premeditated celebration sounds awfully quaint. Players are also forbidden from doing the following “in the direction of an opponent”:
sack dances; home run swing; incredible hulk; spiking the ball; spinning the ball; throwing or shoving the ball; pointing; pointing the ball; verbal taunting; military salute; standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation); or dancing.
According to the rules, “prolonged gyrations” will not be tolerated. The N.F.L. is like that town in “Footloose” where residents were convinced that Kevin Bacon’s nifty moves were the gateway drug for a slew of more demonic pursuits.
Before the Ray Rice domestic-violence case became a national scandal, the criticism of the commissioner Roger Goodell was that he had turned the N.F.L. into the so-called “No Fun League,” preferring that the players be bland automatons, united in inoffensive service of the bottom line, and even threatening to fine them for dunking the football over the goalposts after a touchdown. Those, to Goodell and company, must seem like the good old days.
But the pettiness of last night’s penalty is connected to the ongoing, wider examination of the N.F.L. It’s part of why the public outcry against Goodell and the league for its handling of domestic-abuse cases (along with its continued support of the offensive Washington Redskins name and logo, etc.) has been so potent: the league has, for years, insisted that it has the responsibility, and the authority, to enforce standards of on- and off-field conduct, and even morality, on its players. When the Carolina Panthers’ defensive end Greg Hardy played the first game of the season this year while appealing a conviction for assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend, reporters noted that a memo from the league, concerning his illegal face paint, hung in the locker room. (Hardy has since been placed on the commissioner’s exempt list.) The N.F.L.’s vigorous prosecution of face paint and touchdown dances makes its inept handling of serious issues seem all the more repugnant.
Earlier this season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was seen after a game wearing a T-shirt with the expression “Know Jesus Know Peace” printed in block letters, with the embedded phrase “No Jesus No Peace” called out in white. Yet, before he spoke to the press, Griffin turned the shirt inside out. This was another mini religious scandal for the league, and drew the ire of Christians, who claimed that Griffin’s expression of faith had been suppressed. The actual explanation, however, managed to be both more mundane and more upsetting. Some claimed that he’d been forced to turn it inside out, while others said that he’d done so on his own. Regardless, Griffin would have been fined for wearing the shirt, because it violated an N.F.L. rule, which states:
Throughout the period on game-day that a player is visible to the stadium and television audience (including in pregame warm-ups, in the bench area, and during postgame interviews in the locker room or on the field), players are prohibited from wearing, displaying, or otherwise conveying personal messages either in writing or illustration, unless such message has been approved in advance by the League office.
This is the kind of control that the N.F.L. exerts over its players. League officials have recently been talking a lot about how players should, by nature of their fame, be held to a higher standard. But the league has also established a high standard for its own internal mechanisms of oversight. By Roger Goodell’s own doing, fans have come to expect the N.F.L. to be a kind of state unto itself, operating a de facto police force and judiciary body, and serving as a moral arbiter for the culture at large. This is troubling in many ways, but it is what the league has brought upon itself. And, so, how could an organization that monitors its employees’ appearance and regulates how long they can celebrate on the field not pursue, with the same zeal, available video evidence of one of them knocking out his fiancée in an elevator?