By J. Andrew Daugherty
Tim Tebow is long gone from the NFL, but his on-field prayer posture (called Tebowing) that generated so much media hype has made a resurrection. This time, the player’s name is not Tim Tebow nor is he a devout Christian. His name is Husain Abdullah, and he is a devout Muslim, who even took a whole season off in 2012 to make a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Before last week’s Monday Night Football game, Abdullah promised, “If I get a pick, I’m going to prostrate before God in the end zone.”
Lo and behold, Abdullah, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, returned an interception for a touchdown (known as a “pick six”) off of legendary New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Fulfilling his promise, Abdullah slid to his knees in the end zone and briefly posed in the manner of a traditional Muslim sajdah prayer to give thanks to Allah. Unfortunately, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and penalized 15 yards for excessive celebration.
Upon further review, the NFL promptly issued a statement saying the referees got the call wrong, and that Abdullah should not have been penalized for praying, seeking perhaps to prevent a perceived diabolical double standard with regard to Christian players who are regularly allowed to do the same thing, without incident.
Clearly the NFL has bigger problems than officials making a snap judgment about one player’s end zone celebration. The NFL itself has rightfully been penalized by the American public about its leniency regarding domestic violence, its alleged hiding of the danger of brain injuries due to concussions, and the re-igniting PR debacle over the controversial Washington Redskins’ team name being derogatory of American Indians as a dictionary-defined racial slur.
The NFL’s latest fumble about Abdullah, however, presented another marquee miscue by the league that sponsors the most popular form of American entertainment and whose popularity is substantiated by an estimated $10 billion in annual revenues.
Notwithstanding the iconic Lambeau Leap or the Ickey Shuffle or Victor Cruz’s salsa dance, players who are on the ground are allowed no celebrations by NFL rules. ESPN reported that according to Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 (d), “Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.” Generally speaking, however, religious gestures such as prayer or Tebowing have been overlooked due to the freedom of religious expression.
To the devoutly religious like Husain Abdullah, taking a few seconds to pray in the end zone hardly warrants a penalty for a “prolonged, excessive … or choreographed celebration.” In fact, prayer in any time or place would rarely be characterized as such (especially the prolonged part!).
Rules of the sport are intended to help maintain the integrity of the game so many of us love — football. Likewise, the rule of prayer deepens the integrity of the human soul before God. This mistaken penalty showcases the need for our deeper understanding of religious diversity and critical, compassionate reflection on what may or may not constitute authentic and vital religious practice. Prayer, after all, is not a problem subject to penalty by a rulebook. Prayer is a religious practice that constitutes its own rule. It is the exercise of the soul that orients mortals of every religious persuasion toward the God who made us all.
Husain Abdullah should not have been penalized for prayer if that were truly the call on the field, as the NFL rightly stated. But neither is a public pose of prayer on Monday Night Football testimony to prayer in its purest and most vital form.
In my own religious tradition, I heed Jesus’ own spiritual rules that the only prescription for the most deep-seated prayer is: “Don’t do it in public”; rather, “Do it in private.”
The fact is that no gesticulation of prayer after scoring a touchdown, whether done by a Christian, Muslim, Jew or as a matter of a person’s public piety in any other religious tradition, can abide by the rule of prayer in its most authentic religious form. Giving God praise for scoring a touchdown is harmless and should be allowed. Even so, what may appear pious to some may be odious to others in public forums, whether in sports or government. In other words, what qualitative spiritual difference does it really make to express prayer to God in these ways?
In a society of robust religious pluralism, the experience and expression of prayer is not measured or magnified by how many people see and hear it, even on Monday Night Football. Such a holy act can only be measured by the faithfulness and generosity of the one who sees, hears and answers.
What God calls us to do and how we communicate with God is unique to our respective relationships to the divine, and it takes some time and experimentation to discern what form our rules should take.