On Monday September 29, Patriots quarterback, and one of history’s most celebrated football players, Tom Brady, attempted to throw the ball to his teammate. Instead, Kansas City Chiefs defensive player Husain Abdullah intercepted the pass and ran it back in the opposite direction for a touchdown. This play is called a “pick-6” because an interception is called a “pick” in on-field parlance and because touchdowns are worth 6 points.
It was not the pick-6 on Monday night that was remarkable – it is what Abdullah did afterwards. Typically, touchdowns result in end zone celebrations – fans going wild, athletes breaking out a dance move or two, celebratory hand gestures, and more. Celebrations for a pick-6 are exceptional, considering the difficulty of the play and that it may mean more playing time, more money, or both for the scoring athlete.
Abdullah’s celebration was not of himself, but of his creator. You see, Husain Abdullah is a practicing Muslim. In fact, he chose to not play last season in order to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, which is an important Islamic tradition and ritual. On Monday night after adding a huge 6 points to his teams scorecard, Abdullah prostrated in the end zone. Muslims call this “sajda,” or the act of bowing down before God. In the Islamic tradition, there is no other place one can be that is closer to God than in sajda.
Football is very religious. Long before Tim Tebow popularized his kneeling prayer motion known popularly as “Tebowing,” God and football have been synonymous like America and Apple pie. I know the Christian Lord’s Prayer by heart because as part of a team, I recited this prayer before every single football game of my high school and college athletic careers. Though I come from a practicing Muslim family, this never bothered me. Looking around the locker room and the field, most football players were practicing Christians who frequently attended church. Today, as religious pluralism grows in America, football players of many faiths are openly showing their devotion. There is even a high school in Michigan with a football team of mostly Muslims and the coach leads them in reciting the Fatiha, the opening prayer of the Quran, the sacred text of Islam.
Let’s go back to the notion of end zone celebration for a moment. Excessive celebration is a problem in football. In college, football players are not allowed to pull away and celebrate on their own. They must celebrate big plays with their teammates, reinforcing the team aspect of the sport and that all victories are team victories. I support all of that. In the NFL, the policy is that players are not to participate in prolonged or excessive celebration – it’s considered taunting. For example, a famous wide receiver used to hide Sharpies in the end zone and sign autographs for fans after scoring. Another player had a salsa routine, and some of you may remember the “Icky Shuffle” from the 80s. Referees have a certain degree of discretion regarding end zone antics and are hyper aware. But as the NFL stated this morning, the flag on Abdullah for excessive celebration was in error because the league’s policy has exemptions for going to the ground for religious reasons. Again, football is a religious sport and what Abdullah did after his pick-6 was an affirmation of his faith.
American Muslims are a sensitive bunch, and rightfully so in an era of rampant Islamophobia. As an American Muslim and former football player, I want to applaud my faithful sisters and brothers for pointing out that Abdullah’s sajda was a form of prayer. After all, the NFL is a hyper-Christian enterprise and it’s highly unlikely that the refs knew what he was doing. I’d also like to ask them to calm down with the armchair activism. It’s just as unlikely that the ref who gave the flag was an Islamophobe. No need to get defensive and angry about sajda vs. Tebowing.
Finally, I want to thank Husain Abdullah and Tim Tebow. You are both examples of professional athletes who do not take your talents for granted. As fans, we don’t need to believe in their religions, but we should respect their humility, talent, mindfulness, and humanity. Far too often sports figures are examples of excess and extremes, hurting others on and off the field. In the case of Abdullah on Monday night, the only thing hurt was Tom Brady’s ego.