Cryptic NFL rule leads to penalty for Muslim player’s prayer celebration

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thanks, it seems, to a convoluted rule born out of cheekiness, Kansas City Chiefs player Husain Abdullah was penalized on Monday Night Football for dropping to his knees to pray.

On Tuesday, the NFL said its officials made a mistake in penalizing Abdullah, who is Muslim, for dropping to both knees and bowing forward to pray — as is customary of his religion — after scoring a touchdown on a pass he intercepted from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

For what it’s worth, the NFL also acknowledged that Abdullah’s celebration put the league’s officials in a difficult spot.

There is an NFL rule that prohibits a player from “engaging in any celebrations while on the ground.” However, the general “officiating mechanic” taught to the league’s referees “is not to flag a player who goes to the ground for religious reasons,” league spokesperson Michael Signora tweeted Tuesday.

That addendum to the league’s prohibition on ground-related celebrations was issued in 2008 by Mike Pereira, the NFL’s supervisor of officials as the time.

In explaining why the league punished Terrell Owens for dropping into a sprinter’s crouch, Pereira said “you’ve just got to stay on your feet,” referencing a rule requiring players to do so that was put on the NFL’s books in 2006.

However, Pereira continued to say that no player who left his feet to pray would be penalized under his watch because “I do not want to get struck by lightning.”

So it would seem that the act of bowing his head deemed an otherwise illegal celebration acceptable in Abdullah’s case. This was also apparently the case with former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who often celebrated by dropping to his knees to pray.

The officials seemed to throw the flag Monday night for Abdullah sliding on both knees to celebrate on the ground, perhaps before they were aware that he was in the process of bowing his head to pray or unaware that he did so at all.

However, Abdullah did tell reporters earlier this season that if he scored a touchdown after intercepting a pass that he was going to “prostrate before God in the end zone.”

This isn’t the first time the NFL has been criticized for its celebration rules, housed under the umbrella of “unsportsmanlike conduct” and “taunting.”

In addition to prohibiting celebrations on the ground, the league also prohibits group celebrations and the use of props, and, according to the letter of the law, the following sorts of celebrations:

  • sack dances
  • home run swing
  • dunking the ball over the goalpost
  • incredible hulk
  • spiking the ball
  • spinning the ball
  • throwing or shoving the ball
  • pointing the ball
  • verbal taunting
  • military salute
  • standing over an opponent (prolonged and with provocation)
  • throat slash
  • machine-gun salute
  • sexually-suggestive gestures
  • prolonged gyrations
  • stomping on a team logo
  • dancing

The prohibition of the military salute was of particular interest to the Broncos, whose Mile High Salute after touchdowns became iconic during the team’s Super Bowl-winning seasons in 1997 and 1998.

NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino later explained the Mile High Salute had been grandfathered in, so to speak, in spite of the rule on the books, due to the legacy of that particular celebration in Denver.



  • B. Daniel Scot

    funny how this guy makes a brief public display about his religious beliefs and the response from christian’s is all crickets. no doubt it’s b/c he’s muslim; otherwise the so-called christian crowd would be in an uproar.

  • crazy cat lady

    Funny how when Tebow, a Christian, did the same, he was ridiculed, satirized, and mocked. A Muslim does it and is penalized and people say that is not right to be penalized. Difference?

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