Copyright 2014 ABC News
Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
The Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs on September 29th ended up a 41-14 blowout in favor of the Chiefs. It was for me and evening of deep satisfaction since I've been a Chiefs fan as long as there has been a Kansas City Chiefs.
The next morning, the press coverage was, predictably all about how the Pats had lost the game rather than how Kansas City had won. Not surprising since Tom Brady has long been that All-American media darling. Who has also been to four Super Bowls. Amongst the reporting was speculation that perhaps Brady's spectacular career was coming to an end.
But something else happened that night.
In the 4th quarter, Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah, a devout practicing Muslim, dropped into zone coverage, locked on Brady's eyes. He broke hard, jumped the route and intercepted the pass, galloping 39 yards to the endzone. What happened then has folks in a bit of a dither, and may just be a 1st Amendment issue.
After crossing the line, Abdullah went to his knees, sliding across the turf before coming to a halt just inside the back line. Still on his knees, he laid his forehead on the turf. To anyone with an ounce of worldly awareness, it was obvious that he was praying in the Muslim fashion. The official threw the flag, citing Abdullah for excessive celebration, explaining that the source of the foul was the players bent knee slide across the grass. But the flag wasn't thrown until he prostrated himself.
Now, post-TD religious acts are not rare in the NFL. Players regularly kneel, cross themselves, or point heavenwards. But to date, no one has been penalized for those acts. The league's explanation is that the player's foul was related to the slide, not the prayer. If that were the case, why wait to toss the laundry?
The excessive celebration penalty was intended to curtail what was becoming a scripted dance competition, or incidents like Terrell Owens signing the ball with a sharpie pulled from his sock and tossing the pigskin into the crowd. To penalize a simple knee slide stretches the play-doh to the breaking point.
Which raises the ominous shadow of another possibility.
No one can know what was in the mind of the official who threw the flag except that official. But what if he reacted to the public display of Islamic devotion? If that was the motivation, then will future acts by Christians and Jews also be penalized?
As it turns out, it is the league's stated policy never to penalize religious demonstrations. This was their statement the next day when they retracted the penalty. Small comfort to Chiefs fans, since the short kickoff thanks to the 15-yard penalty gave the Pats a rare runback and set up backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo for a drive which resulted in a touchdown.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees what many believe are our most important and fundamental rights. Freedom of speech, press, and peaceful assembly, and the ability to petition the government for redress of grievances.,
Then there's the religion clause.
This clause has been the subject of a lot of angst. Specifically, it states:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The intent, given the experience of the founders, was clear. A goodly number of those who arrived on these shores had made that hazardous Atlantic crossing specifically to escape the dominating, some would say oppressive, presence of the Church of England, or the Holy Roman Empire. As far as they were concerned, there would be no Church of America, at least not one mandated by the congress. But since all our founding documents are replete with references to God and Heaven, it seems clear that while the founders wanted government out of religion but still wanted religion to be a part of government.
Atheists and agnostics have long desired a national environment where they see no religious symbology or iconography in public at all. That seems a bit insecure to, since I can see a lot of secular things and not be offended at all. But the problem and the source of the argument is the second part of the anti-establishment clause, "...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Freedom of religion has never meant freedom from religion.
Given the events which have transpired over the past 15 years, it's understandable that some people may get the heebie-jeebies over anything Islam. But even those Americans would not want the government to suppress religion in any form that doesn't directly impact the rights of other people. Our traditions run deep. And to an American, freedom is far more important than fear.
That's not to say we can't draw the line at elements of Sharia Law such as honor killings. Even for us, tolerance has its limits. But praying after a touchdown is hardly the act of an extremist. And Husain Abdullah is manifestly not a terrorist, although after that pick-6, Tom Brady may disagree.
The National Football League is confronting an uncommon and harsh intrusion of reality into it's bubble. Domestic violence, and mental illness due to concussion are but two of the issues which are looming large in the public's eye. They appear to have erred in their handling of some players' violent acts against women and children, and the revelation of how this violent game has impacted players into advanced age has tarnished the image of the NFL, and in some respects, the game itself.
They are now making belated efforts to repair the damage. But in the case of this penalizing of the free exercise of religion, this is one ball they'd better not fumble.