This past Monday night, Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah returned an interception for a touchdown in a game against the New England Patriots. Upon reaching the end zone, he slid to his knees and began to pray. Abdullah was then flagged on the play for excessive celebration.
Following the penalty, many people thought that Abdullah was being targeted for being Muslim since many Christian athletes, most notably Tim Tebow, have been allowed to and often been praised for their on-field religious demonstrations. NFL rules state that a player is not allowed to go to the ground to celebrate following a play. The rule has a specific exemption for players going to the ground to pray.
The following day, the NFL made a statement saying that the referee had made a mistake and Abdullah shouldn’t have received a penalty. The flag was originally thrown because of the slide, not for the act itself. Upon viewing the replay, it’s reasonable to believe that the referee who threw the flag didn’t see clearly that Abdullah was praying and just saw him slide on the ground and do “something.” But that’s where the problem lies: Why does there need to be so many rules related to celebrations?
Every year, more celebration rules are added, which means more situations where there’s a gray area for referees to make a judgment. The Abdullah penalty is just one example of the uncertainty around NFL celebration rules causing problems. The penalty in this case was called improperly because the official saw the slide and didn’t necessarily know what Abdullah was doing on the ground. Referees don’t have the benefit of replay when assessing unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. This isn’t calling a false start or a hold. It’s not always easy for a referee to determine on the fly what qualifies a celebration as “excessive.”
Out of the various problems I have with the NFL rule changes, the emphasis on taking celebrations out of the game is one of my biggest issues. If a celebration isn’t blatant taunting, dangerous or extremely vulgar, it shouldn’t be a problem. If a quarterback throws a touchdown to a receiver, why shouldn’t they be able to celebrate together? Who’s getting hurt by a player doing a silly dance or skit following a big play? The No Fun League aspect of the NFL is getting out of control, and the Abdullah situation just emphasizes the problems with the rules.