When an NFL defender picks off a pass and runs it back for a touchdown, the celebration is often spirited. But referees in Monday night’s game took exception to Kansas City’s Husain Abdullah actions after he slid in the end zone and prostrated himself, imposing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
The play quickly became a hot topic on social media, where many criticized a penalty for what qualifies as a quiet gesture in the NFL, where excited players are known to point at themselves, others, and the sky, sometimes while making crude gestures.
On Tuesday morning, the NFL agreed that the penalty was a mistake.
“Abdullah should not have been penalized,” NFL Vice President of Football Communications Michael Signora tweeted this morning. He said the rules call for officials “not to flag [a] player who goes to ground for religious reasons.”
Abdullah, who plays safety for the Chiefs, is a devout Muslim who sat out the NFL’s 2012 season so he could go on a pilgrimage. And he tells The Kansas City Star that he had a plan in mind if he took an interception to the house.
“If I get a pick, I’m going to prostrate before God in the end zone,” he said.
Monday night, that pick came at the expense of the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, whom the Chiefs humbled, 41-14. After he streaked into the end zone with a 39-yard score, Abdullah slid on his knees, laid the ball next to him, and put his hands on the grass. He was quickly flagged, with the explanation that he had “gone to ground” while celebrating, which is illegal.
The incident sparked strong comments on Twitter, where many defended Abdullah. Christian players often drop to their knees to pray on the field, they noted, naming Tim Tebow and others.
Abdullah didn’t engage in the debate, instead posting a photo of himself praying in the end zone with the caption “Glory be to my Lord The Most High.”
After the game, Abdullah said his understanding was that the penalty was for the slide, not the prayer.
“Stop before you drop,” he told The Associated Press.
Kansas City’s head coach, Andy Reid, had a slightly different take.
“When you go to Mecca, you should be able to slide wherever you want,” Reid told the Star. “We’ve got two priests in here. They’d probably vouch for me.”