Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reconsider the spirit of the rules

I turned on last night’s Chiefs-Patriots game and had just enough time to whoop, “27-0? What?!!” before Tom Brady found Brandon LaFell for the Patriots’ first touchdown of the night. I immediately blamed myself. After all, the night before, I’d had my head up at work for every Cowboys score but for neither of the Saints’ touchdowns. I assumed that the Patriots would mount a historic comeback just because I had the audacity to turn on my TV. But as it turns out, even my jinxy anti-luck has its limits.

Just as I was starting to cook dinner, Chiefs free safety Husain Abdullah scored a pick-6 touchdown off Tom Brady. I cackled maniacally (because I’m weak) and didn’t even notice the celebration, and only paid attention to the flag until I heard the official say, “The touchdown is good...” Then I went about preparing my dinner.

So I was surprised to find out today that Abdullah was the one flagged for excessive celebration; I had to look again to even see what he did. And I was surprised to learn that his post-touchdown, post-slide bow was a Muslim prayer. But the biggest surprise of all was that the NFL said today that the penalty call was wrong.

The NFL did the right thing here. As someone who thinks league rules about celebration should be looser than they are, I appreciate that the NFL is distinguishing between a quiet gesture of gratitude and the showboating/taunting that leads to such stringent No Fun League rules in the first place.

Many people have contrasted Abdullah’s penalty with the fact that Tim Tebow wasn’t penalized for flashily kneeling after touchdowns — the implication being that it was OK if a Christian does it but not a Muslim. That is a debate we must continue to have in America, but I don’t think it necessarily applies here. Abdullah’s case appears to be a letter-of-the-law violation of the no-going-to-the-ground rule. That rule is also worthy of debate, because the spirit of it seems to be lacking. (At the very least, it should be enforced consistently. I don’t think Tebow deserved the penalty either, but if both drew the flag, that would at least be fair in its unfairness.)

I’m not a fan of the idea that deities have the time and ethics to intervene in sporting events, but simply showing gratitude to God after a giant play isn’t necessarily a testament to that. Witness Marques Colston — after every score, he makes a quick sign of the cross and points up. He’s not doing it for the crowds, nor does he pontificate about it off the field. Abdullah’s quick prostration isn’t about to be copyrighted either. Had he not drawn the flag for touching his helmet to the ground (the technical violation), it’s possible no one would have noticed. (Certainly no one noticed when I made the same celebratory move during flag-football games, with zero religious implications. Mostly I was out of breath.)

Could it be that the NFL is taking no action simply because it doesn’t want to be seen as favoring religions? Possibly. But I hope that it’s also a catalyst for the revisiting of what constitutes excessive celebration. Confine the flags to taunting and time-consuming routines. Stop penalizing quick, spontaneous shows of happiness and gratitude.

After all, football is entertainment. Let it be entertaining. 

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