Who would have guessed that in the week of Yom Kippur football of all things would put prayer in the national news?
I have loved football since I was a boy. Growing up with my father thousands of miles away, I actually took myself to Miami Dolphin games on a bus most Sundays during the season from the age of perhaps 12.
I love the game, but I also love the celebration of faith, which seems unique to the NFL. The beautiful prayer circles that we see after NFL games, where players from opposing teams, who moments ago were crushing each other’s bones, now kneel together in prayer. Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts winning the Super Bowl and immediately ascribing the glory to God. Tim Tebow wearing his religious convictions on his sleeve and coining a new phrase in his humility before God.
For those who believe that God has no place in the NFL, I ask them, really? So the only thing that should be allowed are the truly dignified displays of women jumping up and down in Lycra with pompoms and cleavage, and bare-chested, pot-bellied men with their team names written across their stomachs? Wearing a cheese hat is okay, but not a yarmulke?
Who would have thought that 50 years after feminism, women would feel no offense being reduced to go-go dancers in underwear cheering a touchdown? And that’s OK, but prayer is not?
When you go to a British soccer game you run the risk of being trampled to death by a notorious army of drunken knuckle-draggers, assuming you can stay awake for the predictable nil-nil score. (International soccer is the one exception to the rule that men are goal-oriented.) What you most certainly will not see is any form of prayer.
And for those of us who appreciate the benediction before a game and who found Tebowing to be inspirational, how dare we employ a double standard and not salute the demonstration of faith by Husain Abdullah of the Kansas City Chiefs?
By penalizing Abdullah for a gesture of Muslim prayer after picking off Tom Brady and scoring a touchdown, the NFL has reached a level of schizophrenia that is truly troubling.
Here is a league being universally condemned for its soft approach to domestic violence and the Ray Rice incident. Here is a league besot by scandal over the Adrian Peterson corporal punishment episode. And here is a league engulfed in controversy over commissioner Roger Goodell’s response to both.
You’d think that a league that is being accused of looking the other way in order to generate bucket-loads of cash would appreciate the morality of players who believe in God, lead religious lives, and offer harmless gestures of faith in a game.
You’d think that a league being accused of amorality would treat religious players like Husain Abdullah as a godsend, and celebrate rather than penalize them.
We in the West who continually reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters asking them to ensure that extremists not take over their religion should be cheering and applauding special athletes like Abdullah, who are a phenomenal credit to their faith and inspire Americans to give gratitude to God.
What was the officiating team on Monday night thinking when it penalized an absolutely innocent demonstration of worship?
America is a religious country and sincerely so. Ninety-two percent of the population believes in God. But for all that, America loves compartmentalizing religion. Keep it in the church, but not in the schools. Put God in political campaigns but not in the popular culture. Aside from those who pay for their airtime, like Joel Osteen, notice that you rarely ever see religion on TV.
What players like Husain Abdullah are guilty of, and what gets under people’s skin, is breaching the line that separates the secular from the religious, the holy from the profane, the sacred from the everyday. God is a serious subject. People want Him in their lives and will turn to Him at the appropriate time.
But not in their recreation. We just want to have a good time.
We want to see bone-crunching tackles, running backs diving into the end zone. Not people on their knees in prayer.
But people like me admire Abdullah precisely because we don’t believe in these artificial lines. We believe in live and let live.
We’re not here to ever impose our faith on anyone else. But we won’t accept having it knocked out of us either. We’re not fanatics. We don’t argue that it’s our way or the highway. We’re not going to make you pray. But less so are we willing to allow you to forbid us to practice our faith.
It’s a free country. Some want to spike the ball in the end zone. Some want to get on a knee and give thanks. Who does that bother?
Public schools never should have mandatory prayer. But as the Lubavitcher rebbe of blessed memory argued, they should have a moment of silence where pupils can choose to reflect on something higher if they so choose. God should not be mandated at school. But He need not be chased out either.
Religion obviously should not be enforced in public schools, but parents should get vouchers to send their children to religious schools if they so choose. It’s their tax money after all.
So hack away at that artificial line, Husain. Pray away on the gridiron. Keep on being you. You’re my Muslim brother. I greatly respect your love of your faith and I hope more of my Jewish brothers follow suit and proudly proclaim their own faith in public.
I realize that there are about as many Jews playing in the NFL as there are rabbis in the French Foreign Legion. But just imagine if a single Jewish player, after scoring a touchdown, were to pull out his tzitzis and kiss them on national TV!