Zebras on Parade: How a Monday Night Officiating Crew Brought Islam Forever into America’s Greatest Game
By Yunus Ansari
You have to practically be Gandhi-like in order to love an officiating crew. The sport is irrelevant. It could be Ping-Pong. If there is an umpire, official, a judge, odds are someone, if not many, are going to have an underlying animosity towards them. They’re blind as bats we’d like to say. Back in the day when people actually got together for games at homes or bars, there was always bonding over how much a referee blew a call. There was the time when 12-year-old Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier assisted in Derick Jeter’s catchable hit by interfering in Orioles Tony Tarasco’s catch. The kid basically went down low to grab the ball and in front of the right fielder’s glove. Umpires called it a homerun. Maradonna’s Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal; he obviously touched the ball. But the ref never called it. England will never forget. And of course there is the 2000 Music City Miracle, when during the playoffs, the Tennessee Titans allegedly threw an illegal forward pass, but was ruled a lateral by the line judge which resulted in (yet another) disaster for the Buffalo Bills. These were huge, once in a lifetime moments. Not all plays have such an impact—but the feeling of an alleged blown call at any level is comparable. The not-so irony is most of the time, the refs are correct. They have to be otherwise they couldn’t do their jobs.
In recent years, Twitter and Instagram have allowed for the vortex of tweets and posts to demonize them. One demographic who surly has no issues demonstrating their passion for sports not to mention scapegoating the officiating crew is the beloved Muslim community. Now comfortably established as a second generation in this country, Muslims are as passionate as anyone when it comes to sports. They live and breathe it. They cheer when they win. They cry when they lose. They don’t like each other. You ever been to a Michigan-Ohio State game? It applies to Muslims too. Only in America—and it’s beautiful. And just like many Americans, they blame the refs rather prematurely and quite often. Scan your Muslim sports enthusiasts on your newsfeed and it’s guaranteed many will complain shamelessly about the officiating. Never mind his team is losing by 50 points in the 4th. You cannot avoid the backlash that is generated from the feeling of frustration. So when Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah intercepted a careless Tom Brady pass, ran it back to the house for a meaningless touchdown and performed a sajadah last Monday night only to be called for unsportsmanlike conduct, two things unfolded: 1. A social media riot; and 2. The new connection with Islam and the NFL.
Like riding a psychotic horse which reverses its course and runs back towards the burning barn, things got crazy. Scores of Muslims were upset by what they saw as a condescending Islamaphobic assault. They derided the call and pointed at former Florida Gator great but NFL bust Tim Tebow who often would kneel and show his gratitude towards the heavens after scoring. They avoided any transparency by declaring Abdullah’s actions as an indictment (though not an attack) on Islam. Once again the zebras were on the hunt—and all because of a mistake.
But when one sits back and takes it all in can the moment be magical. Abdullah’s gesture was not just a celebration. It was a revelation. For perhaps the first time on one of the biggest stages, millions of Americans witnessed a Muslim’s humility by dropping to his knees and paying his respects to God. The act itself showed commonality among many who hold religion and sports sacred. It showed virtue and conviction of a higher power. It even silenced the conservatives, anti-Islamists, Bill Maher and Fox news for a minute. Abdullah prostrating in the end zone echoed a sentiment that an individual cannot be scorned or vindicated for being thankful, only adored. Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs later obscurely said about Abdullah:
“When you go to Mecca, you should be able to slide wherever you want,” Reid said after the game. “We’ve got two priests in here. They’d probably vouch for me.” We’re not sure exactly what he meant. But a ballpark interpretation would be that Reid supported Abdullah’s right to bow his head to the Almighty after a great play. As far as the far-fetched assumptions, some Muslims were trying to rally around, let’s review them:
- The call was made out of rejection. In reality the refs probably had no idea what a sajadah was up close and personal. They were baffled and deduced Abdullah’s move as breaking an NFL rule which reprimands any player who drops to his knees in an act of celebration.
- The NFL prohibited Abdullah’s prayers. In reality, the NFL allows a spiritual nod or signal. It has for decades. Within hours of the game the NFL overruled the call on the field. No monetary or disciplinary fine was given.
- The NFL demonstrated hypocrisy by allowing certain religious movement to be acceptable while punishing others. In reality, neither the NFL nor the officials were knowledgeable about prostrating to God in Islam. They plead ignorance not vindictiveness. There was no double standard. That can only happen if the league purposely punished Abdullah knowing well his celebration was religious. The Council on American Islamic Relations immediately notified the NFL last Tuesday and insisted the policy on prayer should be clarified. The NFL admitted the error and apologized.
Who knows if a Muslim ever gets the chance to celebrate religiously again and if the refs make another “mistake.” Maybe. Odds are it will be a long time before another one scores in football. NBA Muslim players, all two of them, don’t celebrate after points because there is no time to celebrate. And there are no self-acknowledging Muslims in professional baseball. But it doesn’t matter. History was made on Monday Night Football. The NFL and other sports organizations now have an obligation to teach, as laughable as it may sound, religion in their officiating programs. It also means fans and advocacy groups can’t get riled up towards the officials. Give them time to figure it out. The best thing to do is to go back and blame the zebras for all the other botched calls they intentionally plan to make next Sunday—and thank them for bringing Islam to the game.