It’s been said that football is the unofficial religion of America. And while that point might be debatable, there’s no denying the relationship between God and the Gridiron.
From Dixie to the Dakotas, you can be certain find churches serving up plates of chicken and biscuits before the Friday night game or cheerleaders writing Bible verses on run-through banners.
And it’s almost guaranteed there’s a Baptist preacher invoking the Almighty in a makeshift press box (provided some ill-tempered atheist doesn’t object.)
This intersection of piety and pigskin was best explained in the great Gospel song, “Dropkick Me Jesus.”
“Dropkick me Jesus, through the goal posts of life – end over end, neither left nor to right.”
So you might understand my surprise when I discovered that a professional football player got slapped with a penalty for praying. It happened Monday night during Kansas City’s 41-14 blowout win over New England.
The player intercepted a pass and ran it back 39 yards for a touchdown. While his teammates celebrated, the player dropped to his knees to pray.
The referee threw a flag.
He said the prayer was a violation of the NFL’s rule governing celebrations.
Football fans erupted on Facebook and Twitter – denouncing the referee’s decision. And while the penalty did not affect the outcome of the game – there was something a bit unsettling for punishing a player for offering a prayer to his God.
I suspect a good many of you are downright outraged, too. But would you be just as outraged if I told you the player was not a Christian -- and that he was not thanking Jesus?
You see, the player was Husain Abdullah, a 29-year-old safety for the Chiefs.
Mr. Adbullah is also a devout Muslim. USA Today reports that Abdullah walked away from professional football during the 2012 season to take a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca.
So when he dropped to his knees in the end zone, he was not celebrating. He was practicing the Sajdah.
As a Southern Baptist, I’m not all that familiar with the Islamic faith – but I am familiar with religious liberty, freedom of religion.
The founding documents of our great nation are flavored with Judeo-Christian values. Under our system of government people of all faiths are able to practice their religion in the public marketplace. And it’s because of those Judeo-Christian concepts that a Muslim and a Buddhist and a Hindu can worship whatever God they choose to worship.
That’s why I cheered Tim Tebow’s public expression of his faith in Christ (although my attempt at "Tebowing" failed miserably).
Now if the NFL has a rule banning all prayers then all prayers should be banned. But if the rules allow a Christian football player to pray after scoring touchdown, a Muslim player should be able to pray.
It didn’t take the NFL long to figure out they made a mistake.
NFL spokesman Michael Signora told the Associated Press there should not have been a penalty on the play.
“The officiating mechanic in this situation is not to flag a player who goes to the ground as part of religious expression,” he said.
I’m glad the NFL made the right call.
Besides, with all the controversy swirling around NFL locker rooms – I’d say they need all the prayer they can get.
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter @ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.