The National Football League has come under even more scrutiny of late with its handling of a penalty issued by a referee last Sunday when Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah intercepted New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s pass and slid to the ground to kneel for a Muslim prayer in the end zone.
The incident has brought to light possible inconsistencies found in the NFL’s policies regarding the free speech and the freedom of religion, especially when taking into consideration the NFL’s reaction to another player earlier this season who was warned by an NFL uniform inspector that he had to conceal the Christian message on his T-shirt or face a stiff fine.
The latest penalty against the Chiefs player - a devout Muslim - was subsequently declared by NFL Vice-President of Football Communications Michael Signora as a mistake.
“Abdullah should not have been penalized,” Signora tweeted. “Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.”
But last month, when Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III showed up to a postgame interview in a T-shirt displaying the phrase “No Jesus, No Peace/Know Jesus, Know Peace,” he was told to hide the Christian message by turning his shirt inside out. Griffin complied, but this incident was not followed up with an NFL official admitting the league was wrong - implying no mistake was made.
Regardless of the religions they represent, both players technically violated NFL rules. Abdullah clearly broke the NFL’s Rule 12. Section 3, Article 1(d), which declares that“players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.” Nevertheless, Abdullah was later exonerated, as Signora denounced the field judge’s 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as an officiating blunder. Other NFL players - like Tim Tebow - have prayed on the gridiron without receiving penalties, but they were not on the ground when doing so, but rather taking a knee.
Abdullah conceded that he broke a rule, even though the NFL is taking an apologetic stance on the matter in what many see as a politically correct gesture.
“For me, I just got a little too excited,” Abdullah explained after the game about his penalized touchdown celebration. “I think it was for the slide.”
Abdullah said that he had one takeaway after the incident that he would take to heart during his next game: “Stop before you drop.”
Another violation, a different response
Similarly, Griffin recently violated an NFL rule when he made a media appearance after a victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars wearing a shirt that was not pre-approved by the NFL. By donning a non-Nike shirt — the NFL has an exclusive contract with the athletic gear giant — that contained a personal message, Griffin violated another NFL policy:
"Throughout the period on game-day that a player is visible to the stadium and television audience (including in pre-game warm-ups, in the bench area, and during post-game interviews in the locker room or on the field), players are prohibited from wearing, displaying, or otherwise conveying personal messages either in writing or illustration, unless such message has been approved in advance by the League office." —Section 4, Article 8 of NFL bylaws.
Even though Griffin’s display of faith would have been much less visible in a post-game interview — as opposed to during a game — his treatment (and threatened fine if he did not turn his shirt inside-out) was never called a mistake by any NFL official. No statement saying Griffin should not have been told to remove or reverse his shirt was given.
But is this just a case of the NFL strictly abiding by its rulebook? Not when taking into account that Griffin’s teammate, linebacker Ryan Kerrigan walked into the press conference donning a shirt emblazoned with a Five Four Clothing logo — also a violation of NFL policy.
Nike has an exclusive apparel agreement with the NFL that does not allow players to wear clothing and gear that displays non-Nike branding or messaging. However, Kerrigan was not told to remove or hide his logo or reverse his shirt made by a secular company. On the other hand, Griffin’s shirt - which was made by Christian clothier Not of This World and had a Christian message - was quickly and unapologetically obscured and censored
A call for consistency
In this still-young season, the NFL has taken strong stances against spousal abuse and child abuse in the cases of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, respectively. The league also has effectively endorsed homosexuality through its celebration of Dallas Cowboys defensive end Michael Sam being the first openly “gay” player drafted in the NFL (by the St. Louis Rams). Such public stances by the NFL have many loyal fans now questioning its wavering policies when dealing with players expressing or displaying their faith.
The big question being asked is why the NFL appears to have conflicting policies that honor free speech when it comes to players praying during football games, but suppresses or outright censors First Amendment rights when it comes to players wearing clothing that displays their faith.
With this evidently being the case, many Christians are wondering how many other NFL policies are inconsistent when it comes to religious freedom and freedom of speech, whether it’s on the playing field, in the locker room, at a press conference or at another NFL-sponsored event.
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