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NFL says flagging Husain Abdullah for prayer was mistake. Is that enough?

After a referee penalized the Kansas City Chiefs safety, a devout Muslim, for prostrating himself in prayer, a controversy began brewing over a religious double standard in sports. The NFL Tuesday quickly issued a statement saying the penalty was a mistake.

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Kansas City Chiefs free safety Husain Abdullah carries the ball after intercepting a pass and running it back 39 yards for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Kansas City, Mo.

Ed Zurga/AP

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The National Football League acted quickly on Tuesday to say the referee who called an unsportsmanlike penalty on Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah made a mistake Monday night when he flagged the devout Muslim for sliding on his knees into a prostrate, helmet-to-the-turf prayer.

A controversy had begun to brew overnight for the beleaguered league, which is still enduring criticism over its handling of cases of domestic abuse this season. Many began to question whether the 15-yard penalty for “celebrating on the ground” amounted to a form of religious discrimination.

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After all, the NFL is a league where players taking a moment to pray after scoring is a celebrated tradition. Tim Tebow’s famous one-knee, fist-to-forehead prayer became a cultural phenomenon called “Tebowing” during his short-lived NFL career, and the Chicago Bears’ wide receiver Brandon Marshall often gets on his knees and raises his arms heavenward after scoring a touchdown, many observed.

But Abdullah, who skipped the entire 2012 season to make the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, was penalized 15 yards after he scampered into the end zone and then slid into a traditional Muslim sajdah prayer, a prostrate crouch in which a worshipper’s palms and forehead touch the ground.

NFL rules prohibit players “from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground.”

“However, the officiating mechanic in this situation is not to flag a player who goes to the ground as part of religious expression, and as a result, there should have been no penalty on the play," said NFL spokesman Michael Signora to ESPN Tuesday morning.

The Kansas City safety had just intercepted Tom Brady, the celebrated quarterback for the New England Patriots, and returned it for a touchdown during the Chiefs' Monday night 41-to-14 rout of the Patriots, the three-time Super Bowl champs' worst defeat in nine years.

“If I get a pick, I’m going to prostrate before God in the end zone,” Abdullah had told reporters, according to the Kansas City Star.

However, after the game he said he did not think the penalty was for his prayer.

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“For me, I just got a little too excited,” Abdullah said. “I think it was for the slide.”

Before the NFL’s statement Tuesday, The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil liberties group in New York, called upon the NFL to clarify the rule as Twitter became abuzz with questions of religious discrimination. 

‘‘To prevent the appearance of a double standard, we urge league officials to clarify the policy on prayer and recognize that the official made a mistake in this case,’’ said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper, in a statement.

The NFL’s quick reaction Tuesday comes after months of scrutiny of the league’s handling of multiple instances of domestic abuse from its players, including former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice, who was caught on a casino security camera knocking his then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious in an elevator.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been harshly criticized for his initial two-game suspension of the running back, now suspended indefinitely from the NFL after the disturbing security tape was made public.

After the victory Monday, Abdullah said he would keep the football he intercepted from Brady, a future Hall of Famer. The pick off was the safety’s sixth career interception and second touchdown.

“That’s nice,” Abdullah said. “That’s definitely going up in the house. That’s a ball that’s definitely going up in the game room area, so it was amazing.”