October 06, 2009
An Oakland Raiders cornerback claims he was penalized on Sunday for making a religious display while celebrating an interception.
After picking off a Matt Schaub(notes) pass in the end zone, Oakland Raiders cornerback Chris Johnson celebrated by dropping to his knees and raising his arms in triumph. He was instantly flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for excessive celebration.
Johnson later complained that he was whistled for thanking God:
"I'm just getting on my knees giving my respect to God. I don't see how that's a personal foul or anything like that."
He actually stated exactly why it's a personal foul in the first sentence and the reasoning has nothing to do with religion. A rule instituted in 2006 prohibits NFL players from celebrating in the end zone by "going to the ground to celebrate a touchdown or using the ball as a prop." The instant Johnson fell to his knees he violated the rule. After he did that, Johnson could have read scripture, done a silent prayer or helped an old lady across the street and it wouldn't have mattered. (And, incidentally, it looks a lot more like Johnson is asking the heavens to praise him, rather than the other way around.)
So, there is no religion controversy here (despite attempts to start one by some Bay Area bloggers), but there is still an issue, namely that the NFL's touchdown celebration rules are inconsistently enforced and completely hypocritical.
It's not OK for Johnson to go to the ground in celebration/prayer after an interception, but Jared Allen(notes) can fall to his knees during his lame sack dance? And the Lambeau Leap is fine, but players can't coordinate a touchdown high five? And what's the difference if a player raises his arms in triumph while on a knee but not while standing on two feet?
I'm loathe to defend a guy who obnoxiously celebrates an interception in a game in which his team is down by 13 points, but Johnson is correct in that there's no reason getting on his knees should be a personal foul. But it's not the fault of the official who flagged him, it's the fault of the NFL owners who voted three years ago to restrict celebrations.
Update: Over at Yardbaker, Alana G dug up an old video clip featuring the NFL's vice-president of officiating explaining that a player is allowed to drop to his knees if it's in prayer. Mike Pereira told the NFL Network last year that there would be an exception to the "going to the ground" rule for players who did so to "praise the lord". He said he'd allowed this because he didn't want to be "struck by lightning".
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