Husain Abdullah didn’t find out that President Donald Trump had signed an executive order temporarily banning refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries until Saturday morning, when a friend posted a video of protesters at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to Snapchat.
The night before, Abdullah ― a practicing Muslim who played seven seasons as an NFL free safety before he retired in 2016 ― had been consumed with preparing for a trip to Rwanda with a group of his fellow graduate students at Southern Methodist University. But when he saw the video, he instantly hopped online to figure out what was going on. He didn’t like what he saw.
“When it comes to what’s going on socially, he’s spread a lot of hate,” Abdullah said of Trump on Friday. “Yes, we have to have immigration laws, but everyone has to be subject to the same laws. When you start to discriminate against people based on their religion, that becomes a huge issue.”
Abdullah and his brother Hamza, also a former NFL player, are two of the most prominent Muslims to have played professional football. Their faith became a well-known aspect of their careers in 2012, when they skipped the NFL season to make a religious pilgrimage to Mecca.
Trump has argued that his order doesn’t specifically single out Muslims. But Abdullah doesn’t buy it, especially after a campaign in which Trump “targeted quite a few people” ― including Mexican and Latino immigrants, women, African-Americans and people with disabilities.
“Absolutely, Muslims are being targeted,” Abdullah said. “There will be other groups targeted as well. It’s only going to get worse if people don’t stand up and they don’t protest, and we don’t have lawyers working and politicians working to block these orders and to slow these things down. If everybody just says this is the way it is, it’s going to get ugly real quick.”
That responsibility, Abdullah said, also extends to the NFL. Some players have spoken out, but Commissioner Roger Goodell chose not to. Asked about Trump’s executive order at a news conference Wednesday, Goodell said that he is “singularly focused on the Super Bowl.”
“Knowing how the NFL operates, they just want to stay as clean as they can,” Abdullah said. “They don’t want to talk about anything other than football. They tell all of us, just football. Nothing else. Anything other than football is labeled a distraction. The reality is, if there’s a social issue plaguing the country and now plaguing the globe ... we need these giant organizations and people who are running them to speak up on it.”
Goodell’s reticence to comment, Abdullah said, creates a dynamic in which players are less likely to speak out.
“When the NFL does something like that ― ‘oh, we’re not worried about that; we’re just focused on football’ ― now for everybody who’s Muslim or everybody who probably doesn’t share the majority religious opinion, now they’re more than likely [thinking], ‘Man, if I say something, then now they’re going to single me out, or they’re going to target me,’” he said. “They have to do a better job of paying attention to what’s going on socially. And not only how it affects America or society at large, but also how it affects their players.”
Abdullah, who retired after suffering the fifth concussion of his career last season, is pursuing a master’s in dispute resolution and conflict management at SMU in Dallas. In March, he’ll travel to Rwanda to work with a school for orphans.
And while he knows many people are fearful of Trump’s policies, recent events have only hardened his resolve to pursue a field that will allow him to help people.
“I’m feeling a sense of urgency, in a positive way. Not out of fear, but just in a positive way,” Abdullah said. “Emotions ... can either paralyze you and you can fall into depression and despair and worry, or you can channel the emotion, whether it’s good or bad, and you can use it for a positive cause.”
“Football was purposeful. I was passionate about it. Now, with what’s going on right now, this is my purpose. This is my passion. I just have a sense of urgency to be a product of change for the better.”
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