Muslim players in the NFL face a unique challenge during the holy month of Ramadan. The required dawn to dusk fast is something which greatly changes the normal routine of a professional athlete.
But, with the unique nutritional challenge, there are benefits.
The idea is to focus on their blessings and their spiritual awareness, which the athletes say carries over into their play. As with any change, they admit it is hard, like trying to get into shape after weeks of not working out. But eventually the body establishes a new tempo.
Denver Broncos' safety Hamza Abdullah feels that his performance over the years has been best during Ramadan.
“I have had some of my best games during Ramadan,” Abdullah, a 24-year-old safety, said in an interview. “I got my first and only interception while I was fasting.”
Perhaps the highest performing Muslim athlete of recent years was Hakeem Olajuwon.
“When your stomach is full, you get tired and lazy and too relaxed,” said Olajuwon, who retired from the Houston Rockets in 2002. “You get tremendous energy from fasting. Everything is crisp. When your stomach is empty, you get a lot of oxygen and you can breathe.”
Clearly, the benefit to athletes is measurable in both the physiological and psychological terms.
But, how do athletes that don't participate view those that do?
Teammates, he acknowledged, “think it is crazy,” particularly the idea of not drinking water all day. Devout Muslims avoid sex and eating or drinking from dawn until sunset during the month. Actually, they are not supposed to ingest anything, which rules out all manner of activity, including smoking.
Certainly, it is a departure from the normal and accepted notions of athletic nutrition. However, the empirical and anecdotal information seem to indicate that the practice might be something that would benefit all athletes.
Abdullah credits the whole idea of Ramadan with helping push into the background all the distractions from daily life that might interfere with his concentration while playing. “You are focused on the things that matter in your life,” he said. “You are not worried about extracurricular activities with the guys that you usually get caught up in. I don’t hang out at all hours of the night, I don’t listen to music and play video games.”
Abdullah makes clear that the benefits are not simply of the athletic variety. That, perhaps, this may be the answer to the problems many young professional athletes find themselves in due to their new employers not providing them with the means or tools to focus themselves when they are off the field.
One wonders if it is difficult to engage in the fast and the contemplation when surrounded by team mates who are busy eating and engaging in self gratifying behavior.
The hardest parts of the day come during lunch time, he said, when he heads to the locker room to hang out while everyone else is in the cafeteria eating, and between afternoon practice or a game and sunset. To help make the time pass, Abdullah sits in a cool tub in one of the therapy rooms or goes home early to play with his young daughter.
Two things are evident.
One, the fasting and accompanying introspective reflection allows the players to achieve a higher sense of focus and creates a better environment for them to not only be more productive football players; but to be better citizens.
Two, it seems unusual that while players like Abdullah are bettering themselves both physically and mentally, their team mates would be actively unsupportive by eating and playing games and such.
As the benefits of Ramadan become more evident. And as the team mates of those that observe it become more educated and supportive, it seems clear:
Ramadan is destined to become a mandatory undertaking in the NFL. It is the answer to both elevating the on field performance of the players and to alleviating the off field issues facing the young athletes today.
Many fans have complained that the big money the young players make has led them to making poor and selfish decisions off the field.
Following the lead of players like Hamza Abdullah certainly will allow the NFL to go a long way in providing their fans with a league in which they can be proud.
And, as the NFL follows the tenants of Ramadan observance, it wouldn't be far fetched to believe that the fans would want to support their teams by making it a part of their lives as well.
The righteous way for Roger Goodell to change the NFL for the positive.