Flag on the Pray: Was football prayer penalty justified at Fla. high school?

'There's been tons of support from my family and friends,' Sam Turner said. 'They are proud of me that I stood firm in my faith.'

Officials with the Florida High School Athletic Association say a Fort Myers High School football player was “drawing attention to himself” and delaying the game when he knelt in prayer of thanks and salute to a murdered teammate after making his first touchdown of the season.

All-in-all the incident took only five seconds, but officials and the faithful are still debating the call made at Fort Myers High School last Saturday. Senior Sam Turner says he was drawing attention to his faith and a salute of a fellow player who had died when he earned his team a 15-yard penalty.

"I said 'thank you, God, for this talent you've blessed me with,'" Mr. Turner told the media

Mr. Turner says at the end of his silent prayer he raised a hand in remembrance of fellow player JoJo Brunson who was murdered in April 2013. Brunson would have been a senior this year.

Turner’s celebration was reminiscent of former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow's frequent on-field genuflections, popularly known as ‘Tebowing.’

Tebow was never penalized for kneeling during a game because, while NFL rules prohibit a player from going to the ground to celebrate, there is an exemption for prayer.

There's no such exemption in the NFHS rulebook, which governs FHSAA football games.

According to a release from the FSHAA, “Sam Turner wasn't penalized for a moment of prayer after scoring a touchdown in Friday's 49-0 victory against Riverdale. Instead, both the Florida High School Athletic Association and the South Gulf Football Officials Association said the senior tight end was flagged for violating Rule 9-5, Article 1 (c) of the 2014 National Federation of State High School Associations football rulebook.”

The section, which covers non-contact, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties lists as one of its examples, "any delayed, excessive, or prolonged act by which a player attempts to focus attention upon himself."

Craig Damon of the FHSAA said in a phone conversation that the call was more likely in response to a hand gesture than the act of prayer.

“Have you watched the video? If you watch it, it’s not so much taking a knee to pray, as the hand gesture he made right after, that causes the referee to throw the flag,” Damon said. “The flag was not thrown until he made the gesture.”

Therefore, it’s not so much the point of a high school senior kneeling to thank God for his sporting skill as the point after that, when he raised a hand in what Damon says “looks like wings” that may have really been at issue for the official.

"There's been tons of support from my family and friends," the Fort Myers senior said Sunday to Channel 11 News in Atlanta, Georgia. "They are proud of me that I stood firm in my faith."

"It's very cool to see how everyone is taking it," Turner said during media interviews. "I use my faith as a platform for my talents. My teammates are giving me tons of support. They all know I'm a strong believer, even though it cost us 15 yards."

Fortunately, the play, while costly, didn’t cause the team a loss. Fort Myers High won, 49-0.

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