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As a Muslim player at the Super Bowl, Mohamed Sanu can't avoid immigration ban debate

Even by simply turning away questions about the U.S.'s new restrictions on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Mohamed Sanu was singled out by his religion at Super Bowl Opening Night.

HOUSTON — Mohamed Sanu did not want to talk about the thing we wanted him to talk about. He wanted to talk about the New England Patriots instead of self-proclaimed patriots, his profession instead of his religion, and of course, this was totally sensible. This is the biggest week of Sanu’s professional life. He is here to play football. But then, it’s been a strange week.

Sanu is an Atlanta Falcon. He is also a Muslim. And the President of the United States, who once called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on,” just announced a ban on visas for refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which was widely interpreted as an attempt to fulfill his own campaign promise. And since Super Bowl week is a time for human-interest stories as well as football stories…


“It’s a very tough situation,” he said. “I just pray that us as a country and a world can be united. It’s really hard for me to talk about this right now. It would take a lot of time. I would really like to just focus on the game and just talk about football.”

O.K., but …

“I’m not really here to talk about that. I’m here to focus on the game. At another time, maybe. But not right now.”

Well …

“I’m not really here to talk about my religious beliefs. I’m here to play football.”

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What a shame this was. Not Sanu’s answers. And not the questions, which Sanu knew were coming. We are now drawing unfair lines in this country, and they extend into every corner of American society.

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The problem is not that Sanu wanted to stick to football. The problem is if he felt he had to.

Sanu should be like every other player here. He should have been like teammate Dwight Freeney, talking about how he was almost ready to join the media last year when Cardinals coach Bruce Arians called him midseason and asked him to play. Or like running back Devonta Freeman, who humbly talked about how the Falcons’ offensive line and quarterback and receivers deserve credit for his success, even though his own agent told NFL Network earlier in the day: “It's time for the Falcons to pay him like the elite back he is."

Sanu has a story, too. It should not be controversial. It should not lead to questions that make him feel uncomfortable. It is the kind of story that is supposed to make Americans proud.

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His mother, Aminata Koroma, moved from Sierra Leone to the United States in 1975, in search of a better life. She moved back to Sierra Leone in December 1992, when Sanu was three, and then back to the U.S. three years later. Roots are strong and hard to replant, but the U.S. was there for her.

When Sanu was in middle school, he moved in with his sister, Haja Jabbie, who is 13 years older than he is. He lived with Haja and her husband Sheku in New Jersey until he finished high school. His mother went back and forth between the U.S. and Sierra Leone until 1999, when civil war tore apart Sierra Leone. She was robbed at gunpoint. She lost her house and her passport. She flew to Guinea, where the American embassy produced a temporary passport for her, and then she flew back to the United States.

Mohamed followed a path that is its own American dream: high school football star, scholarship to his state school and then a spot in the NFL, where he has become a millionaire many times over. This past Sept. 11, he wore cleats honoring the victims of the 2001 attacks—not because he is a Muslim, but because he is from New Jersey, and he knew people who were personally affected by the attacks.

He has lived a heck of a life. We should celebrate it. We should want more lives like it. But Sanu knew how he would be viewed when he stood behind a riser at Super Bowl media night, wearing a backpack. He was the only player here who was viewed through his religious beliefs. And he knew the president’s ban would come up.

“Of course I know. Obviously, my name’s Mohamed. A lot of people know I’m Muslim. But I’m here because of my football talents, not because I’m Muslim. If you guys are going to continue to ask me about religious beliefs, I’m going to tell you the same thing. … I respect all you guys. I have tremendous love for all you guys, but I’m here to talk about football.”

Football? Patriots coach Bill Belichick can’t stop raving about Sanu: about his sure hands, his size and his ability to get open all the time. It would not be surprising if the Falcons win and Mohamed Sanu is the Super Bowl MVP. And if that happens, and you start thinking about what this means in the age of Donald Trump, please remember that he doesn’t want to talk about it right now, and neither does his sister, though she did ask me to quote her on this: “We just pray for world peace and unity.” Amen.