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Coach Bumps Muslim Running Back

Did Muammar Ali lose his place on the team because he didn't hide his religion? The coach isn't talking, and neither is the university.
 
 
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This was supposed to be Muammar Ali's year at New Mexico State. "Muammar Ali, who led the team with 561 yards rushing, will get even more opportunities," predicted SI.com in its NCAA football preview.

But he has no opportunities now. He's off the team.

On October 9, he "received a message on his phone answering machine at his home that his jersey was being pulled and that he was released," says a letter from his attorney, George Bach, of the ACLU of New Mexico, to the university. That letter, dated October 25, alleges that Head Coach Hal Mumme engaged in religious discrimination.

"Coach Mumme questioned Mr. Ali repeatedly about Islam and specifically, its ties to Al-Qaeda," the letter states. This made Mr. Ali uncomfortable, it says. And then, after the team's first game, "despite being the star tailback for several years, Mr. Ali was relegated to fifth string and not even permitted to travel with the team," the letter says.

There were only two other Muslim players on the team, and they were also released, it says. The letter adds that the coach "regularly has players recite the Lord's Prayer after each practice and before each game."

Ali's father, Mustafa Ali, says the trouble started at a practice over the summer when the coach told the players to pray.

"My son and two other players who were Muslim, they were praying in a different manner, and the coach asked them, 'What are you doing?' They said, 'We're Muslims. This is how we pray.' That had a lot to do with how things went south." Mustafa Ali says things escalated after his son had a personal meeting with Coach Mumme where the coach "questioned him about Al-Islam and Al-Qaeda." His son talked to him about the conversation.

"He told me it was very weird," Mustafa Ali recalls. "It disturbed him quite a bit. He didn't understand why it had anything to do with football."

After that meeting, the coach "never spoke to my son again," Mustafa Ali says. "And as they moved into summer camp football, my son noticed that he wasn't getting the ball as much and wasn't playing as big a role," he says.

This surprised Mustafa Ali.

"In 2004, he was honorable mention All American in his sophomore year," he says. "He was the fastest, strongest, quickest person on the team."

Mustafa Ali says his son sensed there was something wrong.

When his son got cut, "he was upset, he was upset. The coach never gave a reason. None."

I asked to speak to Muammar Ali, but Mustafa Ali said that would not be possible. "He's not talking to the media at this time," he said. "He's a very shy person."

New Mexico State isn't talking, either.

"The university has received the grievance," says Jerry Nevarez, specialist at the Office of Institutional Equity at New Mexico State. "It is investigating the grievance, and it will have no further comment until the investigation is done."

Bruce Kite, the school's general counsel, did not return a phone call for comment. Tyler Dunkel, director of athletic media relations for New Mexico State, said: "We're not commenting on that because there's an investigation going on and to ensure the integrity of the investigation we're not commenting on it until the investigation is finished."

Dunkel expects that to be "in the next couple weeks."

I asked whether I could talk to Coach Mumme.

Said Dunkel: "No way."

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.