Imagine for a second, the Denver Broncos quarterback is a devout follower of Islam, sincere and principled in his beliefs and thus bowed toward Mecca to celebrate touchdowns. Now imagine if Detroit Lions players Stephen Tulloch and Tony Scheffler mockingly bowed toward Mecca, too, after tackling him for a loss or scoring a touchdown, just like what happened Sunday.
I know what would happen. All hell would break loose.
Stinging indictments issued by sports columnists. At least a few outraged religious leaders chiming in on his behalf. Depending on what else had happened that day, they might have a chance at becoming Keith Olbermann's Worst Person In The World.
And there would be apologies. Oh, Lord, would there be apologies — by players, by coaches, possibly by ownership with a tiny chance of a statement from NFL commish Roger Goodell.
You cannot mock Muslim faith, not in this country, not anywhere really.
It is primarily a respect issue, because religion is sacred and should be off limits. Yet when Tulloch and Scheffler dropped to a knee to mock how Tebow prays — an action known as “Tebowing” that has gone viral among the public, too — we yawned and told Christians to lighten up. We blamed Tebow for making a show of honoring God rather than himself in moments of joy. We excused them because Tulloch said he was mocking "Tebowing," not God.
Because ridiculing a man who chooses to honor God is so much better, right?
His religious fervor is an easy target for the vitriol spewed from those who dislike him, but the reasons are much deeper than that. From his advocacy of abstinence to his infamous “You will never see another team play this hard” speech at Florida, it is like he is too good to be true. He is too nice, and thereby we want him to trip up so we can feel better. We want him to be revealed as a hypocrite, and when that fails to happen, we settle for gleefully celebrating his failures on the football field. And why? Because he dares to say thanks?
I keep telling myself I am done with this Tebow debate only to be drawn offside, this time by a Lions player I had never heard of and a viral web meme that sprouted this week that had fans flooding an ESPN story’s comments section with viciously funny, yet downright mean and very sacrilegious quips of the “X > Tebow” formula.
What this whole repeating cycle of Tebow — rip his game, mock his faith, rise to his defense, repeat — has revealed about religious discourse in America is ugly. We have become so enamored of politically correct dogma that we protect every minority from even the slightest blush of insensitivity while letting the very institutions that the majority holds dear to be ridiculed. And this defense that Tebow invites such scrutiny with his willingness to publicly live as he privately believes calls into question what exactly it is we value.
One of the things Boomer Esiason got right earlier this week in his vicious, radio-show takedown on Tebow as a quarterback was how personal the criticism is. A good many NFL players and fans seem to be rooting for this guy to be a massive failure.
I could not figure out what was causing this onslaught of venom for a guy almost everybody claims to like, and I finally decided it is more about us. He makes us uncomfortable. He is a reminder that the blue-red, liberal-conservative fight over taking God out of everyday life is intellectually dishonest. He is too good.
Tebow is proof that God goes comfortably into whatever arena of your life you wish to take Him. I used to work with a great guy, Simon Gonzalez, a very devout Christian, and he prayed before every meal. Others would be killing free press meals and he would stop, bow his head and silently say thanks. He was not making a spectacle of his beliefs. He believed that God deserved thanks for what was before him, and not just when convenient for Simon. And people would squirm — not because what he was doing was wrong but because it was right. It is the same for Tebow.
There is no organized prayer led by Goodell before every game and no mandate for a post-touchdown prayer. Players such as Tebow — and he certainly is not alone in his belief and faith in the league — do so because consciences request it.
That others chose to mock — and Tulloch is in good company with many journalists I call friends and web posters with a wicked sense of humor — reminds me very much of the final line of The Paradoxical Commandments so often attributed to Mother Teresa. “You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway.”
And everybody is getting dropped in the grease on this one.
The defenses of Tebow, by Christians, are so ugly it defeats the point. This is where Christianity so often loses people, the ardent preaching of the gospel of “I'm Right, You're Wrong” and the demand for tolerance and the unwillingness to grant it. Because if Tebow were Muslim and did celebrate by bowing to Mecca, that would deserve respect too. Same for a Jewish player, yet why do I see that blowing up into an ugly mess as well? The level of discourse about religion in this country is frankly embarrassing, a bastard child of political discourse.
The only one who looks good in all this — maybe too good for some — is Tebow.
I find it especially telling that Tebow rarely lectures and does not fight back. He did not create Tebowing, nor is he responsible for it blowing up hipster style. It was kind of cool, I thought, after hearing a kid had said he was “Tebowing” while getting chemo.
Tebow is just a guy with the good sense to say thanks. Instead of taking his cue, we mock his faith.