When the Detroit Lions’ Stephen Tulloch sacked Tim Tebow in the first quarter of their week eight matchup, the linebacker immediately kneeled next to the prone Denver quarterback, in a mockery of Tebow’s habit of praying on-field, most recently seen after his miraculous fourth-quarter comeback against the Dolphins the week before.
The insult coincided with and reinforced the explosion of “Tebowing” as an Internet meme, complete with a Twitter account and web-site. There you can see an act of communion with one’s creator rendered as a bit of pop-cultural ephemera, and you can scroll through pictures of folks striking the pose everywhere from Oxford to Istanbul, with that muddle of irony and enthusiasm that has become my generation’s trademark.
But there isn’t an ironic bone in Tim Tebow’s body. That’s what makes him conspicuous. That’s what makes the fact that he’s managed to stay squeaky clean, in a sport that notoriously is not, conspicuous. And it’s why the power of Tebow’s evangelical-Christian faith, and the earnestness with which he professes it, seems to annoy so many people.
Indeed, even other religious quarterbacks have, in a friendly way, advised Tebow to tone down his religiosity to avoid turning fans off. Said former Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner, himself known to have led on-field prayers: “I’d tell him, ‘Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you’re living. Let your teammates do the talking for you. Let them cheer on your testimony.’” Likewise, when Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was asked about Tebow in the context of his own, more subdued avowals of his faith, he quoted Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
It’s easy to understand why Tulloch, a mediocre middle-linebacker who was a fourth-round pick out of NC State, would want to take Tebow down a peg. For good and for ill, head games and intimidation are as much a part of football as tackling is (not to mention that Tebow has four inches and a pound on Tulloch, and is a talented enough athlete that he’d probably make a better defensive back).
But there is also something a bit nastier in Tulloch’s mockery, in the phenomenon of “Tebowing” as a whole, and in the criticisms by former players like ex–Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who said of Tebow, “when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ, then I think I’ll like him a little better.”
So what is it that so many around football — players, pundits, fans — are so peeved about? Why has Tebow’s faith generated so much controversy and criticism in a sports-entertainment complex that is so filled with clichéd Jesus praise that, to quote Homer Simpson, you’d think God only helped professional athletes and Grammy winners?