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updated: 1/17/2012 12:03 PM

Tebow's benediction, Eli's 'Hail Mary' and Ali's birthday

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  • These public, on-field prayers of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow have made him one of our nation's most-admired and most-mocked athletes.

      These public, on-field prayers of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow have made him one of our nation's most-admired and most-mocked athletes.
    Associated Press

  • Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, right, is shown with black Muslim leader Malcolm X in New York, after viewing the screening of a film about Ali's title fight with Sonny Liston.

      Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, right, is shown with black Muslim leader Malcolm X in New York, after viewing the screening of a film about Ali's title fight with Sonny Liston.
    Associated Press/March 1964

  • Boxing great Muhammad Ali, with his wife, Lonnie, right, looks down from a balcony at friends attending a celebration Saturday in Louisville, Ky., for his 70th birthday.

      Boxing great Muhammad Ali, with his wife, Lonnie, right, looks down from a balcony at friends attending a celebration Saturday in Louisville, Ky., for his 70th birthday.
    Associated Press

  • Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who turns 70 on Jan. 17.

      Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who turns 70 on Jan. 17.
    Associated Press photo/February 1999

  • World heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali shouts to fans during a training session for a fight in Kuala Lumpur.

      World heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali shouts to fans during a training session for a fight in Kuala Lumpur.
    Associated Press/June 1975

 
 

When Tim Tebow's 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime gave his Denver Broncos a miraculous upset playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, some people considered Tebow's 316 yards passing a divine sign that meshed with his favorite Bible verse of John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

But when Tebow stunk up the field in Saturday's crushing 45-10 loss to the New England Patriots, nobody looked at Tebow's paltry 136 yards passing and made the connection to John 1:36, which reads, "And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, 'Behold the Lamb of God,'" which does sound like something Tebow might say.

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As one of the most-admired and most-mocked athletes in today's world, Tebow isn't the first athlete to stir up religious opinions of fans. Today is the 70th birthday of Muhammad Ali, arguably the world's most-famous and most-admired Muslim sports star. When the young, brash black boxer Cassius Clay announced in 1964 that he had forsaken Jesus Christ as his personal savior and was adopting Islam, he got more criticism for his outspoken religious views than Tebow gets for his. Both men say they just want to enlighten people.

"I just want to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ," Tebow says repeatedly.

"A rooster crows only when it sees the light … I have seen the light and I'm crowing," Ali told an Associated Press reporter in explaining why he had to talk about Islam.

If Tebow were a Muslim who started every postgame interview by praising Allah, or if he kept a prayer rug on the sidelines so he could bow in prayer before clutch field goals, the very people applauding his activism for religious freedom today might not be as vocal in Tebow's support. And the people mocking Tebow's Christian views might not be so willing to poke fun at a Muslim man's religion.

Plenty of athletes point to the heavens after making a great play. One football play is even named after the mother of Jesus. New York quarterback Eli Manning crushed the favored Green Bay Packers by completing a "Hail Mary" touchdown pass on the last play of the first half Sunday to give his Giants a 10-point lead and a momentum they'd never surrender on the way to a 37-20 victory. Had Manning whipped out rosary beads and recited 10 actual "Hail Mary" prayers in the end zone, he might have upset some critics and even been flagged for unsportsmanlike genuflection or excessive veneration.

Tebow, a self-proclaimed 24-year-old virgin, should be admired for his charity work and hospital visits. He's a better role model than many NFL stars. (Although Manning does a ton of charity work, too, and even told a Catholic hospital to forget about the money owed to him under an endorsement contract.) But Tebow's practice of throwing Jesus into every answer about football clearly rubs some people the wrong way.

You don't have to be outspoken atheist Bill Maher to suggest Tebow need not offer up a prayer every time he faces a TV camera. Some even point to the Bible, where Jesus advises, "When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." Tebow is so public with his sideline prayers that his display now is known as "Tebowing."

In 1996, I defended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, another Denver athlete, who ignited religious controversy when he was a star on the NBA's Nuggets by saying his Muslim faith demanded that he not stand for our national anthem. The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf before a compromise in which the basketball player stood for "The Star-Spangled Banner," but bowed his head in Muslim prayer for the length of the song.

Likewise, I would have defended Sandy Koufax in 1965, when he said his Jewish faith prohibited him from pitching on Yom Kippur, even when he was slated to pitch the opening game of the World Series.

I'll defend Tebow's right to make millions playing football on the day of rest, engage in attention-getting prayers on the sidelines and talk about Jesus during TV interviews all he wants. I'll also defend the rights of people who write parody songs, skits or newspaper columns making fun of Tebow.

But I hope that next year at this time, our only football stories are about how the Bears and Jay Cutler are preparing for the Super Bowl.

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