- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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Ridicule Tim Tebow for his slow release, for missing open receivers, for throwing passes that sail out of bounds, and for sometimes dancing in the pocket like someone put a firecracker in his cleats.
That's fair game.
But mocking Tebow's Christian beliefs is not.
Tebow made his fifth NFL start against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, and there is no question it was his worst, which is saying something since for 55 minutes against the Dolphins the previous week Tebow had a QBR that looked like it could have been a good student's grade-point average.
The Lions pummeled Tebow, sacking him seven times in a 45-10 win. And it was clear Detroit's defense took special pleasure in humiliating Tebow.
Perhaps a little too much pleasure.
Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch openly mocked Tebow's prayer pose -- a new phenomenon known across the Internet as "Tebowing" -- after sacking Tebow in the second quarter.
Tulloch explained directly after the game and on Twitter that he was just having some fun at the quarterback's expense.
"Football is a form of entertainment," Tulloch tweeted. "Have a sense of humor. I wasn't mocking GOD!"
It wasn't just Tulloch, either. After catching a 1-yard touchdown pass, tight end Tony Scheffler -- a former Bronco -- joined in the fun, mimicking Tebow's one-kneed prayer in the end zone after giving the crowd the Mile High Salute.
I'm sure Tebow wasn't trying to create a craze when he knelt to the ground and prayed as his teammates celebrated wildly around him following the improbable victory over Miami.
But a Denver fan in New York City posted pictures of himself and his buddies "Tebowing" after the Miami game, and since then it's become a full-blown fad. Even NBA star Dwight Howard posted a picture of himself in the prayer pose.
Tulloch and Scheffler probably didn't intend to disrespect Tebow's faith with their celebrations. But if Tebow were Muslim or Jewish, would Tulloch and Scheffler have been so quick to execute a prayer parody? Would columnists, such as my friend Dan Wetzel -- whom I respect a great deal -- encourage those who were offended by Tulloch's and Scheffler's Tebowing to just lighten up?
"I think the linebacker for the Lions was attempting to not mock God, but to mock Tebow and have fun with it," said Gordon Thiessen, the director for training and resources for the Nebraska Fellowship of Christian Athletes, "but it was still in bad taste and inappropriate, at best."
Even though people often complain about how they wish more athletes had a wholesome image, there's a sizable faction who find the media coverage of Tebow's success and his commitment to his faith nauseating.
And now that he's floundering professionally, they aren't afraid to use Tebow's religion as a punch line.
"Jesus must be thinking even Judas had a better release than this guy," comedian Denis Leary tweeted on Monday.
Yes, from the beginning, Tebow has willingly used his platform as a high-profile athlete to promote Christianity. In college, he wore eye-black with Bible verses on them and revealed to the media he was a virgin. During last year's Super Bowl, he appeared in a pro-life commercial that was sponsored by Focus on Family, a global, conservative Christian ministry. And Tebow's autobiography -- which espouses many of his principles regarding faith -- debuted at No. 6 on the New York Times bestseller list in June.
"People are looking to see if maybe he's going to slip up," said Thiessen, who wrote a piece about Tebowing for the FCA's website. "People are cynical and wonder if this guy is for real. I believe he is the real deal. For a lot of people, that's tough for them to swallow."
Tulloch's and Scheffler's actions represent an undercurrent of jealousy that some NFL players feel toward Tebow because of the publicity he receives. Several of ESPN's NFL analysts have been quick to point out the other successful college quarterbacks with Tebow's limitations who never received an NFL start and certainly weren't drafted in the first round.
Tebow is a juicy target because he receives so much media coverage and he's often depicted as a Goody Two-Shoes. It's not Tebow's fault, but it makes it that much easier for his critics to revel in his failures and give extra motivation to his opponents.
After the Lions' 35-point win, coach Jim Schwartz said he didn't appreciate that an NFL.com story framed the Lions-Broncos matchup as good versus evil.
And you can already guess who was considered good.
"I don't think that's appropriate at all for anybody associated with the game to bill it that way and it was especially disappointing coming from an arm of the NFL," Schwartz said.
Schwartz is right, but Tebow didn't create the headline or narrative that he's a golden boy. And I don't care if Tebow is cemented as a NFL failure, that doesn't give people license to mock his faith.
Imitating someone's prayer pose after a sack isn't the same as Clay Matthews flexing his biceps following a big play. It's not the same as Shawne Merriman doing his "Lights Out" dance after demolishing a quarterback.
Prayer is a sacred component of any religion. Making fun of someone else's spiritual connection is on par with ridiculing them about their family. You don't have to be a Christian to get that, just someone who understands the concept of respect.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.