DENVER - Consider us converted. On the bandwagon. True believers.
Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow's game-winning touchdown on his first play of overtime to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday won over even those agnostics in my family who'd been questioning his football credentials. But some of us are still a bit uncomfortable with the QB's constant flaunting of his Christian faith, beginning virtually every interview thanking Jesus and ending with
As “Jesus” said in a recent Saturday Night Live skit, "Just take it down a notch."
There is certainly much to admire about Tebow's shows of faith, as my She the People colleague Judith Howard Ellis eloquently articulated earlier this month in contrasting him with Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry.
Tebow added to his cred by hosting a teen with a chronic disease who has endured more than 70 surgeries at Sunday's game — and mentioning her battle in the post-game press conference.
He's also declined to make an endorsement in the GOP presidential primaries, despite Perry's invocation that he’d like to be the Tebow of the race.
But the lauding of Tebow's Christianity has me recollecting another Denver athlete who once flaunted his faith, on the basketball court in the mid-1990s, and paid a price for it.
Chris Jackson joined the Denver Nuggets as a third-round draft pick in 1990 and converted to Islam a few years later, changing his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. As a point guard, Abdul-Rauf was fun to watch; he led the NBA in free-throw shooting for two years, dished the assists and was one of the Nuggets leading scorers. And he did all this despite having Tourette syndrome, which often caused him to twitch oddly on the court.
But in March 1996, about five years after his conversion, Abdul-Rauf decided his faith prohibited him from standing for the national anthem. He came to think of the American flag as "a symbol of oppression and tyranny."
The reaction was swift: the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for a game. The public outcry was brutal. Four radio station employees charged into a Denver mosque to play the anthem on a trumpet and bugle; they were charged with misdemeanors.
Abdul-Rauf was subsequently traded to the Sacramento Kings, and his NBA career never recovered.
Certainly Tebow's expression of his faith - and indeed, the practice of his faith - is protected by the First Amendment's rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
But if a Muslim player thanked Allah after every game, ended every interview with "praise Allah," would we afford him the same respect we give Tebow? Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf knows the answer.