Photo by Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons
Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.
By Bobby Ross, Jr.
(OPINION) Tim Tebow’s outward expressions of his evangelical Christian faith made him a polarizing figure during his college and professional football career.
There’s no doubt about that.
But did Tebow’s prayers on the field upset the NFL — the league itself?
This week, the question has resurfaced in the wake of the near-fatal injury to Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin on Monday Night Football. Hamlin’s heart stopped after he collided with a Bengal’s wideout Tee Higgins during a tackle. Players prayed on the field as the ambulance took him away and millions of people across the country interceded for the young man, who has made slow progress during the week in the ICU.
As prayer for Hamlin trended on social media, some posted a popular meme that said, “And just like that, the NFL was OK with prayer on the field again.”
But was prayer on the field ever banned by the NFL? In 2020, Ryan Fournier, a leading supporter of then President Donald Trump, made that claim in a tweet to nearly 1 million followers.
“I’m old enough to remember when Tim Tebow kneeled for God on the field,” said the Twitter post by Fournier, founder and co-chairman of Students for Trump. “And the NFL got upset because that wasn’t the place for ‘divisive’ displays of one’s beliefs.”
However, the accuracy of that statement is highly questionable. More on that in a moment.
First, though, some relevant background: The tweet came amid renewed attention over athletes kneeling in protest — or not — during the national anthem before games.
Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, started the practice in 2016 to call attention to social injustice. But in a reversal from then, athletes now are having “to explain why they chose to stand, not kneel, during ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” as the New York Times noted in a recent story.
That was evident in 2020 when a San Francisco Giants relief pitcher, Sam Coonrod, declined to take a knee with his teammates. A Sports Illustrated writer subsequently accused Coonrod of “hiding” behind his religion.
“I meant no ill will by it,” Coonrod told reporters. “I don’t think I’m better than anybody. I’m just a Christian. I believe I can’t kneel before anything but God, Jesus Christ. I chose not to kneel. I feel if I did kneel I’d be a hypocrite. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”
Back to Tebow: The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner won two national championships with the University of Florida before stints with the Denver Broncos (2010 and 2011) and the New York Jets (2012). During his college career, he frequently inscribed Bible references, such as John 3:16, on the black patches worn under his eyes. Later, he gained attention by pledging to remain sexually abstinent until marriage.
A controversial 2010 Super Bowl commercial featuring Tebow and his mother, Pam, touted his missionary parents’ decision to give birth to their “miracle baby,” despite doctors’ advice to terminate the pregnancy.
The New York Times reported during the 2011 season that “the fervor that surrounds both Tebow’s beliefs and his struggles in his second season for the Denver Broncos has escalated into a full-blown national debate over religion and its place in sports.” Saturday Night Live did a playful skit about Jesus visiting Tebow in the Broncos locker room.
A few opponents openly mocked Tebow on the field, including one who “celebrated by falling into the prayerful ‘Tebowing’ pose after sacking the quarterback,” according to the Denver Post.
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But the NFL itself did not discourage Tebow or other players from praying before or during games, as far as I could determine. In fact, when a Muslim player — Kansas City Chief safety Husain Abdullah — received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for practicing the Sajdah, a religious prayer, after a 2014 touchdown, the NFL quickly condemned the flag.
A viral list frequently shared online claims, “In 2012 the NFL had an issue with Tim Tebow kneeling for each game to prayer, they also had an issue with Tebow wearing John 3:16 as part of his blackout to avoid glare and made him take it off.”
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Snopes.com investigated that claim and said it “found no record of the NFL having any issues with Tebow’s kneeling, and as it was a common occurrence among players across the league, we doubt that they ever did.”
Concerning the eye black, the fact-checking website said “the league wasn’t specifically singling out the quarterback or his religious beliefs. The league has a longstanding rule against modifying uniforms and prohibits players from marking themselves with personal statements.”
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Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.