The Flying Dutchman, Schadenfreude, and Tim Tebow

The scientist who yields anything to theology, however slight, is yielding to ignorance and false […]

Michael Sansbury / 4.30.13

The scientist who yields anything to theology, however slight, is yielding to ignorance and false pretenses, and as certainly as if he granted that a horse-hair put into a bottle of water will turn into a snake.

–H. L. Mencken

Saturday was my birthday, and I was showered with a heap of my favorite kind of gift: Stories about triumphant people whose lives have been ruined. I’d like to say that it is theological conviction that makes me read these stories end to end, but it is probably some sort of dopamine-stimulating Schadenfreude. Either way, it is an embarrassment of riches.

First, the New York Times Magazine published a story on Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist, who published over fifty peer-reviewed articles, showing, for instance, that trashy surroundings make people racist and that meat-eaters are more selfish than vegetarians. He parlayed his academic success into a “Career Trajectory Award” from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology and became Dean of the Social and Behavioral Sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Sadly, it turns out that almost all of Stapel’s studies were based on fake data. After he was exposed, Stapel published a book about his fraud, and he has been remarkably open about what he did. The article ends with a conversation between Stapel and his parents, during which Stapel’s father says, “I blame the system.” Stapel is forthright about where the blame should be placed:

Stapel shook his head. “Accept that this happened,” he said. He seemed to be talking as much to himself as to his parents. “You cannot say it is because of the system. It is what it is, and you need to accept it.” When Rob and Dirkje kept up their defense, he gave them a weak smile. “You are trying to make the pain go away by saying this is not part of me,” he said. “But what we need to learn is that this happened. I did it. There were many circumstantial things, but I did it.”

Stapel has accepted who he is: a deeply-flawed fraud. Now he is ready for redemption. My only quibble with Stapel is that he titled his book “Ontsporing,” which I’ve seen translated as “derailed” or “derailment.” That implies that Stapel’s exposure was merely a setback or a detour. A better title might be “Destroyed,” or whatever the equivalent is in Dutch.

Second, Slate gathered a collection of stories that are similar to Stapel’s but involve athletes. The stories about Allen Iverson and Terrell Owens are particularly interesting. Unlike Stapel, however, neither Iverson nor Owens seems to have made peace with the collapse of his career. Rather, they are both still looking to make a comeback, even though their ages and their reputations make that exceedingly unlikely.

That leads us, of course, to Tim Tebow. Today, the New York Jets released Tebow, leaving him without a team in the National Football League. It is possible that Tebow will find a new home. In the meantime, however, you hope that Tim Tebow—a person who never shied away from displays of his Christian faith—will at least know where to look for acceptance and comfort. According to The Onion, however, that is unlikely:

Following his release from the New York Jets, NFL quarterback Tim Tebow told reporters Monday that at a moment of distress and confusion such as this, he is unsure who to turn to. “At times of uncertainty, it is sometimes not immediately obvious what the league has in store for you next,” said Tebow, adding that though he is frustrated with the lot he has been given, it is not his place to question the will of the Jets’ front office. “Even in this, my darkest hour, I can take comfort in the existence of a higher power who will protect me and take me in, such as [Chicago Bears general manager] Phil Emery. Or perhaps the big man upstairs, [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones, holds the key.” Though Tebow emphasized that he remains unsure of what purpose the league has for him, many football analysts said they expect the quarterback will ultimately end up walking in the healing light of the Canadian Football League.

At the time of our inevitable destruction, I only hope that each of us will know where to turn. And may that place be somewhere other than the Canadian Football League.