Nestled in a strange nexus between sports, pop culture, politics, and religion one finds a debate raging about Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow that, like all things regarding the quarterback, has been overhyped and blown out of proportion.
It seems the issue at hand isn’t Tebow’s style of play – though that has assuredly been atrocious at times. It isn’t the wins and losses of his team – though his team’s comebacks in the fourth quarter have been more than entertaining for the casual sports fan. No, what seems to irk people the most about Tebow is that he is an unapologetic evangelical Christian.
The hype about Tebow began during his college days at Florida when he led his team to a national championship as a junior, winning a Heisman along the way. The massive sports media complex (ESPN, I’m looking at you) then spent the next year telling us what a quintessential college player Tim Tebow was. As part of the hype package designed to drive ratings, the human interest angle was also played to the hilt, emphasizing that Tebow wasn’t just a good young man (and I’m sure he is) but a virtuous ambassador of the sport and indicative of all things SEC (the greatest football conference in the land as any good SEC fan will drone).
The sappy lovefest was too much, culminating with broadcaster Thom Brenneman intoning during the SEC championship that literally spending fifteen minutes with Tebow would change your life forever. With such a saccharine and cloying pitch being shoved down sports fans’ throats, it was natural for the majority, myself included, to root against him and find some smug satisfaction when Florida was defeated in Tebow’s last regular season college game.
But as soon as the college season was over and the NFL draft loomed, pundits and analysts went from praising Tebow to bashing him as terrible on his throwing mechanics and forecasting that he would never be even an above-average NFL quarterback. I must admit that I was quite astonished at the quick about-face in the national sports media, a shift I can only surmise was hastened by the realization of sports media that they couldn’t push the positive Tebow angle anymore.
It was at this point than I began to really feel a little sorry for Tebow. None of this was a firestorm of his own making. Like all media darlings, even in the sports world, he seemed to exist in broadcasters’ minds only to be built up and then torn down again. Through all of the negative reporting and analysis, Tebow, to his credit, remained quietly positive, even after being drafted by the Broncos and at one point being the 3rd-string quarterback, all breathlessly reported by the national sports media.
Running through all of this was Tebow’s open faith in Jesus Christ. Whether you share his belief is largely irrelevant – for Tebow, it appears to be genuine and, like most evangelicals, he does not shy from sharing his love for the Lord. In and of itself, this is not remarkable – athletes from across all sports and spanning decades have given thanks to God after victories and before contests, including Coach Tony Dungy saying after his Super Bowl victory that his Colts won the Lord’s way. This is just people expressing their faith, something that’s done every single day without inviting the controversy that would ensue here.
It seems where the real trouble for people began was when Tebow finally got a chance to start and inexplicably began winning games during a stretch of the 2011 season. Maybe it was the way he and the Broncos did it – after playing miserably for three quarters, Denver rallied from deficits to win six games in a row.
Now the crazy season begins. Sensing another feel-good human interest story, the national sports media began re-hyping Tebow and his “miraculous” wins, really playing up the religious angle. It was at this time the knives started to come out, starting with former Broncos QB Jake Plummer saying he wished Tebow would just shut up after games.
When the Broncos finally lost to the Patriots, I’ve never witnessed such an outpouring of glee at the defeat of a quarterback. “Guess God doesn’t love Tebow so much after all,” was the refrain with multiple variations on forums ranging from ESPN forums to political sites to Facebook. Yes, this is how out of control the “controversy” has become – the story has ceased to be about sports and football and has now become a referendum on religion and its role in society.
Naturally, you can guess where this leads. Political pundits are now being drawn into this fray with Bill Maher, always valued for his insightful sports opinions, getting heat for tweeting giddily that Jesus Christ just f*cked Tim Tebow.
At the center of all this is Tim Tebow, with whom I increasingly empathize, because in a very real sense this whole maelstrom is less about him and more about media hype and societal views on “public religion”. In so many ways, Tebow didn’t ask for any of this attention, and it truly is ridiculous how Tebow has somehow become a Rorschach test on how we individually feel about evangelism. Think about this – Tebow doesn’t preach on Sundays, he doesn’t have a radio show or a newspaper column, hell, he hasn’t come light years near any hot-button social issues like gay marriage or abortion (the closest he came to the latter was a milquetoast Super Bowl ad he did with his mom containing no references to abortion that still drew the ire of those who profess freedom of choice, as long as that choice isn’t life). Really, the only religious thing he’s done to piss people off is … be religious.
I get the sense that Tebow really just wants to play football and witness for his Savior in the way he deems fit. That should be what America is about, but in these religiously polarized times it’s clearly unacceptable for those with a Christian faith to be outspoken about it. In many ways my faith doesn’t follow the same track that Tebow does, but I certainly don’t begrudge him his views or that he wants to talk about them when reporters shove microphones in his face and practically invite him to spout them.
As an athlete, I won’t be rooting for Tebow and the Broncos to win out and get in the playoffs as some religious vindication against his critics. What I will be rooting for is that people recognize that freedom of religion doesn’t equate to freedom from religion, and if it’s controversial to simply be a religious public figure, then we’re in a pretty bad state.