Well, it seems as though the NFL season is over for young wunderkind Tim Tebow. I do not watch football (the Bills just broke my heart too many times in the 1990s), but I remain fascinated by what this most uniquely American of sports tells us about region, race, class, human physiology, national identity, and, yes, religion. Lately, Tebow Mania, the most deadly infestation in the country since Beiber Fever, has swept an unsuspecting nation. Although his considerable skill as a quarterback in college would have gotten Tebow a great deal of attention anyway, he soon became associated with his open pronouncements of his Christian faith, particularly on the playing field. What does Tebow, and his well-publicized faith, tells us about Christianity and the public?
One Bleacher Report article maintains, “is one of the most polarizing athletes of the last decade.” Tebow stories and biographies have begun to infiltrate the Sunday School circuit, and prayer groups across the nation revel in his success. It reminds me of the Christian rejoicing over having produced a C.S. Lewis– it gives a man praise and distinction far beyond his actual talents. At the same time, Tebow has aroused the ire of atheists, cynics, fans of other sports teams, and that generalized mass who just love watching someone prideful fall down hard. Some of the rejoinders have been borderline-cruel, including the “Get Tebow Laid” campaign and a “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Jesus tells a prayerful Tebow he’s overdoing it. Complaints of media bias against Tebow and unfair heavy-handed proselytizing issue forth from the two sides.
What has aroused this level of disagreement? Part of it is the uniquely public way in which Tebow has expressed his faith. He was known for putting Bible verses, especially John 3:16, on his eye black (a practice which was subsequently banned), and was known for a brief, but frequent, act of kneeling during games, which entered the lexicon as “Tebowing.” But it took a further step when Tebow began to pronounce that God has willed his teams’ victories, and then there was that pro-life commercial during the Super Bowl two years ago under the auspices of Focus on the Family.
On one level, this is the kind of problem that it’s great to have. The NFL has to be peeing its pants with relief now that its biggest headache is a player who is too zealous a Christian, and not, say, a player who professionally arranges for dogs to fight each other.
But as a mainliner, I find Tebow’s behavior immature, assumptive, and off-putting. Tebow had several choices to make in his short career so far. Ultimately, the most serious of them has been a deliberate choice to use Christianity as a marketing tool; using his faith not so much as discipleship, but branding. A cynic might argue that he targeted a specific demographic and won their approval with flying colours. The Tebowing kneel has become like a kind of Nike swoosh– it’s easily identifiable and conveys a message. But it is a message that often lacks humility and nuance. And it is at odds with Christ’s demand that we not pray ostentatiously when we know everyone is watching us.
Growing up when I did, the gold standard for the Christian athlete was David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. Although he’s gotten louder in recent years, in his NBA heyday, Robinson let his work do the talking, and didn’t deign to pray in front of cameras after, say, blocking a critical shot. He was too smart for that, and only broached the topic of his religious views when asked by reporters. Nevertheless, he was unwittingly appropriated by evangelical boosters. I distinctly remember pamphlets on his career when I was in a Biddy Basketball league that met at a local private Christian school. A colleague of mine who grew up near Austin remembers a 1994 NBA playoff series against Robinson’s Spurs and Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets. My colleague went to a revival meeting where the pastor boldly predicted that the Spurs would prevail, since Robinson was a Christian, and Olajuwon was a Muslim. Instead, Olajuwon delivered the thrashing of Robinson’s life, made mincemeat out of the Spurs, and sauntered off to the NBA finals, which were handily won whilst Michael Jordan was cooling his heels playing minor-league baseball.
As this anecdote suggests, Tebow is setting himself, and perhaps the distinctive brand of his faith, up for a fall. How do you explain, then, the Broncos’ devastating loss to the Patriots, a team from godless liberal New England? What happens when the good guys lose– even to a team as chronically hopeless as my Buffalo Bills during the season’s final weeks? Why is God involved in something as low-stakes as a football game when He allows greater travesties to take place unmolested? All of this serves as a grim reminder of Stalin’s wry observation that God usually favors large battalions. God also favors competent offense, rigorous practice, and experienced quarterbacks.
Yet, for all this, it is difficult to be too hard on the kid. If I were 22 and blessed with athletic skills of so high an order, I probably would have grandstanded at that age, and I probably would have grandstanded under religious auspices as well. For all the troubling implications of ascribing football outcomes to God, he’s doing good charity work in the Philippines. And there will be, I hope, opportunities for him to forge a humbler and more introspective way to integrate his deep-seated faith with his athletic prowess.