By Tom Krattenmaker
That I would take this urgent action despite my waning interest in pro football, despite a long list of productive and recreational to-do’s vying for my time — despite it being a game between cellar-dwellers with a combined record of 1-9 — tells you a lot about the phenomenon that is Tim Tebow.
He’s the guy we can’t not watch.
There has been much in the media about Tebow’s successes, failures, and polarizing effect this fall, including a lengthy ESPN “Outside the Lines” segment, untold hours of sports-talk arguments, and endless newspaper and magazine column inches. Tebow has become more, much more, than simply a second-year NFL player trying to stay in the starting lineup and get a successful pro career off the ground. The stakes, it seems, have become infinitely higher.
For those who steer clear of sports news, here’s the Tebow persona in a nutshell: Good looks and wholesome magnetism. A rugged, gung-ho playing style, times ten. A throwing technique that leaves you shaking your head in dismay. A pronounced, outspoken Christian religiosity that, depending on your religious persuasion, sets your teeth on edge or makes you swoon in appreciation and reverence. It’s that very outspoken Christian piety, in particular, that seems to have made Tebow not so much a young athlete as a flash point in the culture wars.
You’ll find Tebow haters who cringe at his every utterance and revel in his every fumble or incomplete pass. Especially when he talks about his Jesus, or takes a knee in prayer on his football-field stage – “Tebowing,” as it’s now called in the Internet parlance — eyes roll. You’ll find others in whose eyes Tebow walks on water. To his most ardent Christian supporters, Tebow is not merely a quarterback, but Jesus’ champion on the football field. In the view of these fans, criticizing his throwing motion is tantamount to attacking Christianity itself. It’s as if he carries the weight of Christianity and its cultural credibility on his padded shoulders.
As with Tebow, as with the larger ongoing national argument about evangelical Christians and their place in culture and politics: two American cultures butting heads, seeing only the worst in the other, and over-reacting to perceived slights and threats.
As one who has publicly criticized Tebow’s faith expression as simplistic and exclusive, as out of step with the real and present pluralism and tolerance we have in America, I confess to being annoyed by Tebow at times. While playing for the Florida Gators in his college days, he took the crusading, winning-for-Jesus project to its apotheosis, especially with his “facial evangelism,” as I call it — the practice of inscribing scriptural references on his eye black, for all the camera close-ups to see. (The practice, not incidentally, has been banned by the NCAA since Tebow’s ascension to the professional ranks.)
As is the custom among evangelical Christians, Tebow evangelizes. That’s his right; it’s what his faith compels him to do. And when you consider that millions of people Googled “John 3:16” after he made it his verse du jour for the 2009 college championship game, you have to give it to him. He succeeded. He was effective. Not to mention the fact that his team won.
There are no real blemishes on Tebow’s public record to suggest he’s a hypocrite or a sham. He seems too good to be true. Yet through several years of intense scrutiny, the Tebow Story stands up as just that — true. No abuse of women. No mistreatment of teammates, opponents, or fans. He does genuinely good deeds for kids and prisoners. That these often come with a dose of evangelism troubles many of us who are less religious. But by putting himself out there to help people, by resisting the temptation to abuse his stardom in the obnoxious ways certain other Christian sports stars have done (see: “Roethlisberger, Ben”) Tebow has earned the right to share his religious message more than any religious athlete who comes to mind.
Personally, I think it’s time for a timeout when it comes to over-reacting to Tim Tebow. Those of us who don’t share his evangelical convictions should feel free to enjoy watching him make one of those swash-buckling runs for a first down. Those who share his evangelical convictions should feel fully empowered to exercise their God-given rights as fans and get mad at him, criticize him, when he stumbles into the clutches of blitzing linebackers or throws a pass that flutters to the ground like a wounded duck.
With Tim Tebow there’s enough drama, enough of a rollicking ride, on the football field alone to keep us riveted. We don’t need to imbue his story with unwarranted cosmic meaning. Think of what happened in the Miami game a week ago Sunday, in his much-anticipated first start of the season. After three and a half quarters of futility, Tebow and the Broncos came alive and pulled off a stunning 15-point rally in the final three minutes to force overtime and set the stage for a dramatic victory. It was compelling football theater.
What can you say about Sunday’s performance? Tebow went a dismal 18-for-39 passing, fumbling three times, as the hapless Broncos absorbed a 45-10 pounding by Detroit in a game that brought new meaning to the concept of Christians being thrown to the Lions. So much for the euphoria from the previous Sunday. Tebow even found his faith being openly mocked when some Lions team members impersonated his ‘Tebowing’ prayer pose on the field. But Tebow prides himself on always getting back up after he’s been knocked down, and I suspect he’ll do it again.
Whatever my mixed feelings about Tim Tebow and his religiosity, this much is certain. I will be watching again next Sunday.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He is the author of the 2009 bookOnward Christian Athletes on Christianity in pro sports.