Does the world love Tim Tebow or hate him? It is hard to say judging from the frenzy of media coverage surrounding this playoff run for the Denver Broncos and particularly for this matchup with the New England Patriots. It is hard to say by looking at the enormous television ratings that the Broncos games have generated over the past few weeks, and what do those numbers really mean? Do we watch to see him succeed or to see him fail? Do we watch so that we can feel we know enough about him and his team to be included in the discussion that seems to have permeated everything about the NFL playoffs this season? Do we watch because he speaks openly about his faith? Do we watch to see commentators and television personalities weigh in on his physical talents or to ever so gently poke fun at his piety, his sparkly clean image, or his unorthodox quarterback play? Does he make us feel justified in our faith or grounded in our doubts? Uncomfortable? Does he make us believe, or not believe?
We have been led to these questions and more by the ever spinning and churning machine of hype and coverage which begs, demands even, that we ponder these things. What about team defense? What about time of possession and turnover margins? Irrelevant they seem to say, think not of such simpleminded and lifeless numbers, this is no longer football, this is a question about who we are as people, as individuals, as a society. Who are you? Where do you stand on TIM TEBOW?
Really? I thought this was just a football game.
For the past few weeks I have consumed the steady diet of Tebow coverage. I’m sure you have too. I’ve seen the clever Saturday Night Live parodies and seen his interviews and television commercials. What is one to make of all this? From what I’ve seen and heard, or, rather, what I have been told by the media is that I am supposed to have a strong opinion about Tim Tebow and the truth is I don’t, not yet, and maybe not ever. But do I need to?
What is it about Tim Tebow that is supposed to make us so joyful, or angry, resolute, or confused?
Is this really all about God and our belief or disbelief?
For all the attention that Tim Tebow’s Christianity has garnered you would think that he was the first Christian to ever put on a pair of shoulder pads and a helmet. Can he really be more Christian than any other Christian in the NFL? Wait you are asking There are other Christians in the NFL? Why yes, I have come to believe that there are. In fact, if you took the rosters of all thirty two NFL teams you would undoubtedly find the same array of religious beliefs and non-beliefs that you would in any other group of American citizens. And, as you may or may not know, approximately three quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians in some way shape or form.
But has he taken it to a new level with all this “Tebowing” and “Thanking the Lord-ing” that he’s been doing? What makes Tim Tebow’s kneeling and praying so much different than any other NFL players kneeling and praying? Don’t we realize that prayer is a common thing in the NFL? Don’t we realize that prior to every single game in every single locker room in every single football stadium across the NFL there are players kneeling and praying? Haven’t we all seen teammates kneeling and praying on the sidelines as a game deciding field goal is about to be attempted? If you look closely at the field following the end of a game you will always see a group of players, from both teams I might add, kneeling and praying together. They don’t usually show us this particular scene, being preoccupied with the opposing coaches handshakes, or lack thereof. But they are there, every single game.
And it’s the same in colleges and high schools and elementary schools across the country. Prayer and football are connected. I went to a public high school in Massachusetts with no religious affiliation and I can remember being led in prayer in our locker room before games. It didn’t seem odd or out of place, even though I don’t think I ever prayed in my personal life at the time. People knelt and prayed when someone was seriously injured on the field. Even though I attended a small liberal arts college in the Northeast that some religious zealots would probably consider a Godless bastion of heathenism and communist ideals, some of my teammates prayed before every single game. I have never been to war, and as such I think that the comparisons that are often drawn between playing football and going to battle are insulting to anyone who has ever seen real combat and the atrocities associated with it, but perhaps there is something intrinsic in the violent physical nature of football that echoes the old “No atheists in foxholes” mentality. And regardless of how you might feel about the comparison, ridiculous as it might be, it is just one of those things that people say and might help, maybe, to understand why prayer is so prevalent in football.
Approximate number of times that a photograph or video clip of another player in the NFL besides Tim Tebow was shown praying this week: 0.
But if we are supposed to care so much about Tim Tebow praying, shouldn’t we care so much about every NFL player who prays? I guess they’re just not as interesting. But why?
Is it really because of Tebow’s association with groups such as Focus on the Family, or his time spent in the Philippines performing circumcisions? Is it because he has appeared, alongside his mother, in a pro-life television commercial, or because he proclaims to be a virgin, saving himself for marriage rather than cashing in on his celebrity and filling hot tubs with champagne and loose women? Is this really all that fascinating? Or rather, are those things the most essential and fascinating facts about Tim Tebow?
Having never met or spoken to Tebow personally, I’ll just have to assume that these things are all true. And I while I may disagree (vehemently in some cases it’s worth noting) with some of Focus on the Family’s visions for our society, and while I may chuckle at the idea of an NFL quarterback performing circumcisions (because, let’s face it, that is kind of funny, right?), he is an active participant within the causes that he believes in and that is how society, good or bad, right or wrong, works. He strikes me as a genuine person, and so, even if I disagree with some of his opinions and beliefs I must respect his right to have and express those views. What strikes me is how, in Tebow’s case, there seems to be no separating the man from the player we see on the field. And maybe that’s just it. Tebow might just be the rare case of a professional athlete that we are unable or maybe even unwilling to separate from the person underneath the pads and the jersey.
This separation is something that we need to do all of the time as fans of sports in general and of specific franchises in particular. How else can we bring ourselves to cheer for adulterers, the violent and irresponsible; those that cheat the system with performance enhancing drugs, or those that abuse drugs and alcohol and all of the collateral damage that these things cause outside of the lines? I’m not saying I’m any better than anyone else in this regard. This is our lot as “fans”; we suspend rational thought and our better natures for the satisfaction of seeing our teams triumphant on the field of battle. You take a talented athlete with a troubled past and put him in your team’s uniform and more often than not, your opinions about this person begin to change. The judgment in our hearts softens. I won’t say that this is a bad thing, a little forgiveness and open-mindedness can go a long way in making the world a better place. But at the same I don’t believe that anyone could make the case that this is absolutely, 100% a positive reflection upon who we are as people or as fans. So we separate the player from the person. We root for his big catch, or big hit, or great blocking, and we pretend that the man does not exist outside of the stadium, the arena, Sunday afternoon. It is what it is.
To be fair, however, it should be stated that these situations are the exception, and not the rule. Most players we just don’t know enough about. They keep their private lives private. They keep their religion and their politics to themselves. Also, in a sport with at least 53 men on one team, there just isn’t enough attention to go around. So those players who are not as well-known fly under the radar, avoiding the kind of scrutiny that follows the superstar or the super-fool. So in the end we really just don’t know. And honestly, isn’t the thought of having to form an opinion about the kind of person that every professional athlete is an entirely overwhelming idea? Would it do us any good?
My largest concern in all of this is that we spent too much time worrying about whether or not we should be worrying about Tim Tebow the man and less time enjoying the Denver Broncos and their truly unorthodox quarterback. This is the lost story of 2012. The story of an NFL team that started 1-4, brought in a largely untested option-quarterback and went on to win their division and lead the league in rushing offense. Haven’t we been told for years that the option could never work in the NFL? That there just wasn’t a quarterback who could withstand that kind of punishment from NFL defenses? The Broncos won football games in ways that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. And by the way, they upset one of the best defenses in the league with this quarterback in the first round of the playoffs. I’m not saying that teams need to start running the option exclusively; the truth is, there may not be another quarterback in the league that can do what Tebow does week in and week out. Even if this game on Saturday night proves it can only get you so far, it doesn’t change the fact that this was a damned good story in the NFL this year.
And I think that Tim Tebow himself probably feels a little ashamed by how much attention he has gotten relative to his teammates during this somewhat remarkable run. And he seems happy to deflect the praise to them and to God at every opportunity he gets, as far as I have seen. Certainly all of this publicity will help him in his off the field endeavors, and good for him. As Saturday night’s game approached, Tebow’s charity had already exceeded its donations goal for the fiscal year. The world can use all the charitable professional athletes it can get, regardless of that athlete’s religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
If you watched closely Saturday night, after the clock had run out and the players from both teams made their way onto the field to congratulate each other, the cameras followed Tim Tebow. There was a crowd of maybe ten to fifteen photographers capturing his every move, his every glance and gesture. It was maybe one of his worst days at work ever, and he looked frustrated and distraught. He seemed to be looking for someone in particular. Was it Belichick? Brady? Perhaps one of his former Florida Gator teammates, of which there were several on the Patriots roster? He scanned the crowd of people doing his best to maintain what precious little personal space was afforded him.
He was undoubtedly already readying himself for the tactless questions of sports reporters. He would have to answer for his completion percentage, his total yardage, the lack of offensive production. He would be asked to comment on the end of Denver’s season and on his prospects for returning as the Bronco’s starter when training camp rolls around. Someone would probably ask him to compare himself to Tom Brady on a day when Brady had just tied an NFL record for touchdown passes in a playoff game and set two franchise records, a day that saw his team fall to the New England Patriots 45-10. Fair questions, I should add, but I can’t say they don’t make me cringe just a little, imagining myself in Tebow’s shoes faced with the same needling tactics that just come with the territory.
To his credit, Tebow answered them all humbly, and with all of the quasi-political speech that athletes have adopted to discuss themselves, their teams, and their opponents. Not really saying too much, but saying the right thing regardless. He thanked the Lord. And what’s the harm in that? As far as I know he’s not the first professional athlete to do so and he won’t be the last. Does it affect my beliefs? Does it impinge upon my first amendment rights? I don’t think so, but maybe I’m wrong, maybe what he says about God is supposed to be important to me. It’s hard to say these days. Maybe if the media convinces us of that then we will continue to seek to answer the most important questions we can ask of ourselves as human beings by watching television.
Somewhere near midfield, right on top of the Patriots logo a group of players drew near to one another. There were Patriots and Broncos, players and coaches. Together, no longer opponents on the field or professional athletes playing a game for money, they will kneel together. Just men joined in prayer, nothing more, nothing less.
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