Monday, January 9, 2012

Some Reflections on the Tim Tebow Phenomenon, Part 1

Yesterday's stunning overtime playoff victory by the Denver Broncos over the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers revived a phenomenon I had thought was in danger of going into eclipse, namely, the cult of Tim Tebow. Not surprisingly, most of the devotees of this cult self-identify as evangelical, "born again" Christians, who—at least in America—are wont to consider themselves to be a minority religious group oppressed and disrespected by the "liberal" forces at work in the wider culture. Thus when a high-profile professional athlete comes along who openly proclaims his faith, demonstrates it visibly by adopting a prayerful posture after plays ("Tebowing"), and participates in an anti-abortion ad (here), it is to be expected that many Christians would wish him well and even begin rooting for the Broncos if they had no former gridiron allegiance. Precedent for this may be found in the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s, whose coach Tom Landry and quarterback Roger Staubach were shrewdly used by marketing genius Tex Schramm to forge the image of what became known as "America's Team" (much to the chagrin and gastrointestinal discomfort of Eagles fans like myself).

Nevertheless, the extent to which allegiance to Tebow has grown to cult status is, to my mind, unprecedented in my fifty years of following sports. Critics of Tebow, such as Boomer Esiason (here), are assumed to base their criticism less on his play than on his overt religious faith. Indeed, many accuse his critics of hostility based solely on this criterion, thereby feeding the flock's sense of undeserved cultural marginalization. Some, such as Fox's Jen Engel (here), have even opined that Tebow wouldn't be treated in this fashion were he a Muslim.  Positively, some even have pointed to Tebow's 316 passing yards in yesterday's game as divine vindication in light of his once having been barred from painting John 3:16 into his eye black (here).

Quite apart from the irrelevance—indeed, silliness—of this last observation, one must look seriously at the basis for the near-unanimous panning of Tebow by football experts. Is it due to the experts' disdain for Christianity? In a word, the answer is "No." I am not questioning the probability that Tebow's outspoken faith rubs many critics the wrong way. However, if this is the real basis of their "hostility," this is certainly a new direction in football punditry. The fact of the matter is that Tebow is not the first, nor is he the only current, star athlete to be a very public Christian. One thinks of Bobby Jones, the star basketball player in the '70s and '80s for the North Carolina Tarheels and Philadelphia 76ers. Or Orel Hershiser, the former Dodger World Series hero and winner of 204 big league games. Or Yankee stars Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, the latter of whom is my choice as the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history. Or "The Minister of Defense," the late Reggie White, he of the 199.5 sacks and arguably the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history. Or—even most to the point—Brian Dawkins, Tebow's teammate and former Eagles All-Pro safety. Every one of these players was lauded by friend and foe alike both for their athletic prowess and Christian lifestyle. Once again, perhaps the culture has shifted to the point where using athletic events as a platform for verbal Christian witness is less accepted than in the past. If so, we Christians will have to adjust accordingly.

The real reason, however, for the skepticism surrounding Tebow is that, to be frank, his mechanics are terrible, he is an inaccurate passer, and he is not even close to being a top-tier NFL quarterback. I have followed the game for fifty years and have seen all the greats—from Unitas and Starr to Tarkenton and Staubach to Montana and Marino to Elway and Favre to Manning and Brady to Rodgers and Brees. Tebow simply cannot be mentioned in the same breath with players such as these. I will gladly acknowledge that his unorthodox style and prowess with a non-standard NFL offense may have led to some skepticism and consequent underrating. His size and running ability have caused many to compare him to former Bears quarterback Bobby Douglass. This is unfair to Tebow, however, for, as poor a passer as Tebow is—his 72.9 passer rating this year is well below average—Douglass was far worse, as is attested by his career 48.5 rating. He also may be better than Vince Young, another star college quarterback whose contribution to the 2011 Eagles included a four-interception performance against Seattle that likely kept the team out of the playoffs. But he has a long way to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath with Steve Young, to whose standard Tebow should aspire.

In my next post I will look at some biblical perspectives to analyze the Tebow phenomenon. Before I do that, however, I would like to ask my Christian readers two questions for them to ponder. First, Why is it that so many Christians in America have taken up the Tim Tebow banner when they have not done so for players like Rivera, White, and Dawkins, all of whom are far superior performers at their respective sports? Second, How would they respond to a prominent Muslim athlete who ostentatiously took out a prayer rug every game and gave praise to Allah after every victory? I have some suspicions about how the first question would best be answered, but I have no doubt about the answer to the second question. You see, I remember well the public conversions to Islam of two of the greatest athletes in my lifetime, Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor. More to the point, I remember full well the reaction of mainstream America to these conversions, not least that of the Christians among whom I lived and worshipped. If indeed most Christians answer this latter question honestly, they have very shaky ground upon which to criticize those who dislike Tebow for similar reasons.


  1. Well written Jim. As a former NFL chaplain, I am amused by the outcry of so many thinking that Tebow is the first outspoken Christian athlete supported by a consistent godly lifestyle to come under the fire of criticism (Jeremiah Castille, Jim Zorn, Steve Largent, Rob Taylor, Jeff Davis, Kevin Mawae, Bobby Hebert, Kent Graham, Gary Carter... just to name a few). The arguement of 'religion' in sports has been one of hot debate for over thirty years in the public sector and even behind the closed doors of the locker room and front office. Yet the door has remained open to ministries such as Pro Athletes Outreach, Athletes In Action, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to provide chaplains to teams and players in all of professional sports and most college campuses; and the presence of these chaplains provide a myriad of needs that most sports fans are unaware of that go way beyond chapel services and Bible studies.

    Several conversations that I have had regarding other players that profess to be believers being critical of Tim's 'fanaticism' and taking his faith over-the-top might actually be the result of lukewarmess and faithlessness demonstrated in the lives of the critics.

    I had the privilege of spending a few days with Tom Landry back in 1999 (one of his last FCA engagements before his health failed and his home-going), and his honesty and transparency was enveloped in such a spirit of humility that just overflowed with the presence and influence of Christ and the Word in his life. He made a simple statement to an FCA businessmen's luncheon in Fort Lauderdale: "I am not a coach who happens to be a Christian, rather I am a Christian who just happens to have been a coach." His mission - as is ours... to live out on the stage of our lives:

    "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." Romans 1:16 NASB

    This might have been a little longer than a comment... Thanks Jim... Be blessed, Dale

  2. +$3,624 profit last week...

    Get 5 Star verified winning picks on MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL + Anti-Vegas Smart Money Signals!!!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.