(Yeah, I know, you think the headline contains stilted language. Verily, verily, Shakespeare the Catholic and King James the Protestant doth love it.)
A number of recent articles have analyzed the interest in (or, in some cases, disdain for) Tim Tebow, the rookie second-year quarterback of the Denver Broncos, whose unapologetic displays of Christian belief (especially kneeling in prayer) have brought about much conversation and consternation. (His passing ability and throwing technique have also spurred controversy, but I won't spend time on that right now.)
Daniel Foster's piece, "Tebow's Religion, and Ours" (NRO, Dec. 3, 2011), makes many good points, beginning with this insight:
But there isn’t an ironic bone in Tim Tebow’s body. That’s what makes him conspicuous. That’s what makes the fact that he’s managed to stay squeaky clean, in a sport that notoriously is not, conspicuous. And it’s why the power of Tebow’s evangelical-Christian faith, and the earnestness with which he professes it, seems to annoy so many people.
Foster examines some of the reasons that Tebow's actions and witness have upset other players and many football fans, and concludes with this:
A leader on the field and off who spent his college years not indulging in any of the worldly pleasures afforded to Heisman Trophy winners, but doing missionary work in Thailand; helping overworked doctors perform circumcisions in the Philippines (you read that right); and preaching at schools, churches, and even prisons. This is a young man with such a strong work ethic that, according to teammates, he can’t even be coaxed into hitting the town on a night after a Broncos win, because he is too busy preparing for the next week’s game. This is a young man who even turned the other cheek at Stephen Tulloch’s Tebowing, saying, “He was probably just having fun and was excited he made a good play and had a sack. And good for him.”
That’s way too much earnestness for the ironic. It’s way too much idealism for the cynical. And it’s way too much selflessness for the self-absorbed. In short, people aren’t upset at Tebow’s God talk. They’re upset that he might actually believe it.
Daniel Flynn, in a piece for Human Events, "The Tebow Haters" (Nov. 21, 2011), makes similar points:
Good people make bad people uncomfortable. Their example nudges everyone to undertake the hard work to be better. Our faults are so much easier to tolerate when we stand next to Jerry Sandusky.
More impressive than the on-field dramatics is the off-field demeanor. Tebow exhibited an infectious aw-shucks enthusiasm in his postgame interview with the NFL network. His namedropping of Jesus came across as heartfelt rather than perfunctory. He mouthed empty sports clichés with a strange conviction. He put a target on his back by plainly stating he wants to be a role model. As the highlight of his week, he pointed to a hospital his foundation helped build in the Philippines rather than the victory over the Jets.
Patton Dodd, in a just-posted essay, "Tim Tebow: God's Quarterback" (WSJ.com, Dec. 10, 2011), provides some interesting historical background regarding the relationship in America between religion and sports, then writes:
In communities across America, whether religious or secular, fields of play are often seen as workshops of character. Parents and coaches get kids involved with sports because they care about encouraging them to be better people.
At the national level, however, big-time sports is big business, with billions of dollars at stake, and Americans tend to be cynical about the whole show. In this world, Mr. Tebow's frequent professions of faith can come across as a discordant note, equal parts over-earnestness and naïveté. It's hard to resist the thought that, eventually, a darker reality will show through.
Mr. Tebow may indeed turn out to be a hypocrite, like other high-profile Christians in recent memory. Some of us might even want that to happen, because moral failure is something we understand. We know how to deal with disappointed expectations, to turn our songs of praise into condemnation.
What we are far less sure how to do is to take seriously a public figure's seemingly admirable character and professions of higher purpose. We don't know how to trust goodness.
I think Dodd a bit too optimistic about the good intentions of parents and coaches at the local community level (it is surely a very mixed bag), but he certainly right about professional sports being big business. (Many college sports are also big business, as this Oregon Duck football fan can attest.) Sports, it is often said in jest, are religious in nature. But the jest is hardly humorous when you consider the amount of money involved, the way that lives and bodies are often treated as mere commodities, and the manner in which fans immerse themselves in a particular team with a passion and singular furiosity that makes the actions and public expressions of most Christians look downright anemic and half-hearted in comparison. One of the most impressive and intense religious celebrations I ever witnessed in person took place in Autzen Stadium, arguably the largest place of worship in all of Oregon.
My headline, in fact, might better be: What hath Tim Tebow exposed? One doesn't need to put the young quarterback on a pedestal, or even defend his (ahem) unorthodox playing style, to recognize that his lack of cynicism, his practicing of what he preaches, and his unflinching public testimony have challenged the status quo of both pro football and pro fandom. And that is rather refreshing, especially since Tebow is unwavering in his insistence that real life and real meaning not only transcend sports, but are found far beyond the gridiron, even if what happens on the playing field can point, in some unexpected way, to permanent and ultimate truths.
By the way, on a related note, consider this point made by a priest: "This is something that frustrates the heck out of me. A child's coach demands mandatory attendance at every practice and game, a dress code (uniform, warm up suit, etc.), and a certain level of fundraising, and parents accept it without question. If a parish priest or religious education director asks that children attend every class, dress appropriately for Mass, and contribute to the support of the parish, what do you think happens?" Indeed.
• The Sacramentals of Sport (Insight Scoop)
• The Bowl, the Bet, and the Bard (Insight Scoop)