November 7, 2011
In Tebow Debate, a Clash of Faith and Football
By GREG BISHOP
Tim Tebow is an N.F.L. quarterback, and Tim Tebow is an outspoken Christian. And while quarterback controversies are almost as common as quarterbacks, who play perhaps the most scrutinized position in American sports, what has erupted around Tebow this season is altogether different. At the intersection of faith and football, the fervor that surrounds both Tebow’s beliefs and his struggles in his second season for the Denver Broncos has escalated into a fullblown national debate over religion and its place in sports. While Tebow is not the first openly religious athlete, the circumstances surrounding his performance this season are so unusual, the N.F.L. is experiencing a rare, if not unprecedented, religious feud. The latest chapter in the Book of Tebow played out Sunday, when he threw two touchdown passes in the Broncos’ upset of the Oakland Raiders, perhaps saving his status as the starter, but not ending the larger debate. “The role religion plays here is enormous,” said Kurt Warner, the former N.F.L. quarterback and a similarly outspoken Christian athlete. “When somebody professes their faith, and I was that guy for a long time, people automatically think when you praise God
it’s because He makes passes go straighter or helps win games. When you lose, they say, your faith doesn’t belong here. Your God’s not helping you win.” To his most fervent supporters — and there are many — Tebow was never just a quarterback. He was a champion of Christianity in shoulder pads, a wholesome, fearsome football player who loved God and touchdowns, in that order. If detractors found Tebow preachy, if he seemed too good to be true, he still won two national championships and a Heisman Trophy at the University of Florida, securing his legend as one of the greatest college players ever. Drafted last year by the Broncos, he played sparingly his rookie season. Now, his struggles to adapt to the N.F.L. have changed the tenor of the debate around him, made it nastier, more personal, more intense. Supporters have reacted to criticism of Tebow as an indictment on religion, while detractors seem to delight in every wayward pass. Just last year, Tebow drew national attention for his antiabortion commercial broadcast during the Super Bowl. In the past three weeks, he has become the most discussed and most polarizing figure in sports, strange territory for a replacement player on a last-place team. Opponents mocked his celebration pose — kneeling, in prayer, which became an Internet meme known as Tebowing — and his coach offered a lukewarm vote of confidence. One columnist in Denver called Tebow the worst quarterback in football. Another columnist in Canada labeled Tebow the “Kim Kardashian of sports,” for the intense reaction he elicited. Online, the torrent of mockery and criticism has been fierce. Blog posts included “God explains why he let Tim Tebow fail” and Twitter exploded in hateful vitriol, to which the Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski mused: “I believe Tim Tebow isn’t an N.F.L. starter and I want him to prove me wrong because I believe he’s a great guy. Is that allowed?” In sheer volume and intensity, the comments section on an ESPN article best captured the storm known as Tebow mania. They ranged from critical to crude under the theme “X is > Tebow,” with X being “eating your kids” among the options, as moderators struggled to delete the escalating venom. “This isn’t so much about Tim Tebow,” said Lincoln Blumell, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and a former college quarterback. “This is about people and about religion in sports.”
When he starred at the University of Calgary, Blumell prayed at his locker before and after games. Early on, though, he decided that any expressions of faith beyond that, on the field, would feel insincere. Tebow took the opposite approach, and to Blumell and most others, that felt genuine, too. Tebow inscribed Bible verses on the black patches worn under his eyes, a practice since banned by the N.C.A.A. He preached to prisoners in America and circumcised babies in the Philippines, where his parents were missionaries. Blumell watched Tebow’s final college game, from the Sugar Bowl stands on Jan. 1, 2010, witnessing a “remarkable polarity in the crowd with religious undertones.” He turned to a friend and said, “Tebow’s going to be president.” As vice president at Nielsen Sports, Stephen Master measures an athlete’s endorsement potential based on awareness and appeal. Nationally, the company tested Tebow after the draft in 2010 and again before this season. Coming out of college, Tebow recorded an Nscore of 141, “an incredible rating,” Master said, “M.V.P.-like.” In the second test, Tebow’s N-score fell to a 41, which still ranks high. His positive appeal, though, dropped to 76 percent from 85 percent, while his negative appeal increased to 24 percent from 15 percent. Under negative appeal comments, responders wrote “overrated” and “annoying” and “overexposed” and “religious nut job.” “There’s always a religious component there,” said Howell Scott, an evangelical blogger and pastor at a Baptist church in New Mexico. “And with Tebow, it’s often an antiChristian bias. People want him to fall flat on his face.” Scott refers to this as Tebow Derangement Syndrome, which his blog defined as “the acute onset of mockery and verbal ‘hatred’ in otherwise normal people in reaction to the football prowess and play — nay — the very existence of Tim Tebow.” Tim Hasselbeck, a football analyst for ESPN, estimated that half the N.F.L. is similarly of faith. Yet while sports fans, as the retired player turned analyst Randy Cross noted, have “become numb to the first five seconds of an interview, only because it’s someone professing some form of faith,” Tebow seems to elicit scorn in a way that, say, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Warner, or other religious athletes, did not. Warner believes the difference lies in the level of exposure and expectation. While both used football as a platform, Warner said, fans identified with his story, from grocery bagger to Super Bowl M.V.P., more than they identified with Tebow, who garnered a
greater following and greater backlash, so much so that Warner felt compelled to reach out to his friend in recent weeks. Reactions toward Tebow can seem polarized between those who lionize him as a mythological athlete and those who perhaps resent the idea that Tebow taps into some higher power on the field. “I feel like it’s a little much,” Hasselbeck said. “At ESPN, with so many different outlets, you feel like you’re having the same conversation over and over again. There’s a lot of talk about him. You can’t say it’s just religion. At the same time, you hear a lot of things that sound like an attack on his beliefs.” To Rich Gannon, the SiriusXM radio host and former N.F.L. quarterback, the religious overtones overshadow other possible reasons that Tebow is struggling: he did not get to spend the off-season around his teammates because of the N.F.L. lockout; the Broncos’ roster is largely bereft of talent; a new offensive system was installed before this season; and the top receiver was traded — the normal factors used to judge a quarterback. Gannon said there should be a separation between Tebow the football player and Tebow the Christian athlete. On Sunday, with his job hanging in the balance, Tebow propelled the Broncos to one game outside first place in the muddled A.F.C. West. His message: Keep the faith.