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Tebow, Football and Religion in 2011

November 29th, 2011 · 2 Comments · Football, NFL, Paris, soccer, UAE

We interrupt this Paris travelogue to weigh in on Tim Tebow.

Yes, I may be the last person holding U.S. citizenship to be heard on the topic. In part, that’s because so many others reacted so quickly and so vociferously that I felt no need to join the shouting.

I like Tim Tebow. I admire Tim Tebow. For some of the reasons many people do. But for some that are less celebrated, as well.

To wit:

–Tim Tebow represents a style of football that had disappeared from the NFL. As violent as the league remains, in many ways it has gone soft at its core. It now typically is a game of speed and separation and turning corners, of 40 passes and 60 percent completion rates and third-and-1 as a passing down. And that is a dainty, refined form of trickery, it seems. It gauges whose nimble men are best. That is not where football came from.

Many of us no longer have the stomach or the patience for real smash-mouth football. The 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust stuff that made the league successful in the 1950s. For the Denver Broncos to go back to, basically, the single wing with Tim Tebow seems somehow medieval to many people. A denial of the god of progress, of the steady march of sophistication in professional football.

I like that. I love it that for a month or so the Broncos have won with this stuff. Their late rallies seem to have much to do with the concept of “softening up” an opponent through repeated episodes of large men running the ball at defenses. Again, something very primal in football minds: “At the end, we will be strong and you will be weak and victory shall be ours.”

–I like that an NFL team has gone all-in on the concept of The Inspirational Leader. This is real and meaningful on all other levels of football (high school, college) but pretty much gone from the NFL, where careers are fleeting, even great quarterbacks are barely known to their teammates on defense and injuries are so rampant that to depend on any one man to inspire is a dangerous business.

Not even the beast that is Tim Tebow can be immune to injury. But that the Broncos are behaving as if he is … I find that fascinating and I am glad they have been rewarded.

Tebow was asked to speak to teammates before their most recent victory, and quoted the Bible. Because of that, or independent of it, Von Miller, a rookie linebacker and his teammate, said: “I’ve never seen a human who can will himself to win like that.” That is leadership, and to see it in action is fascinating.

–His approach to Christianity-vs.-the-world seems more genuine and also more sophisticated than the normal “praise the Lord” stuff we often get from athletes, much of which seems far closer to superstition than formal religion.

This is a guy with a complete worldview, formulated from his childhood, who has weighed the evidence (some of it overtly spiritual, yes) and formulated an approach to life, the world and football that makes sense to him — and many others.

–His relentlessly proper and decent approach to life. The NFL is a league where strip clubs, wild spending and wretched excess, in general, are not only accepted but sometimes celebrated. But it also is a league where some of the most outwardly devout men have been shown to be frauds. (Rather like some of the most celebrated TV preachers.) Tebow hasn’t gone there (yet?), and the idea of Sports Figure as Hero/Role Model … the dated notion of  “Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy” … Tebow seems to be living it, and it’s a pleasant change of pace, even if not many of us would want to live up to that, ourselves.

On the topic of Christianity (or any religion) and sports, I do have some quibbles with Tebow. The concept of “Tebowing” multiple times per game seems excessive. I believe that he can commune with God without quite as many shows of it. I also understand that in his mind those displays probably seem necessary to communicate to outsiders what he wants them to know.

(Living and working in the UAE, it is interesting to see Muslim athletes fall to their knees and press their foreheads to the ground. This is fairly common, especially in the Gulf. Also, Javier Hernandez, a Mexican and Roman Catholic who plays for Manchester United, may have the longest and most public prayer in all of sports — coming as it does just before kickoff, at midfield.)

Also, I also have some trouble with Tebow’s admissions that he sometimes prays for victory — or for specific outcomes that will lead to victory. To wit: Conceding that he prayed for the Chargers to miss a field goal in overtime last Sunday.

I have some personal experience with this. I went to a Lutheran high school, and we never played a game without a team prayer beforehand. As a senior on the baseball team, I became the go-to pregame prayer guy. I guess I was just more glib, or something, or felt less awkward. But I never prayed for victory. For an injury-free game, yes, and that we might represent our school and our families well … but never for victory.

We can debate whether it is proper to pray for victory. On one hand, asking God to intervene in something as trivial as a baseball game seems ridiculous. (And what if the other side has “believers” too?) But, also, most monotheistic religions endorse an all-powerful God for whom no action is trivial and who does, in fact, oversee someone winning and someone losing. I choose not to go there. Tebow does.

Tim Tebow clearly is a very divisive figure. It seems fairly clear that the more secular half of America is discombobulated and alarmed by his success. That his detractors quickly turn so shrill (He can’t throw the ball! He can’t play in the NFL!) is revealing. That religious America celebrates his “muscular Christianity” also is telling.

The best analysis I have seen of the huge fault line that Tebow embodies, of religion vs. secular America, was written more than a month ago by Brian Phillips, on the Grantland.com site. I believe he touches on the hottest spots in that piece.

At the end of the day, I think we can agree on this: Tim Tebow is a phenomenon; Tim Tebow is good for the league; Tim Tebow has made this season far more interesting — and on all sorts of levels, many of them having very little to do with religion.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Britt // Dec 1, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Watching the Chargers game last weekend, Tebow made the event interesting and exciting while the Chargers continued to provide a pitiful spectacle. It is hard not to wish him well in a game when he puts himself on the line and wills his team to victory. He is enjoyable to watch, now I realize why his game is so appealing to audiences and why Broncos fans demanded that he start!

  • 2 Joe // Dec 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    If Tebow was a Muslim, he would be trumpeted as a hero, a man with conviction, a man of diversity and culture. Instead, being Christian, he is lampooned by the press, as seems to be the norm for Christians these days. You can’t make fun of anyone anymore, except Christians.

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