In 2009, before the fame of Tim Tebow had grown as big as it is today, one brave reporter asked Tebow a question that many were thinking: “Are you saving yourself for marriage?” The assorted media at the press conference burst into laughter, as did Tebow. Finally regaining composure, he replied, “Yes I am.” Another reporter tried to move on to another question, but there emerged another round of laughter as everyone in the room tried to grasp what he had just said. Here’s a prototypical college quarterback – an attractive, square chinned man – admitting that he was a virgin. Tebow then went on to say, “I was ready for the question. I don’t think y’all were.”
He’s right. The assorted media and the country as a whole have never seen anything quite like Tim Tebow, a professional athlete who has used his star power to spread his religion. He is perhaps the most religious pro athlete in any sport today: he prays before and after every game and gives all credit for his success to God. This is all combined with Tebow’s unbelievable habit of winning games in the final seconds on miraculous plays, after spending the entire game playing horribly.
This is a quarterback who regularly completes less than 50 per cent of his passes, often times throwing for less than 100 yards. The offense designed for him by his coaches became predicated on him running the ball in a sort of throwback to 1950s era football. By any statistical standard, he is not a good quarterback, but somehow he led his team, the Broncos, to an 8-8 record, a division title, and an unlikely overtime playoff win over the defending AFC champion, the Pittsburgh Steelers. His success defies description and logic, making his story a compelling one. Add in his intense religion, and you have the biggest sports media story of the year.
ESPN devoted two separate episodes of Sportscenter to Tebow alone, setting a record by mentioning Tebow’s name 160 times in one hour of programming. Many skits and comedians have devoted material to what is now known as “Tebow-ing.” Before and after games, and sometimes after critical touchdowns, Tebow will get down on one knee and genuflect to the Lord. The gesture itself has become a natinonal phenomenon.
After the Broncos miraculous win over the Steelers, in which Tebow threw an eighty yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to win the game, 43 per cent of respondents of a phone poll taken by Pollposition.com claimed that Tebow’s success was divinely inspired – that God himself had a hand in Tebow’s unlikely success.
So what makes Tebow so much more popular than any other athlete who points to the sky after a touchdown and thanks God in the post game interview? It certainly doesn’t hurt that he is a white male as opposed to many other athletes in the NFL. But perhaps what has garnered him so much publicity is the fervor of his religion and the overwhelming purity that he seems to represent.
Tebow has already appeared in an anti-abortion ad with his mother. He takes missionary trips to the Philippines to circumcise impoverished children, and he has a charity foundation that helps troubled children. Additionally, he brings a different child to every game, talks to them, attempting to make a personal connection with them. He is, overall, one of the most altruistic people in sports – personable, genuinely kind in public, and, reportedly, in private. His faith is no act, and it seems as though he uses it for what he sees as the greater good.
Maybe, though, Tebow’s popularity is predicated on the idea that God rewards the faithful. The Christian Right is a popular movement in the United States. With the typical ideals of the Christian faith being compromised in other realms like politics, Tebow’s success represents to the faithful what is being lost elsewhere in America. His victories are a reassurance for the religious – tangible evidence that faith can and will be rewarded, no matter how difficult the process is.
In this way, Tebow has become a bizarre platform for the intersection between religion and sports, a traveling preacher, who performs modern day miracles while playing the all-American game. This connection goes far beyond anything seen before. The religious have now co-opted sports as a platform for their message, using athletic prowess and achievement as proof of their message.
I, personally, don’t share the same viewpoint, and think that God (if real) would spare his prized player from a 45 to 10 playoff loss to the Patriots, or would give him slightly better mechanics and stats. Believe or don’t believe, but, whatever you choose, the projection of religion onto sports is a trend that doesn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon.