The Newest Front in the Culture War: Tim Tebow

Back in the day, the culture war in this country revolved around simple things like abortion, evolution, prayer in school, gay marriage, the death penalty, assisted suicide or the size of government.  Today, apparently, it is about how one man’s ability to read a defense, throw a tight spiral on a 10 yard out pattern and whether any of this is directly attributable to God.  Tim Tebow is the latest hot button issue in the culture war of America.

Tim Tebow is a Christian.  Tim Tebow is also an NFL quarterback.  Somehow, his ability to play his position has become a referendum on God by proxy.  You see, Tim Tebow does not play the QB position particularly well by the typical standards that QBs are judged by.  He does not have a strong arm.  He has a long throwing motion instead of a more ideal quick-release motion.  He does not have good mechanics.  When he was coming out of college, a lot of experts thought he was more suited to be an H-back or a halfback than a QB because of his running ability.  They believed he would have to unlearn all of the bad mechanical habits he had that came as second nature to him.  They believed this was going to be practically impossible because in the pressure situations of the NFL that QBs typically find themselves, unless a QB has had the right mechanics ingrained into them early enough, guys like Tebow will revert to their natural throwing motion.  In short, they didn’t think there was any way that Tim Tebow could be a successful NFL QB.

Except that now that he has been given the chance to be a starting QB for the Denver Broncos, he is 7-1 as a starter this year, and 8-3 as a starter including the 3 games he started at the end of last season.  And in doing so, there has been a clear division of fans into the Pro-Tebow and Anti-Tebow world.  And the debate that has arisen makes it seem like there is no room for middle ground.  Either Tebow is the greatest or the worst thing ever.

Tebowmania has taken hold of the NFL and even beyond the sports world.  He has become the ultimate Rorschach test.  Do you see only the good (wins) or the flaws (mechanics)?  Presidential candidates (I’m looking at you, Rick Perry) are name-dropping him in their debates, hoping that the mere mention of is name will be enough to engender themselves to potential voters in the primaries; talk about pandering.  People have gotten to the point where they seemingly cannot talk rationally about him as a player.  “Tebow Magic” has become a way of explaining his 4th quarter comebacks.  Other people are just completely incredulous, chalking him up to being nothing more than a product of the ESPN hype machine.

I feel like I am in a unique position.  I’ve never actually seen Tim Tebow play a game of football.  I have seen some of his highlights in recent weeks, but I’ve never watched a full game in which he has played from start to end.  I do not watch college football, so I never even saw him play when he was at Florida.  The only thing I have to go on is what I have heard everyone say about him, what I have heard from him personally, his pro-life Super Bowl commercial from two years ago (no doubt there’s a bit of latent animosity out there towards him for that for some people), and fantasy football analysis of him.  I’ve been fascinated and perplexed by everything surrounding the guy.  Just this past Sunday I was checking scores and stats online and noticed that the Broncos were down 10-0 to the Bears, Tebow was 3-for-18 and had an INT entering the 4th quarter.  And I thought to myself, “Well, this is about when it’s time for the Broncos to turn it on.”  And they did!  As a sports fan, moments like that are exciting and are what makes sports so enjoyable.  But apparently not everyone can fully enjoy these things because they are so blinded by their perceptions and their entrenchments.

The divide between the pro- and anti-Tebow forces has gotten to the point where it very much like how entrenched people have gotten in this country about certain politicized issues.  Neither side is willing or able to listen to anything the other side has to say, nor are they willing to engage in a productive conversation of any kind, they just want to get their talking points out there and prove that the other side doesn’t know what it’s talking about.  And everything is dealt with in absolutist terms.

Well, I’ve got news for everyone, the truth about Tim Tebow as an NFL quarterback is somewhere in the middle between the two entrenched sides who remain steadfast in their opinion of the guy.

As a Christian, I think it is great that he is upfront and open about his faith.  He isn’t afraid to say what he believes, and he believes very strongly that his professional success has afforded him a unique platform to spread the word about something he believes passionately.  This is not unique.  All kinds of athletes and other various celebrities use their celebrity status to get the message out about various causes or topics that are near and dear to their heart.  Curt Schilling is an outspoken advocate of finding a cure for ALS.  Lance Armstrong is very vocal about cancer.  Tom Cruise has his Scientology.  Barbara Streisand has things which she is outspoken about.  No one in the general public is faced with the choice of having to choose between buying into what a celebrity’s cause or dismissing their professional output.

Countless people in the public eye also take time at the beginning of their acceptance speeches or postgame interviews to “thank God.”  Too often, I find this to be incredibly cliché and an insincere throwaway line.  Tebow is one of the few people who say that and seems genuine when he says that, which is unsettling to some people.

On the flip side of that, people who take umbrage with the “Tebowing” phenomenon need to realize that when you make your faith so public, you put it out there for public consumption and all that comes with it.  Personally, I find the Tebowing fad entertaining, but that’s just me.  Also, how public is too public with your faith?  Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  How does an athlete like Tim Tebow balance this with routinely kneeling to pray in celebration?  This is not necessarily a question to which I have an answer, but it is one that I think is worth asking.  And as a counter to that, you could just as easily toss in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I think it is ridiculous to think that Tebow is winning because he has God on his side.  I am sure that there are plenty of Christians on other teams and that the outcome of a sporting event is of eternal significance.  And too many people are willing to give all of the credit to Tim Tebow for the Broncos winning with him as a starter.  In reality, the team as a whole has stepped up.  The team has won, in part, because of Tebow, but as much if not more credit could be given to the Broncos’ kicker, Matt Prater, who made two 50+ yard field goals in the 4th quarter and in OT last week to complete a comeback win, by no means an easy task.  And their defense has been playing very well too, led by stud 1st round pick Von Miller and one of the best corners of all time in Champ Bailey.

However, I think, indirectly, God does have something to do with what is going on in Denver.  Tebow, for all of his faults as a quarterback, has belief in his abilities and an unwavering confidence, and has an ability to get his teammates to believe in their ability to win too.  And that is a huge thing in sports.  This is the same team that was underperforming with Kyle Orton as their quarterback.  And the quarterback position, fair or not, is often as much about the intangibles and the ability to lead than it is about the stats and the arm and how you play the position.  He’s an elite QB now, but Tom Brady was not the Tom Brady we know today when he first took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001.  But he had a similar confidence and belief in getting the job done that rubbed off on his teammates.  And when a team starts to believe in its ability to get the job done, the sky is the limit.  It is at moments like that when a team’s sum truly becomes greater than its parts.  And as a Patriots fan who has never seen him play before and whose team is facing him in just a few hours, I am terrified of what he might do to the Pats porous defense.

To me, the biggest thing the Tebow critics don’t get and refuse to accept is that he gets better in crunch time.  A lot of QBs can put up great numbers, but when the pressure situations come, they falter and fall apart.  That is a criticism that has been made of Tony Romo over his career.  Tebow can put up some awful numbers through the first few quarters, to the point that it looks truly ugly, but he believes that his team can keep it close, they can find a way to pull it out.  There is something to be said for that.  And it is something I don’t think he gets enough credit for, especially since everybody wants a player who gets better in the big moments.  Tebow gets better in crunch time.

At the same time, you cannot turn a blind eye to his poor play leading up to crunch time.  I don’t believe you can consistently succeed in the NFL if your only have two completions for an entire game, or after three quarters of another game you find yourself 3-for-16 throwing the ball.  That is an area he needs to improve.  Right now, he is able to get away with it, but he cannot do this forever.  He is proving a lot of doubters wrong right now and challenging conventions that have been held for forever in the NFL, because he is finding a way to get it done and win games, but one convention he cannot change is that of the scrambling QB.  Scrambling QBs have a shelf life.  They need to adapt or die.  Eventually, his running ability will not be the asset it is right now.  Age or injury always take their toll on scrambling quarterbacks, and once the running ability is not what it once was, they need to have the passing ability to get by without it or be more judicious with it.  That was true of Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Steve Young, and, currently, Michael Vick.

Here is where Tebow should consider himself really blessed by God: His GM is John Elway, one of the greatest, most clutch QBs who ever played the position.  And he could run too.  If I was Tim Tebow, I would tie myself to John Elway’s hip as soon as the season is over, and spend the offseason trying to be a sponge and soaking in as much knowledge and whatever help I can gain from Elway.  You can’t ask for much of a better situation than that.

Lastly, people should keep in mind that how they feel about Tim Tebow is not a referendum on God.  Christians should not feel like they are obligated to support him blindly without reservation or criticism.  And non-Christians should not feel like rooting for Tebow is a tacit endorsement of God.  At the end of the day, it’s a helpful reminder to keep in mind that it is sports and it should be fun.  It’s a game where adults are being paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game.  Sit back and enjoy the spectacle of sport unfold.  If you’re a Broncos’ fan, you’re within your right to be over the moon with what is happening.  If you’re a fan of another team, you are well within your right to root on or jeer Tebow and the Broncos and not have it be about his beliefs.  And if you want to embrace him because of his faith, that is fine too.  What isn’t fine is to accept or reject his play based solely on his beliefs.  Don’t unnecessarily simplify what is happening and dig in just because you feel like you have to be pro-Tebow or anti-Tebow.  There is a wide middle ground.

~Moose

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