Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Lions 1, Christians 0: A Minister Reflects on Tim Tebow

On Sundays in the fall I believe in keeping a strict divide between the sacred and the secular. Sunday mornings are for spiritual pursuits, for leading worship, prayer, and celebration. Sunday afternoons are set aside for profane pursuits, for dozing on the couch while NFL games are on the television. Now, along comes Tim Tebow whose presence seems to demand that I introduce religious thought into my secular act of football watching.

At the end of this essay (section 4) I’m going to write about why I don’t like mixing football and theology. But before I do let me give a little bit of background information about Tebow for those who don’t follow football.

1. Background Information (for those who don’t follow football)
Tim Tebow is, for now, the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, one of the worst teams in the NFL. Tebow went to college at the University of Florida where he won a Heisman trophy and a pair of National Championships. He was a first round draft pick (25th overall) for the Broncos in the 2010 NFL draft. He spent most of his rookie season riding the pine but was given a chance to start at the end of last season once Denver had locked up last place in the truly mediocre NFL West. He did absolutely nothing during that time to distinguish himself as a future star.

Tebow started this football season on the bench once more. After 5 games, and with Denver again racing towards the bottom of the league, Tebow was given the chance to start. In his first game he played three and a half quarters of terrible football, but he did orchestrate an excellent fourth quarter comeback and overtime win. It should be noted that this victory came against the putrid Miami Dolphins, a team that very well may be trying to lose all of its games so that it can draft Stanford’s Andrew Luck in the 2012 NFL draft. (Luck is regarded as a once-in-a-generation football talent. He is so good and so coveted that some think multiple NFL teams will try to lose all their games this season in order to try to win the right to draft him. The strategy is commonly known as “suck for Luck.”)

Tebow, of course, is more than just a bad quarterback playing for a lousy team. He is more than just another in a long line of college superstars whose game did not convert to professional football. Tebow is a cultural icon, a bigger-than-life brand whose every move is deemed worthy of headlines on ESPN.

Tebow is an evangelical Christian and is very public about his faith. While dominating the college game at Florida, Tebow gained fame for wearing black stickers under his eyes with Bible verses written on the stickers.

Before he was even drafted, Tim Tebow made headlines in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. He appeared in a Super Bowl commercial paid for by Focus on the Family, a right wing Christian organization. The vaguely anti-abortion commercial spot featured Tebow’s mom talking about how she had a medically challenging pregnancy, but her son turned out to be a football star.

2. Tebow as Culture Phenomenon, Icon, and Idol
The Tebow phenomenon is not really about Tebow. It isn’t about football. Somehow, perversely, Tebow has become a symbol of the relevance and significance of evangelical Christianity in American culture. This is much more than I want to think about while dozing on the couch on Sunday afternoon. Grantland writer Brian Phillips only half-jokingly commented, “Somewhere within all our reptilian hearts lurks an instinct for trial-by-combat. This instinct tells us that when a person is strongly associated with an idea, we can use that person's success or failure within the sphere of competitive athletics as a legitimate indication of the quality of the idea… As a result, it's basically impossible not to see Tebow's ability or inability to complete a 15-yard out pattern to Matt Willis as a referendum on the Book of Deuteronomy.”

That may seem completely absurd, but fans have certainly attached enormous significance to the player. He has the bestselling jersey among any player in the league, unheard of for a player who is a second-stringer at best. Fans in Denver literally purchased billboard space demanding that Tebow be allowed to start. They weren’t rooting for a player as much as they were rooting for an idea. The idea was that Tebow is entitled to play. He is a clean cut kid whose faith says that “all things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9:23) And, it seems as though his fans really do believe that that he has been chosen and anointed for success on the football field despite all of his human limitations as a player.

Hollywood could not have scripted a better start for him. The Broncos comeback against the Dolphins was labeled “the Miami Miracle.” Tebow marked the victory by kneeling in prayer, bowing his head, and pressing his fist against his forehead – imagine Rodin’s “The Thinker,” just with the fist against the forehead instead of under the chin. Was Tebow’s pose earnest or was it premeditated? Only Tim knows for sure, but there will always be skeptics. It might be noted that with the right amount of pressure from the fist, your face will wince in pain making the prayer seem a lot more intense and sincere.

Even this pose became culturally significant. Over the course of the last week, “Tebowing” became an internet sensation with people tweeting pictures of themselves kneeling in prayer in all sorts of random locations. So grew the myth of St. Tebow.

Well, at least until Sunday. On Sunday there would be no second coming of the miracle in Miami. On Sunday the Broncos hosted the reeling Detroit Lions and the game was a slaughter. The Lions embarrassed the Broncos, winning 45 to 10. Tebow didn’t lose the game all by himself, but he certainly contributed to the blowout loss, playing the quarterback position as ineptly and abysmally as anyone in recent memory. Some of the Lions players even decided to show him up. One Lions defender sacked Tebow and celebrated by striking his iconic pose as he lay crumpled on the ground. Another Lions player Tebowed in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. Lions haven't treated a Christian this badly since the days of the Roman Coliseum!

3. Cold, Hard Football Facts
Before I conclude with some reflections about Tebow and theology, let me just say a few words about Tebow the football player. Tebow was, without a doubt, one of the great college players of all time. However, for a number of reasons, success in college does not necessarily translate into success in the pros.

The college game is extremely diverse with teams adopting innovative styles. Georgia Tech runs the triple option. Oregon runs the blur. Teams use the statue of liberty play and the hook and ladder. On a drive late in last Sunday’s game between Stanford and USC, Stanford utilized the wildcat formation and had Andrew Luck run a naked bootleg. The conservative NFL, meanwhile, prizes homogeneity. The players are too fast and too disciplined for strategies like these to work.

Tebow is far from the only Heisman trophy winner – an award given to college football’s most outstanding player – to not project as much of a quarterback in the NFL. Oklahoma’s Jason White won the award following the 2003 season and went undrafted. He never played in the NFL. Option quarterback Eric Crouch won the Heisman following the 2001 season and was drafted in the middle rounds by the St. Louis Rams. The Rams hoped to convert him into a backup wide receiver. Crouch retired before he ever played a game in the NFL. (Arkansas’ Matt Jones was another star college quarterback who was drafted to play as a wide receiver.) Andre Ware, Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta, and Danny Wuerffel all had underwhelming NFL careers. 1993 winner Charlie Ward elected to play professional basketball instead of football.

Each year there are several highly regarded players who are busts. And Tebow was not highly regarded as a "can't miss" NFL star.

4. Theology and Tim Tebow
The information I’ve shared above strongly indicates that it would be idiotic to draw any conclusions about Christianity from Tebow’s performance on the field. To do so would be the very definition of idolatry. Tebow’s performance is not a referendum on God’s truth or power. Those who want to make it such a referendum are setting themselves up for a significant disappointment.

The NFL is full of committed Christians. Of the 2,000 or so players who will play in the NFL this year, we can conservatively guess that hundreds of them are devout Christians. Kurt Warner, a very successful quarterback, used to attribute his success on the field to God. Which begs the question: when a safety missed a tackle on Torry Holt or when a cornerback failed to cover Isaac Bruce, was God causing those players to fail? Surely, Warner scored many touchdowns against defensive players who were devoutly Christian.

If an individual’s success on the football field is a part of God’s plan, then are the horrific injuries on the football field – concussions, spinal cord injuries resulting in paralysis, broken bones – also a part of God’s plan? What about the child who goes to sleep hungry in the neighborhood next to the stadium? What about all of the cumulative suffering in the cities of Gainesville, or Miami, or Denver? If God had a design for the play that sends Tebow’s team to victory, did God also design the trajectory of the stray bullet that killed the child during the drive-by shooting?

These questions trouble me. I would prefer not to think about them while watching football on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, what I find profoundly soothing is that the game is a game. It is a diversion, a spectacular and restful diversion. The outcome really doesn’t matter. One team will win and the other will lose and it won’t matter.

We’re surrounded by things that do matter. This is true for me as a minister and it is true for all of us. We face questions of life’s meaning and death’s meaning. We face the reality of pain and suffering. We face struggles and challenges. We ask questions about what it means to live lives of integrity and purpose. We wrestle with big issues. And, on Sunday afternoons for a few months during the fall, it is nice to enjoy a respite from these troubling thoughts. Play the game and don’t try to tell me it means anything.

When I think about mixing football and religion I can't help but remember the unfortunate case of Reggie White. Reggie White played in the 80s and 90s for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. He was one of the greatest defensive football players of all time. He was also a Christian minister and his nickname was "the minister of defense." Unfortunately, White's great play on the field was diminished by an address he gave to Wisconsin legislature, a thoroughly ignorant and bigoted speech that was homophobic and also full of disgusting racial stereotypes. Not only is there a separation of church and state issue here, but I think there is also a separation of religion and football issue. White's celebrity as a football player has no religious or theological bearing. I don't show up and demand to diagram football plays. I'll stick to what I'm good at.