The Curious Martyrdom of Tim Tebow
A few hours ago, the entire world of sports journalism came to a momentary stop as the New York Jets formally announced their release of backup quarterback Tim Tebow.
In many ways, this parting of the ways was quite pedestrian. Going into last weekend the Jets had no less than six quarterbacks on their roster. Depending on who you ask, this is either two or three too many and Tebow’s neck was the obvious choice for the chopping block. There were approximately one hundred men at his position in the NFL last season, and of those Tebow’s QB Rating was fourth from the bottom. At $2.1 million dollars, he consumed a salary that was more than thirty percent greater than the average backup QB. His short NFL career was but mediocre even at its very best, when he was the Bronco’s weak link in that single year he led his team in the playoffs. And despite being a thoroughly likable young man he’s never possessed that on-camera charisma upon which so many of today’s professional athletes depend. (His publicists have gone to great lengths to make sure that as far as the national media is concerned, Tim is oft discussed but rarely interviewed.) Say what you will about Tim Tebow, but the bottom line is this: he’s just not a very good NFL quarterback, and he never really was. Not only will Tebow not play for the Jets, it’s entirely unlikely that he will ever take another snap in an NFL game for any team. All things being equal, his departure should have gone relatively unnoticed by even the most fanatical fantasy players.
And yet as I glanced up at the television in my gym early this morning, ESPN’s entire SportsCenter was devoted to nothing else. Anchors were rotating through cavalcades of whatever football analysts they could find who were awake and available to comment on both the Jet’s decision and Tim Tebow’s wholly unremarkable NFL career. The weekend’s baseball game outcomes were relegated to the bottom-screen score bar, and this morning’s ESPN viewers would be excused for not knowing the NBA and NHL are each in the middle of their playoffs. Even the news regarding the first ever major league athlete to come out of the closet while still playing wasn’t enough to break away from ESPN’s Tebowfest.
Really, has there ever been an athlete that was as much a product of his times as Tim Tebow? He’s that kind of player of whom we might muse, “had he not existed someone would have invented him” – except, really, that’s exactly what someone did. Tim Tebow has become one of the most polarizing figures in professional sports for the most amazing of reasons: he was created for no other purpose than to be so.
Casual football fans may not remember, but Tim Tebow is actually one of history’s great college backs. A perennial Heisman candidate (and one time winner) for the Florida Gators, Tebow shattered records for a school that had previously boasted such college greats as Rex Grossman, Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel. Despite this, his option-based skill set was considered lacking by NFL scouts. His weaknesses as a passer made most analysts (correctly) assume that his value as a quarterback in the pass-heavy NFL systems would be limited. Indeed, his entire NFL career might have come and gone entirely unnoticed were it not for both a minor NCAA rule change and the marketing genius of NFL agent Jimmy Sexton.
In 2010 the NCAA banned the practice of players printing messages on their eye paint. Tebow was known to have used this fashion to print the chapter and verses of Biblical passages, but in truth the rule had been coming even before him. The NCAA has never been keen on non-approved packaging of any kind, and as such it was never entirely comfortable as it watched the eye black messaging grow steadily throughout the 2000s thanks to highly visible players such as Reggie Bush. The NCAA finally decided enough was enough and began the process of doing away with them after Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor wrote the word “VICK” on his eye paint, in a sign of solidarity for the then-recently convicted Michael Vick in 2009. When the rule change was finally handed down in 2010, however, it coincidentally occurred a week before the NFL draft for which Tebow had made himself eligible, and two months after Tebow’s new sports agent had convinced him to do a Superbowl ad for Focus on the Family. Tebow’s ability (or lack thereof) to succeed in the NFL was the biggest topic of football conversation at the time, and as the slow-news football stars aligned the media erroneously dubbed the NCAA’s decision the “Tebow Rule.”
Tebow’s ascension as a cultural Zeitgeist coincided with social conservatives’ primal screams against their President. Midway between the hostile town hall meetings of 2009 and the short-lived electoral victories of the 2010 mid-terms, Jimmy Sexton recognized that the narrative of powerful elites persecuting a high-achieving, conservative Christian for his beliefs dovetailed perfectly with the similar narratives about Obama’s FEMA camps, Muslim plots and child indoctrinations. And as with those other cultural touchstones, Sexton recognized that the facts at hand were irrelevant compared to the emotions the new Tebow narrative engendered.
And so in addition to reaching out to the ESPNs, Sports Illustrateds and Sporting Newses of the world, Sexton’s publicists began pitching their narrative to the political arms of talk radio and cable news. In short order, you were just as likely to hear about Tim Tebow on Hannity, Rush or Hewiit, and for the past three years the narrative has gone unchanged: Because of his vocal love for God, the sports media complex is conspiring to keep Tim Tebow from being the all-star player he really is. And just as surely as Tebow became the unlikely martyr of those that consume that style of conservative media, he likewise became the devil incarnate for those who oppose them.
All of which is really astounding when you stop to think about it, because either as a professional athlete or a Christian Tim Tebow has yet to do anything of note. As referenced above, the best you can say about him on the field is that he’s on the lower end of mediocre NFL quarterbacks. As for the whole Christian thing, it’s nice and all – but it’s hardly unusual in football. Almost any post-game interview of any player in any professional sport over the past fifty years contains a humbled shout out to the Lord Almighty, of course, but football and faith are particularly intertwined. It’s harder to find football players that don’t profess their love of Christianity than it is to find those that do, and for good reason. Football players that wear their conservative Christian faith on their sleeves are more than just popular with fans; they are beloved. Many, such as Steve Largent, JC Watts, and Lynn Swann, have parlayed their identity as gridiron Christian soldiers into lucrative political careers. The good Christian football player is as old as football itself and entirely ubiquitous.
And now after three years of artificial controversy, it appears Tim Tebow’s Zeitgeist is coming to a close. (Although, who knows? He has recently signed with a Hollywood talent agency, so perhaps there is an entire cottage industry to be made on the narrative that his Christian faith is the only thing keeping Tim from wracking up Oscars.) I for one wish him well. I always liked Tebow, mainly for the competitive spirit he always displayed on the field. True, I often rolled my eyes at the shameless marketing of his brand. The trademark practice of Tebowing always looked a little to choreographed for my tastes, and his publicists willingness to sue anything that even sniffed around the gravy train they knew would be short-lived always rankled.
The persecuted Christian narrative, though, was something I never had a problem with. The whole entertainment-over-reality thing is dangerous and contemptible in politics and serious journalism, but it’s just right for an entertainment vehicle like the NFL. And therein, of course, lies the great irony in all of this:
Tim Tebow may have been a lousy NFL quarterback, but he was the perfect NFL star.