December 11, 2011


Tim Tebow: God's Quarterback: He has led the Denver Broncos to one improbable victory after another--defying his critics and revealing the deep-seated anxieties in American society about the intertwining of religion and sports. (PATTON DODD, 12/09/11, WSJ)

But Mr. Tebow has never been content to leave his evangelical faith on the field. Well before he became the starting quarterback for Denver, he was a lightning rod in America's intermittent culture war of believers vs. secularists.

In 2010, while still at the University of Florida (where he won the Heisman Trophy and helped the Gators to win two national championships), Mr. Tebow filmed a Super Bowl commercial for Focus on the Family, the mega-ministry known for its conservative political advocacy. The ad is about how Mr. Tebow's mother was advised to abort her son following a placental abruption, but she refused and, well, now we have Tim Tebow.

The ad takes the softest possible approach to the subject and never uses the terms "abortion" or "pro-life," but its intent was clear, and it generated controversy. Since then, feelings about Mr. Tebow have been a litmus test of political and social identity. If you think he's destined to be a winner, you must be a naive evangelical. If you question his long-term chances as an NFL quarterback, you must hate people who love Jesus.

The intertwining of religion and sports is nothing new in American culture. Both basketball and volleyball were invented by men involved with chapters of the Young Men's Christian Association in Massachusetts. Or consider the pioneering college coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862-1965), who created the batting cage in baseball, five-man teams for basketball and several of the standard aspects of football, from the man in motion, lateral pass and Statue of Liberty play to helmets, tackling dummies and names on uniforms.

The historian Clifford Putney has written that Stagg and his contemporaries combined faith with sports and competition because they believed that God wanted people to live healthy, vigorous lives. They believed that sports could help to make people good and thereby bring them closer to what God intended for them.

As Michael Lewis reports in his 2006 book "The Blind Side," one of the standard problems of today's top athletes--one of the main threats to long careers--is defective character. He offers a depressing list of high-school football standouts who came to ignoble ends because of selfishness and stupidity, including Eric Jefferson, a first-team all-American defensive end who was arrested for armed robbery, and Michael Burden, an NFL-bound defensive back who was charged with rape and then "vanished without a trace."

More recently, we have seen the disrupted careers of star athletes like Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress and Tiger Woods--men whose lives in professional sports have been undermined by character faults. Such stories are more common than we realize. For every Michael Oher (Mr. Lewis's subject in "The Blind Side") who overcomes harsh beginnings and makes it, there are many other promising athletes who are overcome by their own worst impulses. They lose, the game loses and fans lose.

Alternatively, keeping the faith can mean keeping one's best possible life. Josh Hamilton, the All-Star outfielder for the Texas Rangers, lost part of his career to drug and alcohol addiction before finding the support of a religious community. Tony Dungy, the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, says that his reputation for "quiet strength" (also the title of his best-selling book) developed only after God changed him from an angry, testy man into a model of "Christian maturity."

In the case of Mr. Tebow, what seems to fuel many of his fans--and to drive many of his critics crazy--is not so much his evangelical faith itself but the equanimity and generosity that his faith inspires in him. Can he really mean it when he says that football isn't that important to him, that he cares more about transcendent things? 

Posted by at December 11, 2011 6:56 AM

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