Monday, January 9, 2012

There have been a lot of things written about Tim Tebow this entire year, but especially today since the Denver Broncos defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a battle of virtue (Tebow, who is chaste) versus vice (Roethlisberger, who has been accused in the past of crimes against chastity and much worse).  But that is unfair to both men, one who might have repented of past sins and another who might have committed them unbeknownst to us, and to their teams. For, as Tebow knows, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). For all I know the Steelers have more devout Christians, Jews and Buddhists tackling and injuring people than the Broncos do. But, it is all crazy, to try to make sports a morality tale more than entertainment, fun and camaraderie, and to make sports victory hinge upon morality and religious belief. God cares about everybody on every field of play.

We know nothing of these men except what they show to us on the field and in monotone press conferences. But even if we knew them inside and out, how would that impact their wins and losses and whether they deserved them or not? We do not know any of these men who play sports, unless we actually know who they are as real people not just visions on the screen. They become useful ciphers for our visions of what are athletes should or should not be, whether they seem like thugs or like saints.  Yet, we do not know how much they struggle, how many hurts they have, or how constant criticism and nattering on 24 sports networks and radio call-in shows impacts their day-to-day existence.  The older I get, though, the more I look at how young these athletes are and how burdened they are with the outsized hopes of young and old men, who put far too much pressure on them, who give them far too much money and grant far too much importance to their wins in evaluating the worth of their lives. No wonder so many of them crack in a variety of ways.

Tebow seems to be a genuinely devout Christian and I have no reason to question him. As I wrote in late December, “He annoys, irritates and bugs people because of his faith, and those are just the Christians.  I have to admit that his type of Christian witnessing grates on me, but it is hard not to acknowledge what a fine young man he is and how hard he is working at being a fine young man. When I stand back from my mature critical irony, I must accept that he creates a lot of joy, even for me, and that since there is more joy in heaven, he reveals a little slice of heaven.”  His type of Christian witnessing grates on me partly because it is like sports and the athletes it revels in: it does not teach us much about the real person. It is only a symbol, a sign, but real living takes place not only when cameras are on. This is not an indictment of Tebow, it is an indictment of sports fans. It is only in true relationship that we come to know people and God and that cannot be done in sound bites or in prayers after games. I hope for him that the pressure of being "the Christian" does not become a temptation or a struggle. For we all struggle, if in different ways.

One of my favorite athletes right now is Michael Beasley, a supremely talented basketball player for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who sometimes seems to take himself out of games mentally. He has been suspended or checked into rehab at least a couple of times for using banned substances. In basketball, the players are so present to the fans and you can see their faces – expressions, grimaces, disappointment – and hear their voices. Beasley seems often to be floating psychically in and out of games, talking to the net, himself and the other players. Beasley might seem like the anti-Tebow, yet I love Beasley and his transcendent ability to float in the air. That, though, is only sports love. I love Beasley because I hope the best for him and just see him as a young man struggling to put his life together. Whether he wins scoring titles or NBA championships does not matter as much as whether he lives a good and happy life, at peace with those around him, himself and God.  This, too, is what I want for Tebow. Most fans will not care as much about Beasley as they do about Tebow, and that makes sense. But God cares just as much about Beasley, as he does about those of us who are not athletes, and as Tebow himself proclaims, God does not care who wins games.

Sports is just sports, and whether  the Steelers or Broncos win, or the Patriots, Ravens, Giants or Packers; it is only a game, whose real joys and agonies are fleeting and which must be kept in proper perspective.  Though I am beginning to believe that although God does not care who wins, he takes peculiar delight in the Vancouver Canucks losing Stanley Cup Finals.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. Tim Tebow has been a BIG topic of conversation at both my house and in my class. We have Broncos fans in the house, but my teenage sons loved Tebow even when he played college ball. And it had nothing to do with his religious stance. My students, on the other hand, are bothered by the style of his public display of religion. And I wonder whether that's part of it. People don't comment about the baseball players who make the sign of the cross when they come up for bat. Is it a class issue (Tebow prays in a way that is dismissed by the dominant religious culture of America)? Is it the austentatiousness of the prayer (and is the product of the media more than of Tebow)? Does he represent a GenX approach to religion that focuses on one's personal relationship with Jesus and mistrusts organized religion (and therefore traditional displays of piety like the sign of the cross)? Or is it simply seen as bad manners? I do think the interest in the topic nationally says something about religion in American in the 21st century. I'm just not sure what.

  2. Thanks Corri. Yes, Tebow has been a big topic at home and in class for me too. I personally like the way Tebow plays and admire his grit. I am less than enamored with the NFL's stereotypying of QBs and was glad to see Cam Newton have such a strong season as an "outside the box" QB. Back to religion, or, another religion.
    Your questions are all excellent. Is it class or culture? I think that in some ways he does represent Christians who feel marginalized in the broader culture and his boldness speaks to them. I appreciate this and I do not mind it myself, but I do see why others would feel uncomfortable. I wrote about an atheist critique of Tebow by David Silverman( in which I rejected that he is so divisive. I think he just shines a light on divisions already in the culture.

    But I did accept David Silverman's critique that whether it is the media that has drawn attention to Tebow's prayers, there might be some difficulties from a Christian point of view and that public piety might turn people off and might create spiritual temptations for him.
    Like you, though, I am not certain of all the ramifications of this, as football has been so closely associated with Christianity for a long time, with prayer circles after most NFL games. What is it about Tebow?