Home > Culture, Politics, Religion, Sports > Tebow Down: Ideology, Faith, and Aesthetics in Pro Football

Tebow Down: Ideology, Faith, and Aesthetics in Pro Football

With baseball in its offseason and the NBA diminishing its brand with a season-shortening lockout and a ridiculous saga involving multiple cancelled trades of one of its superstars, the attention of the American sports world has concentrated recently, with more intensity than usual, on the NFL. This concentration has fallen on one player in particular: Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose team has put together an improbable winning streak since he took over as starter part way through the season and stands in playoff position going into the weekend.

Jesus, please grant me limited concussion symptoms...

Tebow has been a famous and divisive figure since he was winning national championships in college at the University of Florida. Successful though he’s been on the football field despite his unorthodox, scrambling style, his overt expressions of Christian faith have made him a lightning rod in America’s often religion-centric culture wars. Known to bow and pray demonstratively at nearly every free moment of any given game (a practice known as “Tebowing”, which has of course spawned a gentle-enough internet meme), Tebow also credits every fortunate turn (among them fortuitous opposition mistakes) as part of the Lord’s plan, writes the numbers of biblical verses on his eye black, and made an anti-abortion ad several years ago with his mother, who chose to bear him despite expected health complications and was rewarded with a millionaire gridiron star for a son.

As mild and harmless as Tebow’s proselytizing is by the comparative standard of American evangelicalism, it comes across as obnoxiously forward in the world of pro sports, in which divine providence is often briefly, personally expressed but rarely held up as an essential component of any player’s identity, let alone employed with the sort of crusading fervor favoured by Tebow. It is a bit odd that this from of Christianity isn’t more common in the sport, considering the high level of integration between the national football culture and the rural Southern and Midwestern social conservative milieu that is the superstructure of the American Right. Perhaps this is one reason why Tebow irks liberal observers so: he is an in-your-face reminder that the country’s most celebrated and glitzy sport has been claimed so completely by their ideological opponents, to their own exclusion.

The recent oppositional takes on Tebow and his pro success in Salon typify this allocation. Just as Andrew Leonard attempts to reconstruct Tebow as a figure of potential unity, Allen Barra gives in to the cynical appeal of tribal resentments, seeing Tebow as inherently and inescapably a member of the wrong side in a never-ending and fluid battle for the nation’s battered soul. It doesn’t help the former case that Tebow is treated as a near-messianic figure by the religious right, nor that he is draped in the laurels of sports-cliché bromides about “winning” by the football press. And, in the specific instance of the Broncos’ current 7-1 run with Tebow as starter, it doesn’t take an expert on the sport (which I am certainly not) to surmise that perhaps the defense deserves more credit for the wins than the Tebow-led offense, which has topped 20 points in a game only twice in their last 8 games.

But the popular perception of America’s ultimate team sport, and the inherent nature of right-leaning American society itself, forever thrusts the quarterback into the forefront as the atypical masculine hero, a soldier, entrepreneur, and President rolled into one. Football, more than any other sport, has always had tremendous ideological potential as a discourse on progressive social justice, as a narrative of individuals of disparate talents, abilities and backgrounds subsuming individual identities and desires in order to achieve greater things as a whole. The pro game’s rise in popularity and prominence through the 1960s coincides with the erection of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society not merely through chance, I’d speculate, but through a rising collective emphasis on their shared values.

This pass went about seven feet.

But these core qualities have been co-opted, or at the very least adapted, to the self-centered individualism and authoritarian power structure favoured by American conservatives (their standard bearer in this, as always, has been Rush Limbaugh, a noted football fan who once nearly bought the St. Louis Rams). The quarterback as visionary, benevolent leader is central to this figuration, and a Christian conservative anti-abortion quarterback who wins football games can’t help but be even more prominent in this subculture.

This is part of the reason why Tebow has proven compelling: he reflects the self-definition of one faction of the American sociopolitical divide and clashes so violently with the self-definition of the other. Additionally, as much as the aesthetics and statistics of his game irk and confound football observers, there is a mystery and volatility to the ever-scrambling Tebow that offers a respite from the highly-regimented militaristic strategy and predictability of football.

This grinding inevitability of possible results is one of the main reasons why football isn’t high on my list of watchable sports. Occasional bursts of improvisational creativity aside (a running back juke here, a safety’s crushing hit there), football has little of the structural fluidity of my preferred team sports like hockey, basketball, or soccer. Football games can unfold in unforeseen ways, of course, but the fundamental structure of the game is, as mentioned, brutally socialist in nature. It is the planned economy of professional team sports, and Tebow can, in his more inspired moments, offer the promise of a limited glasnost and perestroika from a position of on-field authority. Ideological affiliations aside, this may be the best reason to believe in Tim Tebow. Just try not to follow his lead in believing too hard.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Religion, Sports
  1. December 14, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Love the piece! Reading from a “human standpoint” I couldn’t agree more that Tebow is a polarizing figure both in and out of football. As a Christian, I don’t find his outward faith attractive or ugly. I find it refreshing, though. Refreshing that a young man with such visibility is comfortable in expressing his faith in a very uncomfortable time. And he’s not doing it for the 15 seconds on CNN.
    Reading from a strictly sports standpoint (I do write a sport’s web site), I would have to neither agree nor disagree with your assessment of the defense being more responsible for the wins and losses this season. However, this defense is the same one that played uninspired and lazy football when Kyle Orton was the starting QB. Tebow, whether through his faith or his leadership abilities, inspires his teamates and those around him to be and do better. And for that, he should get all the credit.

  2. December 14, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Splendid post – well done indeed! I agree with andrewwalt in the respect that Tebow’s outward faith is refreshing, and I would add, often a genuine rarity.

  1. February 16, 2012 at 9:32 pm
  2. July 10, 2012 at 4:09 pm

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