Tebowing Tebow

Conversations about or comments on other people’s public displays of faith inevitably say more about the commentator than they do about the practitioner. I recognize that Tebow (Tim), quarterback of the Denver Broncos and Fellowship of Christian Athletes idol, is about as polarizing a sports figure as you’re likely to find. At the same time, praise or criticism of Tebow is equally divisive.

As a divinity school grad and an obsessive sports fan, I’ve long lamented the God-praising antics of winning players and teams. As my div school roommate Ray Nance Howell used to ask, “Why don’t we ever see a player thank God after a defeat…or thank God for the preservation of health through a loss?” Personally, I think God is a sports fan, but I think God could care less about being thanked for a person’s on-field performance, especially when they only mention God when they’ve done something praise-worthy. I don’t think God really cares who wins or who loses, so long as the Saints do the former and the Yankees do the latter.

So it’s no surprise that Tebow’s public displays of faith, from forever thanking God to wearing scripture verse eyeblack to kneeling in prayer after scoring a touchdown, come across as more stomach-churning than faith-inspiring. Tebow’s faith-based antics have become so popular in the past few weeks that they have now taken on meme status. The act of Tebowing is “to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.” Of course there’s now a website, www.tebowing.com, to which individuals can submit pictures of themselves Tebowing in all sorts of locations from Colorado to Jerusalem.

The Tebowing sensation has taken off so rapidly that in a matchup between the Broncos and the Lions this past weekend, opposing defender Stephen Tulloch sacked Tebow and immediately went to one knee, either mocking his victim or asking God for forgiveness for sacking him. Later in the game, Detroit Lions tight end Tony Scheffler scored a touchdown and faked going to one knee before opting out out of respect for Tebow or fear of a fine…who knows. Tulloch’s sack and subsequent taunting, which should have drawn a penalty or a fine (disagree with me if you want), brought Tebow’s public displays of faith into sharper focus.

No doubt this is all rubbing Tebow-ites the wrong way, especially those who claim that he is so (damn) sincere, which is part of the problem. He is…or seems to be as far as most of us can tell. It’s unfortunate, in a way, that the public is so critical of Tebow, especially when so many of his professional counterparts are in the news for drug possession with the intent to sell (Jerome Simpson) or for domestic abuse (Will Smith). From all accounts Tebow is the nicest, most genuine person (not just professional athlete) you’re likely to meet. So why the concern? From my perspective, Tebow is just the most extreme version of the broader tendency of athletes to bring God into the equation whenever its easy or helpful.

Do I like Tebow’s (or other athletes’) kneel-downs? No. Do I think it’s “right” for Tulloch and his other competitors to openly mock him? No. Do I think there is some value in the latter? Only insofar as it brings Tebow’s acts into necessary critique. Tebow’s kneeling feels so empty because his faith in God seems so inseparable from his faith in himself. Think about it. The Biblical definition of faith (the one Tebow is no doubt most familiar with) comes from Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” Another way of defining faith is, “Belief that is not based on proof.” A conviction of things not seen…belief without proof. Yep, that about sums up both Tebow’s faith and NFL performance and promise…or lack thereof.

Now I’m not here to profess expert NFL quarterback knowledge, but it’s hard to discount the pros. It’s hard to discount the visuals. Despite everyone’s, well nearly everyone’s, protestations to the contrary, Tebow (and surely a handful of supporters) believes (or has faith in the “fact”) that he is an NFL quarterback. Expert commentary, tapes, and his performance last weekend against the Lions do not lie.  The producers of the Lions/Broncos game should have put up a simultaneous replay of Tebow’s throws against Stafford’s (they might have and I just missed it while looking at other games). Anyone with legal eyesight would have seen the differences in their mechanics and who looks, even to the untrained eye, like a better quarterback.

It’s equally clear that Tebow isn’t listening. His commercials revel in the fact that he’s proven everyone wrong who told him he couldn’t be a college quarterback or an NFL quarterback. He’s clearly used the skepticism as fuel for the competitive fire. He side steps or tackles head on the implications that he should switch to another position like fullback or tight end. His intensity and effort are admirable, but at what point does Tebow’s faith in God and himself become simple arrogance? At what point does his faith become a detriment to his team’s pursuit of success? At what point will he sacrifice his pride to play a supporting role for which he might be better suited, again like fullback or tight end? For now, it seems as if he’d rather be traded.

The part of the problem with Tebow and so many other post-touchdown-kneeling, post-victory-God-thanking athletes is that they are so confident, not just in God, but also in themselves. Tebow and many of his Christian professional Christian athlete counterparts love to kick around Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Yes, Tebow might be able to do all things through Christ who strengthens him, except for admitting that, at the end of the day, he just can’t.