All the rage about Tebow

What is it about NFL Player Tim Tebow that causes so many people to want him to fail?

Now that the New York Giants have triumphed over the New England Patriots, can we please get back to talking about Tim Tebow?

Even though I couldn’t know less about American football, it’s practically impossible to not have been sucked into the vortex of Tebowmania currently stirring up equal amounts of ire and adoration in the United States.

At the eye of that particular storm is Tim Tebow, the star quarterback of the Denver Broncos, whose frequent and enthusiastic proclamations of faith in Jesus Christ have won him as many detractors as admirers and made him the most divisive figure in the National Football League today.

Tebow’s critics make up a broad church. Some are content talking amongst themselves about his zero-talent—attested to, they say, by his bizarre (not that I can really tell) throwing technique and his at-times erratic game. Others are just put off by the fuss made over him.

But a great chunk of his detractors mostly just can’t stand the way that he is so over the top about his faith and the way he, like your average Grammy Award Winner, thanks Jesus and God in compulsory prelude to any speech made in front of a live audience.

Such a practice could be overlooked as a devout, if slightly kooky, idiosyncrasy except for the fact that Tebow has an uncanny knack for pulling off unlikely last-minute wins for his team. And that kind of triumph can’t be shunted off into the shadows, even if it’s linked to a man many wish would just shut up about Jesus.

Those eleventh hour victories, combined with Tebow’s tendency to pray publicly before games and after touchdowns (which has sparked an internet craze called ‘tebowing’—google it) have attracted the cynical suggestion that Tebow’s wins are the result of a long string of prayers petitioning for victory on the field.

Now given some Christians’ enthusiasm for the ‘prosperity gospel’—or the belief that God blesses those who follow Him with riches, good health and success—it’s easy to come to such a conclusion. According to this way of thinking, there’s no reason why sporting victory couldn’t qualify as God’s favour to those who love Him.

The prevalence of this belief is probably why John 3:16—the bible verse that Tebow habitually daubed on his eyeblack during his college football days—trended on Google in early January.

That search spiked after the Broncos defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime, during a game in which Tebow threw for a season-high 316 yards. It was another freaky and thrilling win, but one amplified by the coincidence of another ‘316’ linked to Tebow. No wonder it spurred on many a numerological quest to explain Tebow’s bizarre ability.

But the idea that divine favour explains Tebow’s success on the field is a strange assumption to make, especially given that the central event of Christianity alluded to in John 3:16—the crucifixion of its founder, Jesus Christ—is a devastating loss.

Of course, Christians also understand the giving of Jesus as an expression of God’s love for the world as God’s complete and final victory over death. But it’s an unlikely win, one that’s only possible through suffering, defeat and death.

The suggestion that the Almighty is pushing His omnipotent buttons to guarantee Tebow victory obscures that central tension of Christianity between victory and defeat. Fudging that paradox leaves us with the impression that God prefers rubbing shoulders with winners.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And Tebow, who many might think would have most reason to believe that, doesn’t buy it for a second.

You can tell because Tebow makes a habit of inviting the sick and suffering to Broncos games. But we’re not talking a go-through-the-motions PR-exercise or a casual meet-and-greet affair, but something more along the lines of a lavish welcome.

Here’s what he did for 16-year-old Bailey Knaub when he hosted her and her family at that infamous game against the Steelers: arranged flights to the game, car rental, accommodation, dinner, gave them front seat tickets, visited her before kickoff and after the game. Then he sent them home with a basket of gifts.

When faced with such a list, ESPN reporter Rick Reilly was floored. “Who among us is this selfless?” he asks. Especially on the eve of a make-or-break game where a star quarterback might be forgiven for taking some time out for themselves. Of course, there are plenty of people doing more selfless acts—and without the public acclaim—but Tebow is doing what he can.

Tebow, however, seems to wear his official duties lightly. While he’s passionate about football and works really hard at it, he knows it’s not the only game in town. Conservative commentator Daniel Flynn puts it this way: “Tim Tebow doesn’t know his place… Touchdown celebrations give glory to oneself not to one’s God.”

In other words, Tebow remains strangely untouched by all that we’ve come to expect of our sports stars. Nowadays, we’re used to sporting legends with numerous dents in their shining armour—ranging from drug use and wild partying to animal abuse and sexual assault charges.

Tebow challenges all that. And while one day he might prove to be a flawed human being (at best) or a colossal jerk (at worst), in the meantime he’s just getting on with what he knows how to do: play football, visit with the sick (or bring them to him) and thank his god at every opportunity.

Perhaps this helps explain why he irks some: he’s just too good to be true. And we find that, frankly, annoying. Dan Barry of The New York Times observes astutely:

“Decent people who are proud of their faith, do good things and succeed in life tend to irritate some of us; they remind us of our private failures, so, naturally, we hope they stumble. Spectacularly. Face-first into the mud.”

While Tebow hasn’t (yet?) had a private failing splashed across the headlines, professionally he face-planted the earth when the New England Patriots recently smashed the Broncos 45-10 and with it, any hope of the Broncos winning the Super Bowl. In that game, there was no improbable last-minute win.

Further, Tebow played pretty poorly. His haters might have felt they’d been dealt a boon from the gods. You can imagine round after round of mock-tebowing going on in the grandstands and in living rooms around the country. It won’t be for the last time, and it certainly wasn’t the first.

After a Broncos game with the Detroit Lions last November, Fox Sports writer Jen Floyd Engel commented on the way that some Lions players sent up Tebow by tebowing after tackling him or scoring a touchdown.

Those players may not have been mean-spirited, and Tebow’s skin is probably thick enough to take it, but you have to wonder whether the jeering gets a bit old after a while.

In any case, Engel said that she found it telling that in the face of such mockery and all the criticism otherwise heaped on Tebow that he “rarely lectures and does not fight back.” It strikes a curious chord with Jesus, another guy who many wanted to see fall, and who just took the hits.

Engel, then, appreciates the way that Tebow loses gracefully. If she’s right about him, and I suspect she is, then his character is worth celebrating. For not only will such a gracious attitude long outlive the quarterback’s sporting career, but its strange mix of victory and defeat aptly honours the God Tebow worships.

Dr Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. 

Follow Justine on Twitter @JustineToh