Ladies and gentlemen, Timothy Richard Tebow is back!! Those of you with a high enough cable TV package can welcome him back into your living room on the SEC Network. The last time Tebow made a media splash was when he ran shirtless through the rain at the New York Jets training camp. Truth be told, I love Tebow. Not because of his faith, his quarterbacking ability (or lack there of), or his good looks. I love him selfishly because he is a great paragraph. Yes, you read that correct, a paragraph. As I’ve worked on my dissertation, the way I see the world has changed. I see people, events, and stories as paragraphs. Honestly, it is strange, but interesting. From my perspective, Tim Tebow is a great paragraph, or even chapter, in the history of American sports. The reason is his polarizing popularity. Few people have no opinion on Tebow. He represents the hopes of some and the fears of others. Either way, Tebow’s career on and off the field shows how sports and religion shape American culture.
Football made Tim Tebow famous. His career at the University of Florida cemented him as one of the best college quarterbacks of all time. In the NFL, controversy swirled around him from the moment the Denver Broncos selected him in the first round of the draft. By the end of his second year, he led the Broncos to six fourth-quarter comebacks including an improbable playoff win. As quickly as he rose, he fell. After being traded to the New York Jets, he spent the majority of 2012 on the bench. In 2013, he didn’t make a NFL roster.
Jeff Scholes and Raphael Sassower’s Religion and Sports in American Culture offers a scholarly interpretation of Tebow-mania. Their book analyzes the common ground 21st-century American religion and sports share in belief, sacrifice, relics, pilgrimage, competition, work, and redemption. They argue that sports fans and religious adherents believe in the ability to “transcend what is observed in order to access that which is not observed” (p.40). Writing as two professors working in Colorado, no figure transcended observed athletic shortcomings with improbable (or miraculous) victories like Tim Tebow. They conclude that contemporary sports aren’t replacing religion, but reinforcing it.
Since his early exit from the NFL, Tim has kept busy on the speaker’s circuit. One organization he frequented was the Wildfire Men’s Impact Weekend. On March 8th and 9th, 2013, men–fathers, sons, and brothers–filled venues in Lynchburg, Virginia. The goal: “To create a movement that inspires men to deepen their relationship with God, the one who placed these longings of competition, adventure, and the outdoors in their soul.” Over the course of the two-day event, attendees registered for one of the seven tracks to guide their learning. The tracks wove together athletics, hunting, fishing, motorsports, extreme sports, relationships, and faith. From building a racecar engine to marriage counseling, duck calling with the cast of Duck Dynasty to evangelism techniques, baseball lessons from World Series champion pitcher John Smoltz to parenting advice, a National Rifle Association lesson on self-protection to building a stronger church, the conference blended overt manifestations of masculinity and evangelical Christianity. Wildfire Weekend hoped for ten thousand men from across the United States to register. Only six weeks after announcing the event, the overwhelming appeal of the conference forced them to create a waiting list. By the time of the conference, the waiting list of men hoping to attend grew to nearly four thousand. For the opening ceremony, the conference goers heard a sermon by the most popular evangelical in the United States, Tim Tebow.
The ability to bring together football, evangelicalism, and popular culture paid off for Tebow later in 2013. Forbes Magazine named him the most influential athlete of the year. He beat out the fastest man in the world Usain Bolt, the most decorated Olympian of all time Michael Phelps, and the face of the New York Yankees Derek Jeter. What makes Forbes’ selection so surprising is Tebow’s performance on the field. As a backup quarterback for the New York Jets, he attempted eight passes, completed six of them, and did not throw or rush for a single touchdown. Based on athletic accomplishment, he could not have been more irrelevant. But off the field Tebow was a pop-culture sensation. The Forbes article reported, “His clean living and public religious values make him a role model for many, even if they render him polarizing in some quarters.” The growth of Tebow’s popularity without success on the football field is telling. It shows the appeal of muscular Christianity to 21sh-century Americans. His blend of masculinity, athleticism, and Christianity made a backup quarterback the face of American evangelicalism.
So with Tebow’s coming back today (his birthday), why should I dedicate a whole blog post to him? Because I am a Tebow apologist? No. Because his name is click-bait for a startup blog? Maybe. The real reason is that he reveals the powerful combination of sports and religion in American culture. But then again, maybe I really do just see him through dissertation goggles. What do you think? Is Tim Tebow a good barometer to measure American sports and religious culture?
Hunter Hampton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.