Communication Currents

The Limits of the Passion of, and for, Tim Tebow

June 1, 2013
Sports Communication

Shortly after the 2013 National Football League (NFL) Draft, the New York Jets released quarterback Tim Tebow from the team. Just a little more than a year earlier, Tebow was the most discussed athlete in all of professional football, the lead in a feel-good story about a man of faith who improbably led his Denver Broncos to the second round of the NFL Playoffs. Now, heading in to the 2013 season, he may be out of the game. What might cause such a precipitous fall? Writing for Yahoo!Sports, Michael Silver suspects the relentless media machine that accompanied Tebow—“Tebowmania”—when he was traded from the Broncos to the Jets has made owners, coaches, and players reluctant to have him on their team. As he contends, “As much as prospective employers are wary of Tebow’s flawed mechanics, much-maligned throwing motion or deficiencies when it comes to reading defenses, the incessant media and fan attention that accompanies his presence on the depth chart is an even bigger concern.”

To make sense of Silver’s claim requires that we rewind the tape on the Tebow phenomenon: before his trade to New York, before he was the subject of late night comedy sketches onSaturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and before he began his NFL career in Denver. As a quarterback at the University of Florida (2006-09), Tebow rose to fame as one of the most accomplished players in college football history. A Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion, Tebow was equally celebrated for his public declarations of Christian faith. By the time Tebow’s career at Florida reached its conclusion, he had become, as ESPN’s Chris Fowler noted, “a very polarizing figure.”

As evidenced by Silver’s observations, it is clear that Tebow remains a polarizing figure. Public animosity toward Tim Tebow can be understood, at least in part, as an outcome of sports media coverage. For this study, I reviewed sports media coverage of Tebow’s college career, a 2005 ESPN-produced documentary, The Chosen One, and some of the early coverage of his NFL career. The results show sports media have overwhelmingly presented Tebow as a person of uncommon determination, leadership ability, and moral righteousness. These themes were evident in two broad categories: “Tebow as Quarterback” and “Tebow as Missionary.”

In the first theme, sports coverage depicted Tebow as a uniquely gifted leader. In The Chosen One, Tebow insisted playing through injury is a demonstration of “character” and ability to “push through adversity.” His high school coach called him the “toughest guy I’ve ever met in my life.” In 2008, when Florida lost on their home field to Mississippi, Tebow responded in his press conference with “The Promise”:

I promise you one thing. A lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. . . . You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless.

As one former Florida player declared, “Tebow is not only one of the best college football players of all time, but one of the best leaders of all time. It just seems to me like everything he says and does is that speech.”

More praise was given to Tebow because of his superior “character.” When he won the 2007 Heisman Trophy,commentator Kirk Herbstreit raved, “You think about ambassadors for this award, and you think about ambassadors for college football, I don’t know if you’re gonna find a better guy than Tim Tebow.” Elsewhere, broadcaster Thom Brennaman suggested that “if you’re fortunate enough to spend five minutes or 20 minutes around Tim Tebow, your life is better for it.” Even Vince Dooley, former coach of rival Georgia, gushed, “Football. Athleticism.  Leadership. Charity work. His faith. You name it. I’ve never seen anybody who had all that in one package.” 

Even as the “Tebow as Quarterback” theme was prominent, it was subordinate to the “Tebow as Missionary” theme. From the very name of the documentary, The Chosen One, to the countless references to Tebow’s missionary work in the Philippines, to the various biblical passages quoted by Tebow himself, it was clear that to talk about Tim Tebow required Christianity for context. Numerous features of him were written that praised his “faith” and his purpose as “a Christian missionary trying to send a broader message through the medium of America’s most popular game.” Tebow himself claimed, “[Football’s] the platform the Lord has given me, and I think it’s my responsibility to take advantage of it.”

More than these quick reference, sports media affirmed the “miraculous” birth of baby Tim, whose mother, Pam, defied a Filipino doctor’s recommendation to abort her pregnancy due to a bout of dysentery. While sick in the Philippines, Pam carried her baby to term, with husband Bob insisting, “God just protected it the whole nine months. He’s a miracle baby.” That Tebow‘s birth can be symbolically equated with the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ makes his messianic potential all the more clear. As evidenced by the reception he receives in churches around the country, it is obvious that thousands, if not millions, might just be willing to accept Tim Tebow as their savior.

This effusive praise should be treated with caution, however, for at least three reasons. First, the willingness to take Tebow’s faith at face value risks a tacit acceptance of his religious commitments.Tebow follows a form of fundamentalist Christianity born from his father’s ministry, the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association, which is committed to strict interpretations of biblical scripture and a range of political positions that are highly controversial (perhaps best evidenced by Pam and Tim Tebow’s affiliation with Focus on the Family, which featured the pair in a commercial aired during the Super Bowl in 2010). If Tebow wishes to use football as a “platform,” then it is incumbent on members of the media and public alike to scrutinize the actual faith he seeks to spread. But for a few exceptions, most sports media coverage of Tebow failed to do this.

Second, Tim Tebow will fail at some point, and it is quite possible that his failure will be spectacular. Some might argue he already has failed as an NFL quarterback. But while athletic failure might be a disappointment, more destructive would be some lapse in character or mission. Beneath the surface of the Tebow coverage, perhaps, lies the fear that he will not really be all he has been made out to be, that faith in him might be misguided. Moreover, even though Tebow has brought much of this attention on himself, it is unreasonable to expect perfection of any individual, no matter how apparently heroic or faithful he or she may be.

Third, there is little question that Tim Tebow is resented almost as much as he is beloved. The Internet provides an array of anti-Tebow sites or links, and fans of rival teams have embraced the opportunity to mock and demean him whenever possible. The ceaseless stream of Tebow feature stories, and the piety with which so many of them have been presented, has inevitably led not only to Tebow fatigue but to an outright backlash. This is why we should not be surprised that he finds himself struggling to find a place in the NFL after being released by the Jets. It is a reminder that the passion of, and for, Tim Tebow has limits. 

About the author (s)

Michael L. Butterworth

Bowling Green State University