Tim Tebow: Media Phenomenon

With the long-anticipated news yesterday that the New York Jets had severed ties with Tim Tebow, it seems likely that both his NFL career and his flash of celebrity have timed out.  And I’m irrationally disappointed about it.

Look, Tebow has myriad gifts, among them exceptional athletic ability, legendary leadership, and a great attitude.  The skills needed to play quarterback consistently in the NFL, however, appear to be missing at this point, at least according to the experts.  And since quarterback is nothing more and nothing less than a job, I can’t justify my disappointment that he may not excel at a job for which he lacks the requisite skills.  I don’t sit at home and worry about engineers who can’t remember calculus, nurses who can’t manage to administer the correct medication, or office assistants who can’t type, so why should I worry about a quarterback who can’t get the ball to his receivers?  Nobody else gets to keep a job they can’t do, so why should Tebow be any different?

The answer, of course, is he should not be.  But he is and we all know it.  And the reason why he warrants such special consideration provides an informative glimpse into the relationship between evangelicalism and media.

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Many have argued that Tebow became famous because he’s an evangelical and a self-promoter, but that’s false.  Tim Tebow’s fame began for one reason only: he won football games in college.  Not only did he experience mammoth successes, he earned them.  Tebow played well, he led even better, and he was a major factor in two national championships for the University of Florida during his time there – a fact confirmed when he was awarded the Heisman.  This is all easy to forget now that he’s struggling to put the football where it needs to be in the NFL, but in college, Tebow had enough skill to excel.

He became a media phenomenon – as opposed to being merely famous – because his evangelicalism was so unexpected: the handsome, muscular, national champion and Heisman trophy winner of a Florida university is supposed to be a self-involved party boy; he’s supposed to exist as the perfect archetype of all things jock, and we’re supposed to revile him accordingly, unless he ends up leading our favorite team to greatness.  Instead, with bible references in his eye black and a commitment to evangelizing the Philippines, he torched the stereotype and surprisingly managed a feat still greater: he proved interesting.

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Tebowing was a thing.  Now it’s not.  For some reason, some people seem to think that the originator of Tebowing ceased to be fascinating the minute dropping to one knee and posing ceased to be interesting.  I don’t understand why.  For one thing, you may have Tebowed in your life – hopefully before it stopped being a thing – but Tim never did.  He prayed.  He didn’t Tebow.  And the fact that some people can’t tell the difference is everything if you want to understand why he didn’t stop being interesting when his initial luster wore off.

To me, Tim Tebow remains interesting for several reasons, but none more vital than his ability to say, ‘no.’  His faith – that which so many missed when he would drop to his knee and pray – both required and empowered him to abstain from an unrivalled cocktail of temptations, and in his apparent success at rejecting such alluring opportunities, he became fascinating.  Look, even Solomon, when given all the fame and wealth life had to offer, turned into a debauched cautionary tale.  But this home-schooled Florida evangelical looks like he’s threading the needle and walking a path not even Solomon could manage, and I admit I’m not ready for the ride to end yet.  I want to see more because I’m still interested, and because I believe Tim Tebow might actually be able to handle the pressure of being such an icon.

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I’ve never met Tim Tebow, so I don’t know if he truly lives the spiritually upright life he clearly wants to live, but I have the strongest of suspicions he does.  The clearest evidence for this hides in plain sight in many of the media stories about him; at this point we’ve seen and read five uninterrupted years of stories about his humility, hard work, endless optimism, financial generosity, indomitable leadership, and general good-guyness.  The subtext of these stories, of course, is often that his poor passing is a shame, because he’s such a nice kid.  In fact, it often seems like journalists don’t know what to do with the fact that he’s so nice, so they visibly battle to fend off the clichés.

Which makes sense, if you’ve never heard of the fruit of the Spirit.  Since most readers of this blog have heard of the fruit of the Spirit, however, you can join me in observing that when the media report on Tim Tebow’s character, what we’re actually seeing is people who have no concept of the Holy Spirit trying to describe what it does in a person (in this case Tim Tebow) guileless enough to let the Spirit work.  When the media see optimism, we can read between the lines and see faith and hope in something far larger than an NFL paycheck.  The newspaper articles describe him as upbeat in the face of major setbacks, but we see joy, patience, and peace.  The television reports describe him as media-savvy and polished, but we see gentleness and self-control.

Sadly, however, in this case the fruit of the spirit seem invisible to those who aren’t already familiar with them.

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Tim Tebow would never have become so iconic if he weren’t an evangelical, and in that way, his evangelicalism has equipped him with a platform virtually impossible to earn via merit alone.  But as we reach what may be – but maybe not! – the end of the TIM TEBOW era, we can observe at least this one thing: no matter how large his media presence, he couldn’t control his message.  He prayed, and the media saw Tebowing.  He lived the fruit of the spirit in full view of America, but it emerged from the media filter as niceness.  His life story remains interesting, but it gets told in such a way as to make Mr. Rogers seem bacchanalian next to Vanilla Tim.  And therein lies the lesson.  As much as we may dislike admitting it, the media can never be a promotional tool for evangelicalism, because the media cannot tell stories they do not understand.  And Tim Tebow is exhibit A.

All of which make me more than a little disappointed that it may be over; I had hoped it would last until everyone could see what I see.  At any rate, that’s why I don’t care how he throws the ball, and that’s why I want more Tebow.  I want him to prove me wrong.

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