America has a weird obsession with Tim Tebow. I suppose that might be because Tebow is as weird as they come; not in the derogatory sense, but rather that the likes of Tebow have never been so thoroughly exposed to our cultural spotlight.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the genial, painfully modest Heisman-winner, University of Florida standout, two-time BCS Champion and outspokenly religious NFL star should attract such controversy. Denver fans obviously have a soft spot for him – after getting the nod at quarterback in week five of the NFL season, Tebow dragged the then 1-3 Broncos through a seven-game winning streak, three-game losing streak, and, in an unlikely turn of events, into the second round of the playoffs. Tebow also finds quite a few friends in America’s Christian majority, people who otherwise might not have bothered with a football player but are intrigued by his very public piety and consistent habit of making at least one reference to God every time there’s a camera nearby. And there are, of course, Florida Gators fans, who turned out in droves to support Tebow during his first real test as the leader of an NFL team against the Dolphins in Miami, Fla.
But if you don’t belong to one of these groups, how do you feel about Tebow?
Maybe you find him a bit too pushy when it comes to religion; you might feel that belief should be a quiet, personal thing. Maybe you’re tired of hearing his name every time you turn on ESPN or broach the subject of sports. Maybe you just think he’s a lousy football player.
Or maybe, if you’re like me, it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on, a vague, intangible sense of distaste that makes the corners of your mouth tighten and your brow furrow every time you hear about him. Or maybe, if you’re less like me, (and unfortunately, I have seen this reaction) the mere idea of Tebow makes you furious with hatred.
These last two reactions bother me. Why are people, myself included, so put off by Tim Tebow? This man, who has done missionary work in the Philippines since his teens, who treats people stricken with terminal illness to tickets and pregame passes at every home game, who never stops fighting for a win, who, to date, has never publicly expressed an emotion more negative than an emphatic disappointment in his own mistakes?
Why is it that we, who marvel at the athletic achievements of people like Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Ricky Williams, Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, can’t just like Tim Tebow?
I think it’s because we’re afraid. Afraid to believe. For a few reasons.
We’re afraid of being let down. We’re afraid of what every die-hard fan has experienced: going to a game and cheering our hearts out, screaming and yelling and committing to a wild, unlikely cause just because it feels good, and then being disappointed by our heroes, forced to hang our heads stupidly and admit that we were wrong. What if Tebow isn’t as genuinely good as he appears? What if he’s living a well-concealed double-life, All-American Nice Guy by day; sleazy, adulterous con by night? As unlikely as that may be, America has become so jaded and cynical that we’re forced to brace ourselves for the possibility of our idols bursting into flames before our eyes, leaving us with nothing but ashen memories and an unshakable feeling of betrayal.
Secondly, we’re afraid of ourselves, and of what Tebow’s very existence says about us. We’re afraid to admit that Tebow can really be as saint-like as he appears, because as far as we can tell, he’s no different from any of us. He’s flesh and blood. He gets tackled, he throws interceptions, and he drops the football. But with that imperfection comes a flawless, Christ-like humility, a dedicatedly humble and caring demeanor that most of us couldn’t manage if every day was Christmas. All this, in a mere mortal package. So rather than acknowledge our own significant room for moral improvement, we seek the flaws in Tebow, make snide remarks about how much he pays his publicist, and tear him down at every opportunity. This refusal to admit Tebow’s goodness points to cultural insecurities about the very nature of mankind. Here before us is a monument to the human capacity for charity and caring, living proof that we can all be better, nicer people, and by denying this, we forsake belief in the goodness of people everywhere.
To be entirely honest, I feel guilty about my inexplicably negative reaction to Tebow. It pains me that I feel any sort of contempt for a man who deserves only respect. The same sense of animosity that I once felt for him has been inverted upon itself and now weighs uncomfortably in my gut.
I learned a lot about myself while writing this piece. Enough that I can see the need for a few changes. I’d like to take this opportunity to say, “I like Tim Tebow. I like how he’s nice to everyone he meets and how he never says anything negative about other people. I like how he never gives up. I like how dedicated he is to what he believes in, whether he’s on the sideline, or by the bed of a sick child, or at church. I like Tim Tebow, and I wish that everyone, myself included, was a little bit more like him.”
So, to clarify, I’m no longer afraid of Tebow. I’m afraid for him. I’m afraid of what people who don’t believe will do to him. I’m afraid that a tough loss will prompt a snappy, mean-hearted retort. I’m afraid that the stress and pressure will be too much, and that he’ll crack open a beer to relax. I’m afraid that a moment of weakness will turn into an adultery scandal. I’m afraid that every time he has to put up with some jerk who won’t give him a break, his sinless foundations shift and groan under a growing weight. I’m afraid because Tebow is a valuable, fragile symbol of what it means to live a good life and I’m afraid of what it would mean if that symbol ever breaks. I’m afraid because the last time someone this nice showed up on planet Earth, he attracted attention from the meaner elements of the human race, and ended up getting crucified.