If you’ve lost interest in thinking about Tim Tebow, don’t read the rest of this article. It will only make you crazy.
I’ve just watched the Denver Broncos defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 35-32. Tebow was awful in the first half, passing for just 13 yards. He was quite good in the second half, finishing 10-of-15 for the game and completing three passes of more than 20 yards, a minor achievement he hadn’t accomplished all year. The Broncos won by intercepting a pass in the final minute and kicking an easy field goal, so it would be misleading and reactionary and inaccurate to say that Tebow won them the game. But Tebow won them the game.
When the score was deadlocked at 32 and the Broncos were kicking off with 1:33 remaining, FOX idiotically broke away from the tie in Minneapolis to show us the opening kickoff of the Giants-Packers game. Since I couldn’t see what was transpiring in Minnesota, I just had to sit in my chair and wonder what would happen next. Did I believe Denver would win? I shouldn’t have. Minnesota was getting the ball with multiple timeouts. It’d been the better team for most of the afternoon. Chris Ponder had outplayed Tebow, and the best athlete on the field was Percy Harvin. The worst-case scenario for the Vikings should have been heading into overtime with a home-field advantage. Yet I believed Denver would win.
I had no reasoning. And I did not like how that felt, even though I’m trying to convince myself that it felt good.
Imagine that you’re a detective, assigned to investigate a murder in a community of 1,000 people. There’s no established motive for this crime, and no one saw it happen. By the time you arrive, the body has already been cremated. There are no clues. There is no forensic evidence. You can’t find anything that sheds any light whatsoever on who committed this murder. But because there are only 1,000 people in town, you have the opportunity to interview everyone who lives there. And that process generates a bizarre consensus: Almost 800 of the 1,000 citizens believe the murderer is a local man named Timothy.
Over and over again, you hear different versions of the same sentiment: “Timothy did it.” No one saw him do it, and no one can provide a framework for how he might have been successful. But 784 people are certain it was Timothy. A few interviewees provide sophisticated, nuanced theories as to why they’re so convinced of his guilt. Others simply say, “I can just tell it was him. I know it.” Most testimonies fall somewhere in between those extremes, but no one has any tangible proof. You knock on Timothy’s door and ask if you can talk to him about the crime. He agrees. He does not seem nervous or distraught. You ask what he was doing the evening of the murder. He says, “I was reading a book and watching a movie.” He shows you the book. You check the TV listings from the night of the murder, and the film he referenced had aired on television. You say, “Many people in this town think you are responsible for the killing.” Timothy says, “I have no idea why they would think that.” You ask if he knew the man who died. “Yes,” he replies. “I know everyone in town.” You ask if he disliked the victim. “I didn’t like him or dislike him,” he says. “I knew him. That was the extent of our relationship.”
After six months of investigating, you return to your home office. Your supervisor asks what you unearthed. “Nothing,” you say. “I have no evidence of anything. I did not find a single clue.” The supervisor is flummoxed. He asks, “Well, do you have any leads?” You say, “Sort of. For reasons I cannot comprehend, 784 of the citizens believe the killer is a man named Timothy. But that’s all they have — their belief that Timothy is guilty.”
“That seems meaningful,” says your supervisor. “In the face of no evidence, the fact that 78.4 percent of the town strongly believes something seems like our best case. We can’t arrest him, but we can’t ignore that level of accord. It’s beyond a coincidence. Let’s keep the case open. I feel like we should continue investigating this Timothy fellow, even if our only reason for suspicion is the suspicion of other people.”
Do you agree with your supervisor’s argument?
A survey by the Pew Forum on religious and public life suggests the 78.4 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians.
I’m not interested in forwarding a pro-Tebow or anti-Tebow argument. I have my own feelings, but I don’t think they’re particularly relevant. What I’m interested in is why he’s so fascinating to other people. I’ve spent the past two months traveling around the country, and Tebow was the only person I was asked about in every single city. I even had one debate over whether or not the degree to which Tebow is socially polarizing has been overrated by the media, a debate whose very existence seems to provide its own answer. I feel compelled to write about him, even while recognizing that too much has been written already.
The nature of sports lends itself to the polarization of celebrity athletes. But this case is unlike any other I can remember. In 1996, when Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to face the flag during the national anthem, it was easy to understand why certain people were outraged (and why others saw that outrage as hypocritical). It was predictably polarizing. There are certain (crazy) things about human nature that everyone accepts, and Abdul-Rauf’s controversy fit into that understanding. But this “Tebow Thing” is different. On one pole, you have people who hate him because he’s too much of an in-your-face good person, which makes very little sense; at the other pole, you have people who love him because he succeeds at his job while being uniquely unskilled at its traditional requirements, which seems almost as weird. Equally bizarre is the way both groups perceive themselves as the oppressed minority who are fighting against dominant public opinion, although I suppose that has become the way most Americans go through life.
Obviously, religion plays a role in this (we live in a Christian nation, Tebow is a Christian warrior, non-Christians see themselves as ostracized, and Christians see themselves as eternally persecuted). But the real reason this “Tebow Thing” feels new is because it’s a God issue that transcends God, assuming it’s possible for any issue to transcend what’s already transcendent. I’m starting to think it has something to do with the natural human discomfort with faith — and not just faith in Christ, but faith in anything that might (eventually) make us look ridiculous.
Just because a bunch of people believe something does not make it true. This is obvious, even to a child. People once thought the earth was flat.1 But here’s a more complex scenario: If you were living in Greece during the sixth century, and there was no way to deduce what the true shape of the earth was, and there was no way to validate or contradict the preexisting, relatively universal belief that the world was shaped like a flat disc wouldn’t disagreeing with that theory be less reasonable than accepting it? And if so, wouldn’t that mean the only sixth-century people who were ultimately correct about world geography were unreasonable and insane?
Trust the insane!
Tebow is a faithful person. He’s full of faith — filled to the top and oozing over the side. It’s central to every part of him. When someone suggested that he mentions God too frequently (and that this repetition is what annoys his critics), Tebow said, “If you’re married, and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only tell your wife that you love her on the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and have the opportunity? That’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ.” This is probably the smartest retort I’ve ever heard an athlete give to a theological question. What possible follow-up could the reporter have asked that would not have seemed anti-wife?
And this, I think, is what makes Tebow so maddening to those who hate him: He refuses to say anything that would validate the suspicion that he’s fake (or naïve or self-righteous or dumb). My guess is that Ryan Fitzpatrick or Aaron Rodgers would blow him away on the GRE, but Tebow has profound social intelligence, at least when he speaks in public. It’s not that he usually says the right things; he only says the right things, all the time. As a result, he fuels a quasi-tautological reality that makes his supporters ecstatic, even if they don’t accept it as wholly valid. This reality is as follows:
- 1. Tebow is a good person who loves God.
2. Tebow throws many incompletions and makes curious, unorthodox decisions.
3. The Broncos’ defense keeps every game tight. Underrated RB Willis McGahee eats the clock.
4. The Broncos inevitably win in the closing minutes.
5. Tebow humbly thanks God for this achievement (and for all achievements), thereby crediting God for what just happened (and for what happens to everyone on earth).
6. Tebow connects God to life.
7. Tebow is a good person who loves God.
I doubt many Christians believe that God is unfairly helping Tebow win games in the AFC West. I’m sure a few hardcores might, but not many. However, I get the impression that especially antagonistic secularists assume this assumption infiltrates every aspect of Tebow’s celebrity, and that explains why he’s so beloved by strangers they cannot relate to. Their negative belief is that penitent, conservative Americans look at Tebow and see a man being “rewarded” for his faith, which validates the idea that believing in something abstract is more important than understanding something real. And this makes them worried about the future, because they see that thinking everywhere. It seems like the thinking that ran this country into the ground.
It’s difficult to take an “anti-faith” position. There’s no pejorative connotation of the word faithful. The only time “faith” seems negative is when it’s prefaced by the word “blind.” But blind faith is the only kind of faith there is. In order for someone’s faith to be meaningful, it has to be blind. Anyone can believe a hard fact that everyone already accepts. That’s easy. If you can see something, you don’t need faith. Faith in the seeable is meaningless. But meaningful faith is dangerous. It simplifies things that aren’t simple. Throughout the 20th century, there were only two presidents who won reelection with a bad economy and high unemployment: FDR in 1936 and Reagan in 1984. In both cases, the incumbent presidents were able to argue that their preexisting plans for jump-starting the economy were better than the hypothetical plans of their opponents (Alf Landon and Walter Mondale, respectively). Both incumbents made a better case for what they intended to do, and both enjoyed decisive victories. In 2012, Barack Obama will face a similar situation. But what will happen if his ultimate opponent provides no plan for him to refute? What if his opponent merely says, “Have faith in me. Have faith that I will figure everything out and that I can fix the economy, because I have faith in the American people. Together, we have faith in each other.”
How do you refute the non-argument of meaningful faith?
You (usually) don’t. You (usually) lose.
Since Tebow was installed as the Broncos’ starter, they are 6-1.
Trust the insane?
The toughest quarterback in the NFL is Ben Roethlisberger. He’s not the best, but he’s the toughest. He stands in the pocket longer, absorbs more punishment, exhibits a higher threshold for pain, and plays his best in the clutch. Roethlisberger is also, by all credible accounts, either a jerk or a “former jerk.” At best, he has a highly checkered past and an unsympathetic persona. He’s the least popular player in the league who hasn’t slept on a prison cot.
It’s difficult to separate those qualities. “Toughness” and “meanness” are always intertwined, often coalescing into “grit.” When I think about my own life, the toughest people I’ve known have (often) been bad, bad citizens. Would you rather fight two super-nice guys simultaneously, or one solitary, diabolical reprobate? It’s not a difficult question. So when I see Roethlisberger unfazed by a busted nose or a broken foot, it makes sense to me. He seems like the kind of semi-terrible person who is flat-out harder than those around him.
But try to imagine Tebow as a jerk. Let’s say his performance on the field was unchanged, but his off-the-field personality was totally different. Let’s say he was alleged to have sexually assaulted a few coeds and electrocuted a few dogs and fired an unlicensed handgun in a nightclub. If all this were true, he would not be polarizing; he would just be unpopular, particularly with the people who currently adore him. Sales of his jerseys would fall through the floor. But what would happen after he guts out an ugly 17-13 win against the Jets? What would be the perception? The perception would be that his victory was due to his toughness. That’s how the media would explain it. It wouldn’t necessarily be true, but it would immediately make sense to people: We are comfortable with the idea that extra-bad people possess something intangible that helps them win football games. There is a long history of this, especially in places like Oakland.2 But it’s less comfortable to think that extra-good people possess such qualities, because that suggests they’re being helped by virtuous forces outside of corporeal reality. And that’s too much to handle/accept/consider, unless (of course) you already accept that premise unconditionally in every day of your life.
Right now, whenever Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway3 gets asked about Tebow, he effectively says, “We have no choice but to play him. He wins games.” It’s not really a compliment. It’s almost a criticism. But if Tebow did all this with a prison record, Elway would say the same thing in reverse order: “He wins games. We have no choice but to play him.” Which is similar, but not the same.
There are quantifiable aspects of Tebow’s game that get ignored, mostly because everything else about him is so uncanny. His proficiency as a short-yardage bulldozer on third-and-3 compensates for his defects as an intermediate passer on third-and-8. The fact that Tebow only runs selectively gives Denver a psychological edge (for example, they seem to believe he simply can’t be stopped on two-point conversions). More than anything else, he’s very hard to tackle. All of these qualities are significant in the Broncos’ success. But they’re not revelatory, and I don’t think they have a big impact on why people feel so passionately about this person.
The machinations of his success don’t matter as long as they’re inexplicable.
The crux here, the issue driving this whole “Tebow Thing,” is the matter of faith. It’s the ongoing choice between embracing a warm feeling that makes no sense or a cold pragmatism that’s probably true. And with Tebow, that illogical warm feeling keeps working out. It pays off. The upside to secular thinking is that — in theory — your skepticism will prove correct. Your rightness might be emotionally unsatisfying, but it confirms a stable understanding of the universe. Sports fans who love statistics fall into this camp. People who reject cognitive dissonance build this camp and find the firewood. But Tebow wrecks all that, because he makes blind faith a viable option. His faith in God, his followers’ faith in him — it all defies modernity. This is why people care so much. He is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don’t actually believe.