In 2013, Forbes named Tim Tebow 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 captain of the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter. What made Forbes’s selection so surprising was 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 less relevant.
Yet, in 2011, Tim Tebow became a cultural phenomenon with “Tebow Time” and American culture latched onto Tim Tebow as the face of American Christianity. Americans love football. So a football player winning a “most influential athlete” award is hardly surprising. It’s harder to pin down why Tebow’s influence was so much grander than every other Christian athlete.
Time-tested Alliance of Sports and Faith
Athletes have been Christians since sports were conceived. And they’ve used their platform for their religious message. Pitcher Christy Mathewson was called, “The Christian Gentleman.” An aptly named centerfielder for the Chicago Whitestockings, Billy Sunday, used his athletic background in his evangelistic sermons as he slid into the pulpit, broke chairs, and flaunted his athleticism. In the 1950s, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes became one of the first organizations focused on getting star athletes to publicly discuss their faith. In the 1960s Olympian, Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals for individual sprints. After her sporting success, she did mission work in Japan and Africa. More recently, Bill McCartney quit his job as head coach at the University of Colorado to start Promise Keepers. Stephen Curry, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Hamilton, Philip Rivers, Manny Pacquaio, Russel Wilson are all athletes who are outspoken about their Christianity. All of these people explicitly mix their faith with their sport.
Even generally speaking sports acknowledge the presence of God. Today, athletes and coaches stand in a circle for prayer before and after games. Preachers and priests roam the sidelines as team chaplains. Players kneel prayerfully when games hang in the balance. Being a Christian athlete is not unique to Tim Tebow.
So, what’s unique about Tebow?
Well, nothing, actually.
Tebow’s influence is grand, not because Tebow is unique, but because the media chose him.
Tebow’s Post-game Time
Typically, announcers and interviewers gloss over the athlete’s religious statement to ask a question about the game. Sometimes, they even completely cut the camera away to two ESPN anchors working on their computers. Faith isn’t the focus of the post-game interview. Ever. Unless, of course, they are talking to Tebow. When it’s Tebow, faith is what announcers and interviewers ask about.
Take for example the most recent incident. As Tebow was signing autographs after an Arizona Fall baseball league game, a fan collapsed to the ground and had a seizure. Tebow turned his attention to the man and placed his hands on him. He prayed for fifteen minutes before medical help arrived. As he was praying, the man stopped seizing, seemed to be unconscious for a minute, and then opened his eyes.
The next day, after a particularly un-notable minor league baseball appearance, Tebow took questions for thirty minutes. Basically none of them had to do with his dismal performance. They wanted to know about Tim’s experience praying for a man having a seizure. He was even asked by a journalist if Tim thought he had been a part of a miracle, Tim Tebow rolled his eyes, “As far as me and miracle? No.”
The Same As You and Me
This type of exposure is atypical. Christians look at Tim Tebow’s influence, his opportunities to talk publicly about faith, and the amount of recognition he get’s for confessing Christ, and think Tebow must be special. We think his faith must be different than that of other athletes, or even our own.
Arguing for the sincerity of Tebow’s faith as the differentiating feature between him and all other Christian athletes judges and discredits the authenticity of those athletes’ faith. Drew Brees and Josh Hamilton, both outspoken evangelicals, gained cultural relevancy by winning the Super Bowl and Major League Baseball’s “Most Valuable Player” awards. They have faith plus performance. After college, Tebow only had faith and team spirit.
And believing that Tim’s faith is altogether different than our own is a misunderstanding of faith. Faith doesn’t originate with ourselves, it’s given to us by God. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Eph 6:8). Believing that the faith that is in us is wholly different from the faith in someone more famous discounts the work of God in our life. Practically, believing Tebow’s faith is unique keeps us from engaging with questions of Christianity with our own, albeit smaller, audiences. By welcoming the “I’m no Tim Tebow” attitude, we relieve ourselves of the requirement to be ready to give an answer for our faith.
The Chosen Ones
The mixing of sports and Christianity has only grown over the course of the 20th century.. So it’s necessary for the media to discuss this intersection. Tim Tebow has certainly provided the most public answers to faith in a sports context, but he isn’t all together special. He is just chosen. By God to exhibit faith and by the media to talk about it.
Tim follows up the question about possibly being a miracle worker by saying that he has no idea what the medical situation of that man was or if it was even a medical miracle at all. Tim Tebow doesn’t work miracles, and he knows it. Hee adds, ”But (miracles) in the God that we serve? Yeah I do believe in miracles…That’s the hope we get to live by. We serve a God who does amazing things every single day.”
Instead of seeing Tim Tebow as some sort of “super” Christian, we should learn from how he uses the moments and the audience God has given us to say “I am just normal, but the God I serve? He’s the one you should be impressed with.”
Cover image by Jeffrey Beall.