Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Temptation of Tim Tebow

After Tim Tebow's night at Gethsemane on the Lord's Holy Day, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth and the Patriots, no doubt, will be cast into the outer darkness. The Tebow did not fail (given his 92 yards rushing, many of them picked up in garbage time) but was only failed by his teammates who were weakened by sin, dropped passes, fumbles and missed blocks. Like God himself, Tebow is to be praised for all the good that he brings but is not to be cursed when he brings only evil.

Tebowmania, however briefly, has gripped our great nation in its sweaty paws. Anyone who watches sports or even Saturday Night Live (who watches that again?) is familiar with the vaguely disquieting man-love sports commentators have for beefy Denver Broncos quarterback/fullback Tim Tebow. The Tim Tebow Experience. The Beefy T-Bone. The Big Tebowski.

Tim Tebow has largely benefited from a good running attack, a good choice of inept opponents, the famed prevent defense (famous for preventing the team that practices it from winning), and, most importantly, the bizarre tendency for sports commentators to lay all praise or blame for a 54-player team's success or failure at the feet of that team's quarterback. Besides its vaguely homoerotic aspects, praise for Tebow has centered on his personal virtue which is attributed to or defined by his religious faith. I don't much care what sports figure generates this kind of feeling from day to day, but Tebow idol-worship perpetuates the notion that religious faith is an indicator and cause of good moral character. This view about Tebow and the relation between his faith and moral character has spread beyond the sports pages into Frank Bruni's column in the opinion pages of what is ostensibly the nation's most reputable newspaper. (After Bruni's coverage of G.W. Bush in the 2000 election, his opinion of Tebow is unsurprising.)

CAN God take credit for the victories of a thick-set N.F.L. quarterback who scrambles in a weirdly jittery fashion, throws one of the ugliest balls in the game, completes fewer than half of his passes and has somehow won six of his team’s last seven games?

That’s a question that actually hovers over the miraculous success of the Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, and at this blessed juncture it’s a silly one, because the answer is unequivocal: Yes. Tebow is powered by conviction and operating on faith, and so are the teammates he’s leading. And you needn’t be an evangelical Christian (as he is), a seriously religious person or even a football fan to be transfixed and enlightened by his example. I speak as a football fan only when I say the following, which I never expected to: The mile-high messiah has a gospel for us all.

One assumes Bruni is joking since, obviously, even if Tebow's faith in God is key to his success, this would indicate nothing about the entity God itself. We could wish that the buff Mr. Tebow had literally transfixed Mr. Bruni (if you know what I mean, and I think you do). Perhaps then we would not be subjected to these love-notes. Nonetheless, we have a thesis for the article: Tebow and his team benefit from his optimism and confidence. This view is a variant on William James's argument for the benefits of belief. Let's see how badly Bruni's argument goes awry.

Which brings us back to religion. With Tebow there’s no getting away from it. He uses the microphones thrust in front of him to mention his personal savior, Jesus Christ, and has said that heaven is reserved for devout Christians. He genuflects so publicly and frequently that to drop to one knee in the precise way he does has been given its own word, along with its own Web site, where you can see photographs of people Tebowing inside St. Peter’s, in front of the Taj Mahal, on sand, on ice and even underwater.

Bruni leaves out the irony of Tebow's genuflecting in the pose of Rodin's The Thinker. He also fails to mention Tebow's appearance in a pro-life commercial that aired during Superbowl XLIV (in 2010). Tebow is unusual in his public religiosity in a field (no pun intended) that already is dominated by displays of piety, and he is unusual in advancing a political agenda motivated by his religion. It is Tebow's apparent self-righteousness, his proselytizing for both his faith and his political views and, above all, the misplaced ardor of our media that fuels the popular derision for Tebow, a derision that Bruni feels is misguided.

But the intensity of the derision strikes me as unwarranted, in that it outdoes anything directed at, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused repeatedly of sexual assault, or other players actually convicted of burglary, gun possession and other crimes. In a league full of blithe felons, Tebow and his oppressive piety don’t seem like such horrendous affronts at all.

Oh, the humanity! How can people ridicule Tebow when there are real criminals in the NFL, terrorists and murderous dictators bent on destruction, ethnic cleansing in the Sudan, and, on the streets of America, adulterers, bigamists, philatelists! Bruni is simply misdirecting; the presence or absence of criminals in the NFL or anywhere else has no bearing on criticism of Tebow.

Besides which, to get lost in the nature of his Christianity is to miss the ecumenical, secular epiphanies in his — and the Broncos’ — extraordinary season. Their sudden turnaround isn’t just thrilling. It illustrates the limits of logic and the shortcomings of the most quickly made measurements and widely cited metrics.

In sports as in politics, business and so much else, we like to think that we’ve broken down the components of achievement and that, looking at those components, we can predict who (and what) will prevail. But if any football analyst at the start of this season had said that a quarterback averaging under 140 yards of passing a game — that’s Tebow’s sorry statistic — would have a 6-1 record as a starter and be considered the linchpin of his team, few people would have bought it.

This is idiotic. Denver's success is not solely attributable to Tim Tebow, and it does not defy logic. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer as quarterback. In the 2006 season the Chicago Bears made it to the Superbowl with Rex Grossman as their signal-caller. Trent Dilfer! Rex Grossman! Were they, perhaps, such fonts of personal virtue and confidence that their self-esteem spilled over and strengthened the will of Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher? Moreover, if Tebow is to be praised for his teammates good performances, mustn't he also be blamed for their poor performance (as in Sunday's game against the superior Patriots team)?

Denver is successful because of an easy schedule, poor performance of the opponents (could Denver have beaten the Bears if they had faced Jay Cutler rather than unknown backup Caleb Hanie and his 115 yards passing?), excellent defense, and a good field-goal kicker. Statistics cannot perfectly measure the possibility of success of a team, and no doubt mental factors play an enormous role in success. Look at the success of the 10-3 San Francisco 49ers with mostly the same players who went 6-10 last year. However, we cannot attribute the success of a team solely to the triumph of the will of their quarterback. Statistics matter, and we should not overlook them.

BUT Tebow tends to have his worst 45 minutes of play when it matters least and his best 15 when it matters most. And while he makes many mistakes, their cost is seldom exorbitant. These aren’t so much skills as tendencies — inclinations — that prove to be every bit as consequential as the stuff of rankings and record books. He reminds us that strength comes in many forms and some people have what can be described only as a gift for winning, which isn’t synonymous with any spreadsheet inventory of what it supposedly takes to win.

Stop it. Just stop it. This is pure cult of personality stuff. It's the sort of thing one says to justify a conclusion when there is no evidence. It's practically tautology: "Good teams find a way to win." Of course the Broncos (and the Florida Gators before them) have won a lot of games, and in that sense, by definition, they (and Tebow) have a 'gift for winning', but that does not justify anyone in attributing their success to some intangible force of personality or will on Tim Tebow's part. Matt Prater, the field goal kicker, did not become a greater kicker because of Tim Tebow's magic religious-confidence-juice.

This gift usually involves hope, confidence and a special composure, all of which keep a person in the game long enough, with enough energy and stability, so that a fickle entity known as luck might break his or her way. For Tebow that state of mind comes from his particular relationship with his chosen God and is a matter of religion. For someone else it might be understood and experienced as the power of positive thinking, and is a matter of psychology. Either way it boils down to stubborn optimism and bequeaths a spark. A swagger. An edge.

. . .

The Broncos are the talk of the league. More and more people are watching. And you could indeed say they’re tuning in to find out how far God can take a team. Because that’s just another way of saying how far grit can.

It is cold comfort for the religious to say that faith in God is nothing more than a form of positive thinking. Perhaps faith is only, or provides, an unfounded confidence in one's abilities, but this is not generally something to brag about. In Tebow's case, it might have made some difference in the team's performance, but there are many other factors that have nothing much to do with him. Confidence without the means to back it up can have catastrophic consequences. For example, just today I had to explain to a student who was sure, absent any evidence, that he deserved an A on his final examination. If, indeed, Tebow has this kind of reckless self-regard, then he might learn what pride goeth before.

The real reason to object to the Tim Tebow media frenzy is that it plays into the equation of morality and religiosity. We should all realize by now that morality and religion are completely independent, yet our media still succumbs to this temptation to paint the religious as morally better than the non-religious and to attribute people's success to their religion. At bottom, it's primitive thinking. In order to be morally good or successful, we must worship a capricious stone age deity. That's not a reason to wish Tim Tebow personal ill, but it is reason to oppose him as a public figure, hope that our media would cease their love affairs with such sports figures, and root against him. Opposition to Tebow's religious agenda and the media's treatment of him is a better reason to root for a team than most reasons people have.