A TV analyst/former jock was critical of a football player recently. This kind of thing happens only every day in sports entertainment. This analyst is not considered outrageous or provocative, just meticulous about film study. And the player is a backup on a bad team. The criticism was even fairly benign, as far as these things go -- questioning performance, not character. It wasn't even televised, at least not at first. It was just on Twitter.
So what happened?
A holy war broke out.
Because Tim Tebow has made the unusual journey from mere athlete to religious symbol.
What swirls around him isn't normal. It is disproportionate and emotional, people arguing the way they might outside an abortion clinic. Parting the Dallas Cowboys defense in an exhibition and taking his team to the promised land? Proof! Amen! Fighting Brady Quinn for the third-string job? That puts the "Ha!" in front of "Hallelujah!" As the saying goes: For those who believe, no evidence is necessary. For those who don't, no evidence is enough.
This is what happens when you merge the fanaticism around football with the hope around first-round picks and the worship around quarterbacks. Fanaticism plus hope plus worship equals sports religion. Then you merge all that with the kid's public faith, and you are stacking one kind of religion atop another. So now, helmet bowed, ever humble, here comes this prodigal son, this patron saint, making his way into all the violence and noise, surrounded by doubt but armed with his faith. He might as well be walking barefoot through a desert land amid land-mine explosions and tanks flipping over, Bible tucked under his muscled arm. Off to the side, away from the collisions, the spectators take sides, some rooting for him to survive, others cheering for him to get blown up. It will feel like a miracle if he makes it, even though his paycheck and draft position suggest he is supposed to make it.
Sports worshippers love Tebow's intangibles. Heart. Leadership. Toughness. Character. Desire. Work ethic. Presence. They are things that can't be seen or measured. They are the foundation of football as a faith. The worshippers believe Tebow will win because he is a winner, so help me God. To believe in him is to believe in the wonder and magic and hope of sports, and the mythology that surrounds them.
But sports atheists don't love his tangibles. Arm strength. Footwork. Release point. Precision. The atheists don't believe his intangible strengths can overcome his tangible weaknesses. His will? It won't. They don't believe he can be a successful pro any more than they believe he can beat Ray Lewis by sprouting an angel's wings. They don't believe, period. To question him, to regard him with skepticism the way Merril Hoge did on Twitter, is to put your faith in science.
And so Tebow tries to cross that bridge with his belief, a holy man made of muscles. And now it becomes an impatient race to see who will be right, which merges Tebow's faith with the overzealous religion we have constructed out of sports. The investment of time and money, the escape, the caring . . . all of it turns "being right" about what you believe, even with something as silly as sports predictions, into something as proprietary as your fantasy league. To believe in Tebow is to see and feel and believe something others don't. It is having faith vs. having doubt.
It is part of what makes Tebow as polarizing as any player in the league, which is simply crazy given where he resides on the depth chart and how little he has done. He is polarizing not for who he is or what he has said but because of what he believes and what he represents. Really? A backup quarterback on a 3-13 team who has started three games is one of the most polarizing figures in America's most popular sport? Hey, why not? Jesus Christ was viewed as a haggard carpenter once, and Buddha is portrayed as a bald, fat guy.
Incongruously, Tebow is disliked by many, even though he is soaked in the kind of likable traits everybody wants from athletes. He's humble, decent, charitable, hard-working and has never had a bad public moment.
If he behaved this way and quietly gave the glory to himself instead of loudly giving it to God, he wouldn't be divisive at all. But he admitted to being a virgin in college, between religious missions, so this is somehow viewed as his deadly sin: He's very public about his faith, which makes people take sides with their own beliefs. But even that doesn't explain it entirely because Kurt Warner wore his religion publicly, too, without having this kind of swirl around him.
People might have rolled eyes at Warner's sermonizing after victories, but they didn't root for him to fail the way they do with Tebow. The difference? Some of us might boo a person who feels a little too perfect. But a fan, any fan, is going to stand up and cheer for a sports story that feels that way. Warner wasn't a blessed collegiate winner and millionaire first-round pick. He was a former grocery clerk doubted by all and drafted by none as he made his rags-to-riches climb from obscurity to NFL MVP. There wasn't enough time for the sports hatred and sports envy to grow with college fame and draft hype. There weren't expectations and impatience about meeting them.
It really is too bad that this particular division isn't happening in another division. If Tebow were Vikings first-round pick Christian Ponder going up against Detroit's mammoth Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the NFC North, we literally would be witnessing a Christian being thrown to the Lions.
Off to the side, away from the collisions, the spectators take sides, some rooting for (Tebow) to survive, others cheering for him to get blown up. It will feel like a miracle if he makes it, even though his paycheck and draft position suggest he is supposed to make it.