The NFL is generously stocked with forgiven felons, including millionaire wife beaters and dog killers. So how did a clean-living quarterback with deep commitments to charitable service and miraculous last-minute victories become the most controversial player in the league?
It’s easy to see why legions of loyalists lavish love on 24-year-old Tim Tebow, who leads his underdog Denver Broncos in a crucial playoff game against the New England Patriots on Saturday night. Yet other fiercely focused fans feel no hesitation at expressing their contempt and loathing for a remarkable athlete whose behavior on field and off exemplifies the values of hard work, fearlessness and concern for the downtrodden.
A popular website called TebowHaters.com serves as a clearinghouse for denunciations, while Jeff Darlington of NFL.com got a big response for a survey on what offended fans most about the Broncos quarterback. An Orlando, Fla., radio station (WJRR) used crude language promoting a public campaign to terminate Mr. Tebow’s well-advertised virginity and to break his pledge to save himself for marriage. Bill Maher, acerbic tribune of “Real Time” on HBO, got into the holiday spirit last month by celebrating a Denver loss and tweeting: “Wow. Jesus just f— #TimTebow bad! And on Xmas Eve!” Novelist and blogger Drew Magary proudly declares on the sports website Deadspin.com: “Not only is it OK to root against Tim Tebow, it’s practically your duty as cynical Americans.”
Of course, much of the resentment centers on the young star’s outspoken association with evangelical Christianity. He’s the home-schooled son of Baptist missionaries, and his well-advertised habit of dropping to one knee and lowering his head in prayer has given rise to a convenient new word in the national vocabulary—”tebowing.”
In response, “Saturday Night Live” featured a Dec. 18 skit with Jesus himself (played by Jason Sudeikis) urging Mr. Tebow to “take it down a notch.” And certainly some of his admirers have run out of bounds with their messianic enthusiasms.
For example, when Mr. Tebow beat mighty Pittsburgh with an 80-yard toss on the first play of last weekend’s overtime playoff game, statistics showed he’d gained a total of 316 passing yards in the game. Among his fans this evoked John 3:16, the favorite Biblical verse—”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son”—that Mr. Tebow inscribed in the black paint under his eyes when he played quarterback at the University of Florida.
Moreover, emails made the rounds among Orthodox Jews connecting Mr. Tebow’s heavenly achievement to their own tradition: Since Hebrew scans from right to left, the passing number he achieved should have read 613, not 316—and 613, an important figure in Judaism, marks the precise number of commandments in the Torah.
While skeptics and secularists groan at such conflations of faith and football, Tim Tebow hardly counts as the only top athlete who regularly thanks God for touchdowns or home runs. Kurt Warner, who led the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowl victory in 2000, inevitably praised Jesus as part of his post-game interviews. And Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2010, visits churches weekly to preach the gospel.
Moreover, three great Jewish baseball players—Hank Greenberg in 1931, Sandy Koufax in 1965 and Shawn Green in 2001—drew mostly admiring comments when they refused to participate in crucial games that fell on Yom Kippur. Concerning Greenberg, the poet Edgar A. Guest wrote: “We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat/But he’s true to his religion—and I honor him for that.”
So why should Tim Tebow draw more resentment than other religious athletes?
In part, it stems from the fact that he’s too apparently flawless to evoke much sympathy from the uninitiated. Other candidates for the Super Bowl of Saintliness overcame hardships or cite humanizing failings: Mr. Warner initially failed at football and stocked supermarket shelves before his astonishing comeback, and Mr. Hamilton derailed his career with drug addiction before Jesus redeemed him. As to the Jewish players, no one in the United States fears imposition of theocracy by a traditionally persecuted minority amounting to 2% of the population.
Mr. Tebow, on the other hand, not only reminds the public of the conversionary ambitions of most evangelicals but also displays the intimidating perfection of what might be termed the “Mitt Romney Syndrome.” On New Hampshire primary night, the beaming appearance of the Romney clan made one of my friends physically ill: “All those handsome, perfectly controlled, wealthy, teetotalers with their gorgeous wives—I wanted to vomit. There was something unearthly about it. Like some weird superior race on the planet Krypton.”
In the same sense, most males look at Mr. Tebow and see a virtuous rebuke to our own limitations and imperfections. If we were 24, single, supremely athletic, enormously wealthy and adored by millions of young women, how many could still wear Tim Tebow’s “purity ring?”
Hoping that the hero stumbles in terms of personal integrity might seem churlish and cruel, but it’s more acceptable to root for onfield performance that gives evidence of mere mortality. Tebow hatred may recede significantly if that hard-lovin’ ladies man Tom Brady and his New England Patriots manage to corral the Apostle Timothy and his blessed Broncos on Saturday. This means that even if the final numbers work against him in the game, Tim Tebow might actually come out ahead in scoring with the public.
Mr. Medved hosts a daily, nationally syndicated radio show and is the author of “The 5 Big Lies About American Business” (Crown Forum, 2009).